Wednesday, 29 April could have a significant impact on McLaren’s 2009 season. It has already been a troubled start to the season. The car performance hasn’t been what McLaren were hoping for, plus there has been all the fallout from “Lie-Gate” in Melbourne.
McLaren have been called to the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) to answer charges relating to this incident.
The WMSC have a range of different punishments which they could throw at McLaren. These start off with a basic reprimand/warning. They could choose to fine McLaren.
However, it could be more severe than that. The WMSC could choose take points off the team or ban them for a number of races. They could even ban them from the rest of the season altogether. That’s the worst-case scenario.
We also have to remember that it hasn't been that long since the “Spygate” scandal. This won’t help their cause.
Everyone who is part of the McLaren team is going to have their legs shaking till the final verdict is delivered. Fans worldwide will be holding their breath.
It is very important that the FIA hold their nerve and give the right punishment. Whatever punishment they give McLaren will set a precedent. If they decide to be hard on McLaren, it will set a very dangerous precedent if teams commit similar or worse offences in the future. They have to be consistent in their punishments.
It’s critical that the punishment they choose is in proportion and fits the crime that McLaren have committed. You get the feeling that the FIA realise the importance of getting this decision right.
Whilst it’s true that lying to the stewards is a serious offence, there are far worse offences. These include a driver deliberately ramming a rival off the track, ignoring a black flag, or having an illegal part on the car (which gives an advantage) and keeping it under wraps. These are just a few examples.
If the FIA were to give a season ban to McLaren over “Lie-Gate,” then what would they do if one of the above offences were committed in future? It would have to be a harsher punishment than the one they give to McLaren over Lie-Gate in order to be consistent and not come under immense scrutiny.
It would be like giving someone the death penalty for robbery, and then somebody afterwards committing a murder. What higher punishment would you be able to hand out then?
This is why the FIA risk going into murky waters if they opt to give McLaren the worst sanction possible. They have to tread carefully, no matter how tempted they are to punish McLaren heavily.
It can’t be forgotten that McLaren have already suffered punishment over this incident. McLaren were disqualified from the Australian GP, losing six points. Lewis Hamilton and the team have also suffered major dents in their reputation. This reputation is going to take a long time to recover. It might never recover.
Lewis’s career has been badly affected. A long-term employee of McLaren (Dave Ryan) has also lost his job as a result of Lie-Gate. It could be argued that there is no need to punish the team any further.
So what is going to be the outcome of this hearing?
An important factor that will go in McLaren’s favour is that Martin Whitmarsh very quickly apologised and admitted that McLaren were in the wrong.
Lewis Hamilton also made that emotional apology in front of the world’s media in Sepang. The FIA accepted this apology. From this acceptance of the apology, it seems likely that any punishment given is going to be aimed at just the team. Hamilton will very likely escape any sanction against him personally.
Lewis Hamilton has attracted many fans to the sport and is the one of the grid’s most exciting drivers. He is now one of F1’s star attractions. Bernie Ecclestone knows that if Hamilton wasn’t on the grid, it would be damaging for audience figures. Therefore his wallet would suffer in the process. His wallet has already taken a big battering after the recent divorce from his wife.
After Michael Schumacher’s incident with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 at Jerez, there were calls for him to be excluded from the 1998 championship. However, Schumacher was the big star attraction at the time. He ended up being allowed to start the 1998 season from the start.
His presence resulted in a very exciting title battle with Mika Hakkinen. You can see why Bernie didn’t want him banned from races, or excluded from the championship. It’s a similar case here with Hamilton.
Martin Whitmarsh has also written an apology letter to the FIA. He has effectively pleaded guilty to all the charges facing McLaren. The fact that he has done this could certainly help reduce McLaren’s punishment.
In February 2008 the FIA were due to have an unprecedented meeting to decide the legality of McLaren’s 2008 entry as a result of “Spygate.” A letter from Martin Whitmarsh apologising for the Spygate scandal helped McLaren’s cause greatly.
After receipt of that letter that February meeting was soon abandoned. McLaren were then allowed to take part in the 2008 championship. McLaren agreed to go down a different route with the development of their brake system. This is an idea they admitted came from the infamous 780-page Ferrari document.
Therefore, I think the letter from Whitmarsh will make a big difference for McLaren again this time. He won’t be contesting any of the charges against the team. This in fact now makes the hearing a much simpler affair.
His guilty plea to all these charges has removed the need for much of the investigation. The FIA will now not need to hear any evidence from the key figures in Lie-Gate, including Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton. Martin Whitmarsh is now going to be entering the hearing alone.
McLaren should never have gotten themselves into this mess in the first place. However, they have reacted well to it in the aftermath and done everything possible to limit the damage. Pleading guilty to all the charges and accepting full responsibility could prove to be the right move. Certainly in everyday life pleading guilty to an offence can reduce the sentence that gets handed out.
The resignation of Ron Dennis has been seen as another factor that could help McLaren. The relationship between Max Mosley and Ron Dennis has been very frosty over the years. Dennis has already denied claims that his decision to resign has anything to do with “Lie-Gate,” although it’s very hard to imagine that the timing of the two events has just been a mere coincidence.
McLaren have also stated their intention to build bridges with the FIA, and improve their relationship. Under Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren now want to change as a team and alter their image. McLaren are going to become a different team to the one we got used to under Ron Dennis.
I am sure many think there will be a massive punishment, but in the end I don’t think it will be that severe.
Surely McLaren will get a sizeable fine. They are also likely to suffer a points deduction. This could range from anything between 20 and 50 points. A suspended race ban is also a possibility. This means that if McLaren do break the rules again, then they would definitely be faced with a race ban.
The absolute worst-case scenario I feel is that McLaren are excluded from the Constructors' Championship. This would be similar to 2007, but they were still allowed to enter races and score in the drivers' championship. There is an outside chance of them facing a two-race ban. I can’t see the outcome being worse than that.
Nevertheless, you can never quite tell what the FIA have up their sleeves. They have made some strange decisions in the past.
Let’s hope that for the sake of the 2009 campaign that the appropriate punishment is given, and that the line can be drawn under this affair. Let’s get back to the racing!