More reflections on Renault

More information about the circumstances surrounding Renault’s possession of confidential McLaren data has come to light.

The case concerns Phil Mackereth, who defect from McLaren to Renault in September last year. Earlier today Renault issued a statement:

Following the notification of the FIA for the ING Renault F1 Team representatives to appear in front of the World Council, the team wishes to clarify the situation.

On the 6th September 2007 it came to our attention that an engineer (Mr Phil Mackereth) who joined the team from McLaren in Sept 2006 had brought with him some information that was considered to be proprietary to McLaren. This information was contained on old style floppy discs and included copies of some McLaren engineering drawings and some technical spreadsheets.

This information was loaded at the request of Mr Mackereth onto his personal directory on the Renault F1 Team file system. This was done without the knowledge of anyone in authority in the team. As soon as the situation was brought to the attention of the team’s technical management, the following actions were taken:

The information was completely cleansed from the team’s computer systems and a formal investigation was started. We promptly informed McLaren of the situation and immediately after the FIA.

Since then we have constantly and regularly kept McLaren and the FIA informed on all relevant findings.

Mr Mackereth was immediately suspended from his position. The original floppy discs were impounded and sent to our solicitors for return to McLaren.

Our formal investigation showed that early in his employment with Renault Mr Mackereth made some of our engineers aware of parts of this information in the form of a few reduced scale engineering drawings. These drawings covered four basic systems as used by McLaren and were: the internal layout of the fuel tank, the basic layout of the gear clusters, a tuned mass damper and a suspension damper.

Subsequent witness statements from the engineers involved have categorically stated that having been briefly shown these drawings, none of this information was used to influence design decisions relating to the Renault car. In the particular case of the tuned mass damper, these had already been deemed illegal by the FIA and therefore the drawing was of no value.

The suspension damper drawing hinted that the McLaren design might be similarly considered illegal and a subsequent clarification from the FIA confirmed this based upon our crude interpretation of the concept.

ING Renault F1 Team have co-operated fully with McLaren and the FIA in this matter to the extent that the team has invited McLaren’s independent experts to come and assess the team’s computer systems and inspect the cars and the design records, to demonstrate that this unfortunate incident has not in anyway influenced the design of the cars.

ING Renault F1 Team have acted with complete transparency towards McLaren and the FIA, being proactive in solving this matter and we are fully confident in the judgement of the World Council.

Renault’s defence is that the team gained no advantage from having the McLaren data. That may be turn but is a shaky stance. Remember that the FIA couldn’t find a shred of evidence that the MP4-22 was contaminated by Ferrari’s technical data.

The omens don’t look good for the Enstone-based team and a swingeing fine could cause the parent company to pull out of F1. For the good of the sport the FIA must levy a fair (probably hefty) fine, but it would be a shame if that was the deaf knell for the team.

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November 9, 2007 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

Renault accused of spying

You couldn’t make it up, but someone has.
A couple of months after docking McLaren all their constructors points for stealing Ferrari’s designs the FIA are ready to draw more blood. Renault have now been hauled before the World Motorsport Council to explain how and why they had possession of McLaren’s technical drawings. The charges against Renault appear suspiciously similar to those levelled against McLaren. If true, the Enstone-based outfit will likely suffer a similar punishment. The hearing will take place on December 6th.

This development has significant ramifications for both Renault and the wider sport.

  • McLaren will be grateful for the company in the slammer — the spotlight will be off them for a while
  • The fact that an accusing finger has been pointed at another team raises questions as to how endemic spying is in the world of F1. Teams have always played close attention to the latest designs employed by rivals, even recruiting squadrons of operatives to take a good, close up look at other cars on the grid
  • Renault’s 2008 car will likely be even more compromised than McLaren’s as development is almost complete — next year could be a disaster for Flav and his team if his car is riddled with McLaren bits and pieces
  • Given that McLaren had access to top secret Ferrari info is it possible that Renault stole this too? Perhaps the FIA should cast an eye over the F28 for a likeness to the F2008
  • There is a sharp irony that McLaren stole stuff from Ferrari only to have their own work nicked by the French!

Spying seems to follow Fernando Alonso around like a bad smell: first McLaren and now Renault. If Alonso were about to put pen to paper with Renault expect him to wait until this latest spy saga has been cleared up. It is unlikely that the Spaniard will want to race for another team accused of thieving state secrets.

It is hard to predict how all this will shake out. The smart money says that Renault will be punished along the lines that McLaren were. The FIA, though, has a bigger question to answer. How can F1 be adequately policed to regain the trust of the fans and sponsors? Or is the sport destined be a corrupt spectacle evermore?

November 8, 2007 at 2:51 pm Leave a comment

2007 Review: Renault

This is the fourth in F1-Pitlane’s multi-part season review of each constructor. Today we look at Renault who were only going to go one way in 2007. Down.

When Fernando Alonso departed for pastures anew, the Enstone-based outfit were always going to find life tough adjusting. However, many on the grid thought that Heiki Kovalainen would prove, over time, a more than adequate replacement. Those hopes turned out to be false.

The car 

Given the amount of work that Renault had to do in 2006 just to keep up with a rampaging Ferrari team it isn’t surprising that that deflected attention from the development of the R27. What was a surprise was the extent to which Renault fell back to the pack. Not only had Ferrari usurped them but so did McLaren and BMW. They hung on for third in the Constructors Championship.

One of the issues was adapting to the Bridgestone compounds, which Renault struggled with all season. The team also wasn’t helped by some faulty wind tunnel work which hampered development in the early races. Perhaps the only bright note was the  unerring reliability of the car. Kovalainen, for instance, finished every race bar the last, where he crashed.

In fairness to Flavio and his clan the team realised pretty quick that further work on the 2007 car was futile and switched efforts to the 2008 incarnation. Whether this will enough to claw back any of the gap to the top team remains to be seen. One wonders whether Renault would have been this far behind with Alonso in the cockpit — perhaps he does add 6/10 after all.

The organisation

Briatore continues to skipper the ship with a rod of iron and his flamboyant personality transcends the team.  Pat Symmonds heads up all the technical aspects of the team and he does a damn fine job. Given that the team has never traditionally been an F1 leader the successes over the first part of this decade has been nothing short of astonishing.

More pointed questions on Renault as an organisation centre on the commitment of the parent company to F1.  Renault has a history of pulling in and out of the sport and speculation continues that CEO Carlos Ghosn, a renowned cost cutter, could pull the plug. While the team was winning the decision to continue wasn’t too taxing. A couple of losing seasons could decisively shift sentiment.

The drivers

The loss of Alonso was undoubtedly a big blow but Renault were quietly confident that Heiki Kovalainen would be able to partially fill his shoes. That hope was proved forlorn in the first race and Kovalainen was exceptionally ragged leaving the circuit countless times. After the race, which to the surprise of everyone the Finn actually finished, Briatore publicly admonished his protege.

Kovalainen later admitted that he didn’t understand the onus of him to develop the car and accepted that he should spend more time with his engineers to develop the car jointly. The amazing thing was that Kovalainen had success across many formulas and he had graduated to F1 without understand how to work with his engineers — Flavio must have choked on his cornflakes as he heard that.

To Kovalainen’s credit by the mid-season he’d started to assert himself as Renault’s number one driver as Fisichella was consistently outraced and seemingly headed for retirement. The Finn even secured a podium in a monsoon-affected Japanese Grand Prix, and at one point it looked like he might secure an unlikely post-race victory as Lewis Hamilton was caught on handycam driving like a madman.

The outlook

Renault stated developing the F28 early and had a strong track record in F1 so expect next year’s car to be a lot stronger that this year’s. If Briatore can snare Fernando Alonso the future could be very, very bright.

November 8, 2007 at 4:57 am Leave a comment

2007 Review: BMW

This is the third in F1-Pitlane’s multi-part season review of each constructor. Today we take a look at BMW, who took a giant stride forward in 2007.

2007 was the year that BMW-Sauber emerged from the midfield to spearhead the challenge against the front two. However, they were always a league short of McLaren and Ferrari and decided to focus on their 2008 car early, which caused performance to dip a tad in the last few races.

The car

It shouldn’t be a surprise that in their second full season BMW Sauber established themselves as the third best team in F1. The BMW engine was always a contender with Williams and now that BMW has invested heavily in the Sauber operation they are reaping the rewards — one must wonder whether Frank Williams has any regrets.

The engine was reliable, as most are these days under the 19,000 rpm limit rules, and only once did the motor give up, which resulted in Kubica forfeiting ten spots on the grid at Spa. However, it was with the transmission and hydraulics where the team floundered, which led to five retirements. If the team is to mount a serious challenge these issues will have to be overcome.

BMW also put FIA’s stringent crash tests under the spotlight. In Montreal Kubica’s car flew into a concrete wall at 180+ mph and scuttled and span down the tarmac coming to rest several hundred metres down the straight. By all accounts he should have been dead but it is a testament to all involved in F1 that he walked away with nary an injury and was back in the car three weeks later.

The organisation

Although arguably overshadowed by the drama between McLaren and Ferrari, BMW was an advert for German efficiency. Mario Theissen runs a tight ship and BMW have a promote from within policy that has seen Chistoph Zimmerman, who has been in the organisation for 20 years, ascend to chief designer after the departure of Jorg Zander to Honda in the mid-season.

Not much else to report.

The drivers

This was the year when many expected Robert Kubica to outshine his senior partner Nick Heidfeld. It was not to be as Heifeld was consistently quicker and finished with 61 points and two podiums to Kubica’s 39 points and no podiums. Although it the Montreal incident cost Kubica two opportunities to score points afterwards he was, if anything, quicker. To underline the difference in speed Heidfeld was quicker on the one-lappers, out qualifying his team mate 11-5.

Kubica was pegged as “one to watch” as he entered his second F1 season and was somewhat overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton in the rookie stakes. One feels that next year is make or break for the young pole. He has publicly admitted that he is the weak link in the team. In 2008 he has to be on par with Heidfeld to be considered a serious racing driver.

The outlook

Exceptionally bright. If McLaren are distracted by their mega-fine then BMW could pounce as the natural challengers to Ferrari’s dominance. Add that development on the 2008 car started early expect the Munich-based outfit to assemble a formidable package.

November 7, 2007 at 4:49 am Leave a comment

2007 Review: Ferrari

This is the second in F1-Pitlane’s multi-part season review of each constructor. After a look at the shenanigans over at McLaren yesterday we turn our attention to Ferrari, who cantered off with the constructor’s and driver’s championship

The twilight years of the Michael Schumacher era was barren for Ferrari as a resurgent Renault and a certain young Spaniard conquered all before them. After the departure of Ross Brawn, 2007 was expected to be another difficult year as the Scuderia regrouped around Kimi Rainkonnen and Felipe Massa.

The car

The omens were bright after the first race of the season in Australia where Raikonnen set a marker for the rest of the campaign convincingly outpacing the two McLarens. However, the advantage was to be short lived as McLaren hit pack in the next two grand prix.

The design philosophies between the two teams were vastly different. Ferrari opted to run a longer, heavier car ostensibly to generate better floor effect aerodynamics and generate more mechanical grip. This was evident at Melbourne as the team were accused of running a flexible floor. In their never ending wisdom the FIA put in place more stringent requirements on floor testing (effectively ruling Ferrari’s design illegal) but elected not to punish the Maranello outfit.

Where as the MP4-22 excelled in the slow turn, where the F2007 had more pace was in the high-speed corners, so circuits like Silverstone quickly became Ferrari tracks. One area where the team let themselves down in 2007 was the reliability stakes. At the turn of the century Ferrari were more than bullet-proof but the gremlins struck more than once in 2007. Coupled with a couple of basic strategic errors (failing to fuel Massa’s car properly in one quali session) and the impression was that was missing Brawn.

At the end of the season it was clear that McLaren and Ferrari were on a par with each other, which made for some phenomenal motor racing.

The organisation

With the departure of Ross Brawn there was always likely to be some afters organisationally. No-one would dare dream that it would involve the leaking of state secrets to arch-rivals McLaren by Nigel Stepney after he failed to secure a post-Brawn promotion.

Many feel that Ferrari were a little fortunate to escape punishment from the sordid saga as allegations were made that they were in possession of classified McLaren information. The FIA oddly choose not to investigate.

Another dynamic at work was the loosening of Jean Todt’s grip on the team. Rumours abounded the paddock most of the season that Ross Brawn would step into top-job at the season’s end. That Todt pulled two championships out of his hat may have saved his job but expect the grumblings to continue into 2008 if he stays in position.

The Drivers

Compared to McLaren, Ferrari’s lineup of Massa and Raikonnen were a paragon of absolute harmony. Raikonnen must take most of the credit. He struggled early on to adapt to what was essentially Schumacher’s car and was regularly outpaced by his team mate. Rather than grumble at his misfortune he decided to stick his head down and do his job (take note Fernando) and was duly rewarded with an astonishing championship and six race wins.

Felipe Massa was the perfect foil and also won his fare share of races. He knows he is batting slightly above his weight driving for the Scuderia although as the victories rolled in his confidence leapt. He was rewarded with a new contract at the end of the season but that was partly to ward off speculation that Alonso would join the team. Massa is managed by Jean Todt’s son, Nicolas, so nepotism was also reported to be at work.

The outlook

The future for the Scuderia is very bright. Raikonnen will enter 2008 as clear favorite for the title and if the McLaren design is hamstrung by the FIA for copyright infringement it could be one way traffic.

November 6, 2007 at 5:47 am 1 comment

2007 Review: McLaren

Welcome to the annual look back at the season gone. The intention is to look at each team in descending order of constructor points. However, that would be that we don’t look at McLaren until the end so for one season only we’ll rank the teams in order of combined drivers points, which conveniently allows us to look at our Woking chums first.

Arguably the best team; arguably the worst team. McLaren fans can take little solace in their team’s performance this year despite imploding at every turn as both drivers exceeded the 100 point mark.

F1-Pitlane takes a look at the car, the organisation and the drivers.

The car

The car was the best on the grid despite Ferrari marching off with both the constructor’s and driver’s championships. After an inauspicious 2007 campaign and the departure of uber-designed Adrian Newey, McLaren were thought to be in rebuilding mode and weren’t expected to make much of an impact. Despite Raikonnen waltzing to victory in Australia it was clear that the MP4-22 was a very competitive car. Subsequent races in Malaysia and Bahrain confirmed that view as the silver cars were quickest.

Mercedes produced a bullet proofed engine that was quick, had good drive out of corners and, more importantly, refused to blow. The engine was so good at dispersing heat that the McLarens were able to sit idly at the end of the pitlane for five or six minutes to gain the lap advantage in quali three.

The aero package was strong, giving the MP4-22 good straight line speed and the car was especially well suited to tight corners as evidenced by victories at Monte Carlo, Monza, Montreal and Fuji. McLaren was also innovative being first to adopt the bridge nose, an advance copied by others as the season progressed.

One consequence of the the MP4-22’s cornering ability was greater wear on the tyres, particularly at the hands of Lewis Hamilton who had tyre trouble at both Turkey and China. Saying that, one reason why McLaren did so well this year because it was able to adapt to the vagaries of the Bridgestone rubber more quickly than other Michelin teams.

In a word the car was faultless.

The organisation

The fact that both McLaren drivers failed to win the championship by a solitary point paints a story of organisational failure in itself. The amazing thing is that the spat between Alonso and Hamilton played second fiddle in the tale of organisational woes at McLaren in 2007.

The bigger issue was the Stepneygate saga, which saw the team booted out of the constructor’s championship and landed with an unprecedented £50m fine, the biggest in the history of the sport. What emerged over the course of the season was that McLaren had lost its family feel and was becoming a faceless racing organisation where execs, and Ron Dennis in particular, were woefully detached from the nuts and bolts of the business.

The drivers

At the start of the season no-one realised just how combustible the combination of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton would be — it is appropriate that this is written on Guy Fawkes night.

The key moment was the Hungaroring debacle with both drivers equally culpable for the resulting mess. The story is old news but Lewis pipped Fernando to the front of the pitlane to be first out in quali 3, the Spaniard retaliated by holding up Lewis to prevent him from completing his final lap and the rest is history.

Both drivers deserve admonishment and credit. Lewis clearly exceeded all expectations and was as fast, if not faster than Alonso for 2/3 of the season. It was only for a few races in the European part of the racing calendar when Alonso seemed to have the upper hand but Hamilton drove brilliantly in the last three races of the season to confirm himself the better driver.

However, when you consider the mental demons swirling round Alonso’s head it is a miracle that he came as close as he did to winning the championship. He is still a great driver and will no doubt win more titles in the future.

The outlook 

Despite the hefty fine expect the team to invest heavily in the MP4-23 to build on the considerable momentum built up this year. The car will be quick and McLaren will make a concious effort to let the drivers do the talking on the track rather than off it. Now that Fernando Alonso has been kicked out that will be significantly easier.

Don’t be surprised if they swoop to both championships next year. Revenge is sweet.

November 5, 2007 at 12:35 pm Leave a comment

Reflections on the Alonso saga

Time often breeds clarity and the morning after the night before a smidgen of the fug surrounding Alonso’s departure has lifted.

The popular view is that Renault remains the most likely destination for the Spaniard, who is expected to sign a long term contract with the Enstone based outfit where he will assume clear number one status within the team. The gambling markets confirm this as Alonso is 8-11 on to rejoin Briatore, with Red Bull and Williams at 3-1, and Toyota 8-1.

Who are the winners and losers from the divorce:

Winners

  • Lewis: Lewis Hamilton emerged as the biggest winner as he has firmly established himself as clear number one in the team. Ron Dennis’ utterances on driver equality will ring hollow in 2008 given that Hamilton regards the team as family and Alonso’s replacement will almost certainly be inferior to Lewis and will have to learn the car from scratch
  • The team: McLaren should be in far better shape to compete in 2008 without Alonso. He ripped apart the team this year and Ron Dennis and co will be far better off without their temperamental Latin superstar
  • Rosberg/Kovalainen: One lucky driver, probably one of these two, will jump from laggard to leader by taking the  vacant seat in McLaren. The bookies have Kovalainen as slight favourites: it makes sense if Alonso jumps to Renault and the phlegmatic nature of the Finn will suit Ron Dennis

Losers

  • Alonso: At the minute Fernando Alonso is the big loser. He’ll move from one of the most competitive teams and his chances of winning a third world title in 2008 are slim to none.
  • Ron Dennis and McLaren:  Although Ron had to let Alonso go it isn’t difficult to construe a couple of scenarios where McLaren ends up with egg on their collective face especially if Alonso can snare a couple of victories in a relatively uncompetitive car next year. And imagine if he turns out for Ferrari in 2009 and wins another hat full of titles. Who’ll be the village idiot then?
  • Nelson Piquet Jr: An odd one this but if Alonso does turn out for Renault do you think he’ll want a highly rated rookie snapping at his heels? No. Given the rumptions in 2007 expect Alonso to pay close attention to his 2008 team mate and that may spell curtains for Piquet’s 2008 F1 ambitions.
  • Ferrari: Without the distractions of two number one drivers McLaren will now put all their efforts behind home-boy Lewis Hamilton. If Ferrari continue to follow a policy of equality it could spell doom for their 2008 championship homes
  • McLaren’s sponsors: The reason why Vodafone and Banco Santander backed McLaren was Alonso. Vodafone won’t be too fussed as the emergence of Hamilton will pay dividends in their home market but Santander will be peeved at the general hatred to McLaren among the Spanish populous. That’s one reason why Rosberg is a better fit than Kovalainen: his marketing potential is greater.

November 3, 2007 at 7:21 am Leave a comment

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