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When a Photocopier Uncovered an F1 Spy Case

Written by Sasha MacMillen, Edited by Harshi Vashee

Sporting history has had its fair share of scandals. Controversial moments in history include Maradona’s “Hand of God” at the 1986 Football World Cup, the Senna-Prost title deciders and the incidents that covered the headlines, and more doping scandals than the mind can remember. Yet when it comes to the world of Formula One, the story surrounding McLaren and Ferrari in the 2007 season is right at the forefront of fans’ minds.

Both teams had endured seasons in 2005 and 2006 that had brought no major success, with Kimi Raikkonen missing out on the title in his McLaren in 2005 and Michael Schumacher failing to beat Fernando Alonso in 2006. Both teams entered 2007 desperate to rejuvenate themselves and hungry for success. Most pundits and fans could see going into 2007 that those two teams were the obvious contenders, and they were right in that regard, with every race being won by either a McLaren or Ferrari driver. Yet no one could have foreseen the drama and controversy that would play out in many senses over the course of 2007.

Enter Nigel Stepney. He held an important role in changing Ferrari’s fortunes in the late ’90s, as part of the ‘dream team’ with other figures such as Jean Todt and Ross Brawn. Stepney’s role had been as chief mechanic, so in that time he developed a vast technical knowledge of how Ferrari F1 cars worked. As we entered 2007, reports arose that Stepney had grown unhappy with his role at Ferrari, and was potentially looking for a challenge elsewhere.

Nigel Stepney, pictured alongside Michael Schumacher.

As Stepney grew further frustrated with his position at Ferrari, he began talking to Mike Coughlan, a friend of his who was the chief designer at McLaren F1. He revealed to Coughlan that Ferrari had used an illegal device to win the Australian Grand Prix, the opening race of the season, and so a new and different relationship had been born. Coughlan received a huge amount of confidential information from Stepney on the technicalities of the 2007 Ferrari, including detailed engineering data and pictures. This included a huge 780-page file which essentially gave McLaren enough data to build the Ferrari themselves.

Coughlan took this massive file and handed it to his wife for photocopying. A hugely significant aspect is that by chance, the shop clerk in the copy shop was a Ferrari super-fan, and noticed that a huge, confidentially marked Ferrari document was being copied. The fan saw their way to a profit in this and got in contact with those at Maranello. Spygate had been unearthed.

Ron Dennis, team principal of McLaren, and Max Mosley, president of the FIA were key figures in this scandal.

Come the second half of June 2007, and Ferrari had filed a public complaint against Stepney and in July, took action against Mike Coughlan. Coughlan was released from his role at McLaren and Ferrari began a case in the High Court. This case concluded after Ferrari reached an agreement with the Coughlans, which decided that the couple would give their full cooperation with the Italian team in return for a dropping of the case. The controversy had really begun to heat up, and the media started talking.

On the track, an incredible season was playing out, and tempers were flaring. The 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix saw drama between the McLaren teammates, as Alonso held up Hamilton in the pits, meaning that Hamilton was unable to get a final run in Q3, and so missed out on pole position. Ferrari and McLaren were duelling it out at every track, as well as with the FIA and in the courts.

The huge tensions of the Hungarian Grand Prix led to Alonso’s temper boiling over, and he threatened Ron Dennis that he would release information to the FIA relating to the spy case. Dennis himself went to the FIA and the McLaren drivers were summoned to the FIA to give a testimony. Internal emails were released, and it became obvious that both Fernando Alonso and Pedro De La Rosa (Reserve Driver) had known about the stolen technical information.

The infamous pit-stop in the Hungarian Grand Prix’s qualifying session that cost Lewis Hamilton a chance at pole and soured Alonso and Hamilton’s partnership.

The FIA carried out a lengthy investigation and on the 13th of September, found McLaren guilty for the illicit collection and holding of information belonging to Ferrari, using it for a ‘dishonest and fraudulent’ advantage. McLaren were disqualified from the 2007 Constructors’ Championship and were handed a fine of $100 million. Both drivers had escaped disqualification from the drivers’ championship as they had remained co-operative with the FIA investigation throughout. The entire saga concluded in 2009, with Mike Coughlan being fined 180,000 euros, as three other McLaren employees also received fines.

McLaren’s drivers went on to lose their stranglehold over the drivers’ championship, with both making costly mistakes, as Kimi Raikkonen won his first and only world championship by a single point. ‘Spygate’ rocked the news headlines for months and McLaren’s legacy had been tarnished. Fernando Alonso understandably left the team, yet it wasn’t long before he got caught up in another famous scandal, Singapore 2008’s Crashgate. This negative reputation he developed in those two years is the main reason why Mercedes and Red Bull never seriously considered Alonso for a seat in their car. Spygate is arguably the beginning of the reason why Alonso’s career never got past the opportunity for two world championships.

To the present day in 2022, the $100 million fine McLaren received is the largest fine in the history of sports, and it’s likely that it could easily remain that way for a long time to come. The Spygate scandal of 2007 clearly had huge repercussions over the following years in F1 and is a story that will never be forgotten.

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