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F1's biggest scandals: McLaren fined $100 million for Spygate

It's the biggest fine ever issued to a sports team and has serious ramifications to this day, all started by a photocopier in Woking.

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As with every great scandal, it is just a matter of time before the -gate suffix is attached, stemming from the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that led Richard Nixon to become the only US President to resign.

So, the 2007 espionage crisis that engulfed Formula 1's two biggest teams was popularly dubbed Spygate with McLaren being hit with the largest fine in sporting history at $100 million USD, and losing its Constructors' Championship after being caught with 800 pages of confidential Ferrari technical information.

It's a story with aspects that still seem inconceivable - and still shapes Formula 1 today through one of the modern powerhouses of Grand Prix racing.

The origins of Spygate

The two key, crucial players in Spygate were Nigel Stepney of Ferrari and old friend Mike Coughlan, Chief Designer of McLaren.

The basics are this.

A disgruntled Stepney felt he had been overlooked for promotion, and so stole nearly 800 pages of confidential technical information about the 2007 Ferrari - and handed them over to Coughlan, as the two tried to get jobs with other teams.

But what caught Stepney and Coughlan out was the fact that Coughlan's wife, Trudy tried to make photocopies of the documents at a shop in Woking.

The only trouble was that the owner was a Ferrari fan, who immediately emailed the Scuderia with his suspicions...

As well as legal proceedings in both Italy and the UK, the FIA opened an investigation - but cleared McLaren on the basis that Coughlan had acted alone and the Ferrari information was not shared with other McLaren staff.

Case closed? Right?

That's where Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton come in.

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	© xpb.cc

The drivers

On paper, pairing the reigning two-time World Champion with a rookie should normally only have one number driver.

But Hamilton put pay to that when he went dancing around the outside of Alonso at Turn 1 in his first race at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix, but Monaco was the first fracture in the pipe that would turn nuclear.

Hamilton was effectively waved off by Ron Dennis for chasing Alonso for the win, with an easy one-two in the bag, and was not happy.

But Dennis, a veteran of handling prickly driver pairings (Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost would like to say hello), misjudged Alonso, with the Spanish driver taking Dennis's comment of calling Hamilton off as an insult to his perceived number one status.

It bubbled away through the summer, but erupted in Hungary qualifying with the famous 'block' in Q3 by Alonso on Hamilton.

Hamilton had refused to cede position during the fuel-burn laps and so Alonso promptly held him just enough to allow himself to set pole position and deny Hamilton a final flying lap.

Alonso was docked five places on the grid, while McLaren's Constructors' points were wiped out for the race but an argument between Alonso and Dennis reignited Spygate, during which Alonso threatened Dennis with revealing new information about Spygate to the FIA, also making a demand.

For more than a decade, what transpired was known only to a select few, but was revealed by BBC Sport in 2018, with Alonso demanding McLaren ensure Hamilton ran out of fuel in the race.

Dennis immediately conferred with trusted number two Martin Whitmarsh and informed FIA President Max Mosley with Alonso retracting his comments later that Sunday morning.

Dennis informed Mosley of Alonso's claim about more information, but the FIA boss was already aware and so re-opened the investigation.

It was during this hearing that McLaren received the $100 million fine, but crucially, with a three-way title battle bubbling away nicely, Alonso and Hamilton kept their Drivers' points, much to good cop to Mosley's bad cop Bernie Ecclestone's delight...

As Alonso feared, McLaren would end up losing the title to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, and left 2007 empty-handed, having been set to win the Constructors' in their own right by nine points.

Legend has it that Mosley told Dennis that $5 million of the fine was for McLaren's actions, and the remaining $95 million for him being foolish, although Mosley apparently described it in far fruitier four-letter terms.

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	© xpb.cc

What happened next?

Stepney was effectively blackballed by the FIA and was struck by a lorry on the M20 in Kent, having been sentenced to a prison term in Italy for espionage, although he did not serve time.

The coroner returned an open verdict for the May 2014 accident.

Coughlan became involved with Stefan GP in their fruitless attempts to join the F1 grid, before spells with Williams F1 and Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR.

Dennis stepped down as McLaren boss ahead of the 2009 season, handing control to Whitmarsh but ousted him in 2014, returning as boss for the failed Honda reunion.

Dennis himself was ousted in 2017, leaving McLaren in June of that year and has kept a low profile ever since.

Alonso would return to Renault for 2008 having had his McLaren deal ripped up before joining Ferrari in 2010.

His patience at the Scuderia's inability to produce title-winning cars while Sebastian Vettel and then Hamilton racked up wins and titles in 2010-2014 led to him returning to Woking for '15 to work with Dennis.

In the summer of 2007, you had got better odds on Lord Lucan being found riding Shergar than Alonso ever driving a McLaren again.

The final key player Mosley left his post as FIA President in 2009, with Jean Todt elected his successor. He died in 2021.

But perhaps the biggest impact was on McLaren.

The team was effectively placed on probation for 2008, with the MP4-23 being subject to investigations to ensure no Ferrari DNA was present. Hamilton would claim his first championship.

But a crucial wedge was driven between McLaren and engine supplier Mercedes.

Being a 40% shareholder meant Mercedes was liable for $40 million of the fine when it had done nothing wrong - with Whitmarsh then agreeing to allow Mercedes to crowbar an engine into the back of the Brawn Grand Prix 001 of 2009.

This came against its own backdrop of political shenanigans as teams tried to counter Mosley's influence, but Mercedes came to the realisation it could have its own team, control the PR and so decided to go it alone and brought Brawn out ahead of 2010.

That team was the Mercedes behemoth of 2014-21 and propelled Hamilton from regular World Champion to all-time great.

The loss of works Mercedes power triggered the downfall of McLaren in the mid-2010s that Zak Brown is just beginning to bring the team out of it.

The roots of that downfall came in the summer of 2007 with one of the weirdest, strangest and biggest scandals sport, let alone Formula 1, had ever seen.

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	© XPBimages

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