If the dopers don’t win, then the spies will. Great sport, eh? Last year was hardly the nadir of sporting ethics, but hopefully it will turn out to have been a watershed. I do not want to revisit my observations (on commercial influences on doping and vice versa) from our most recent edition, but there do appear to be some parallels between the doping scandals of recent years and the Formula 1 spying scandal in 2007. It seems apt (and timely), therefore, to consider some of the issues surrounding ‘Spygate’, especially in a motorsport special edition.
From the top, here’s what the BBC reported: “McLaren received a systematic flow of information from a spy within rivals Ferrari for nearly three months this year, the FIA has revealed. Drivers Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa were aware of the information. It was the possession of this ‘highly sensitive’ data that led the FIA to fine McLaren £49.2m and deduct their Constructors’ Championship points. The information came to McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan from Ferrari chief mechanic Nigel Stepney.”1
In a subsequent twist, Ferrari fell foul of a counter accusation, with the BBC reporting:
“Ferrari have been accused of spying on Formula One rivals McLaren by former head of development Nigel Stepney. In the latest twist to the ‘spy-gate’ saga, Stepney claims he received key information about McLaren’s set-up. ‘I got weight distribution, I got other aspects of various parts of their car, and I was Ferrari's employee at the time,’ he told grandprix.com.”2
The parallels with doping? Well, for a start, it is happening; some teams may be gaining an unfair advantage by doing it; and for the time being at least, getting away with it seems to be proving difficult at a time of heightened vigilance. Oh, and it’s illegal. Or, is it only illegal if you actually get caught?
My mind drifts to the days when I started watching Formula 1, back in the mid 70s, when strange and revolutionary contraptions were produced by teams such as Tyrell (six wheels!), Brabham (a car with a huge rear fan) and Lotus (the revolutionary Lotus 79 that resulted in the ‘ground effect’ era). All attracted significant attention, the latter leading to a spate of copycat designs. How could the other teams do this and why did all the cars on the 1979 starting grid look so much the same? Simple: team officials walked up and down the pit lane looking, making notes and in some cases taking pictures – you could even ask someone else to take the pictures for you.
Take a look at some dictionary definitions of what a spy is: “a person who keeps close and secret watch on the actions and words of another or others”; “to discover or find out by observation or scrutiny”; “to search for or examine something closely or carefully”; “to be on the lookout; keep watch”3. In other words, 1970s F1 was populated by spies; indeed we’ve all been spies at some stage of our lives if we follow the definitions presented above. Formula 1 in the 21st century is apparently no different. Punish us all?
So what has changed? Probably not that much. Many competitive sports people are willing to do what is necessary to compete on equal terms. This could be by taking drugs or it could be by spying. There are clearly some very interesting regulatory and ethical issues here which thus far no one seems to have mentioned.
For instance, are drug taking and spying, in essence, the same thing or different things? If they are the same, then why not give parity in the way such indiscretions are dealt with? In addition, why is it that the penalties for spying in motorsport appear so harsh when compared with transgressions in other sports?
While I accept that the high technical content of F1 cars may be more conducive to forms of industrial espionage, this denies the increasingly technical nature of much of sport – from cycling to football, to footballers and their boots.
For the Journal, what is most interesting is the response of sponsors and commercial partners. Cycling, admittedly, appears to be dead on its drugfuelled legs, but commercial partners have recently been quick to abandon the sport following recent scandals. Yet this does not seem to have happened in F1. I wonder how many, if any, of the corporations currently involved in F1 have been embarrassed by points deductions, multi-million dollar fines and severe reprimands. Isn’t this all bad for business?
Yet while we all seem to find drug-taking abhorrent and sponsors are prepared to sever long-term team relationships because of it, we rarely hear about such concerns relating to spying, in motorsport or otherwise. Does that mean we condone spying? Is it an accepted part of sport (and indeed everyday life)? Or are we failing to face up to the fact that it exists and gives some people/teams an advantage, unfair or otherwise? If drug-taking in cycling has gone on for too long, a counter to this view could be that spying has gone on for too long in motorsport – and sponsors and commercial partners need to start taking a more ethical and socially responsible stance. If spying is prevalent in F1 then, as I argued in the previous edition of the Journal, a market-led solution is likely to be the best way forward. That is, if sponsors and commercial partners start to pull out, then it will stop.
There is one obvious problem when using this line of argument: in a sport where the link between sponsor/commercial partner and team is much closer and more synergistic than in perhaps any other sport (some sponsors are actually referred to as ‘technical partners’), are the two complicit in spying? Does technical data acquired in a surreptitious manner benefit the sponsor as much as it does the team? If complicity is an issue, then it will clearly have some interesting implications for brands, image transfer, recall and so on. My advice to those involved? Just don’t get caught – wear a good disguise!
Simon Chadwick, Editor
1 ‘McLaren exposed by spy evidence’, accessed 3 February 2008 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/motorsport/formula_one/6995240.stm
2 ‘Ferrari accused in F1 spy twist’, accessed 3 February 2008 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/motorsport/formula_one/7027318.stm
3 All taken from dictionary.com