A Record Fine for Formula One

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Fernando Alonso drives in front of his McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton

Few sports teams can have recorded as many firsts in a season as Formula One's Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. After motorsport's top competition got underway in March, Lewis Hamilton, the English team's rookie driver, strung together five podium finishes in a row, the best start to a season by any debutant driver. At the Canadian Grand Prix in June, the Briton took his first chequered flag. And following two more Grand Prix wins, Hamilton and his Spanish teammate — current World Champion Fernando Alonso — head into this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix in the top two slots in the drivers' championship; in the race for the constructors' title, the team was streets ahead.

But then McLaren's fortunes changed. The World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) meeting at the Paris headquarters of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), global motorsport's governing body, on Thursday slapped the team with a record $100 million fine over the possession by McLaren's former chief designer of confidential technical data belonging to fierce rival team Ferrari. McLaren was also stripped of its points in this year's constructors' race, effectively handing that title to Ferrari. Still, things could have been worse: McLaren had faced the possibility of being booted out of the drivers' championship for this year and next, but both Hamilton and Alonso are free to scrap for the world title in the remaining four races.

It's not clear yet what exactly McLaren did wrong. (The WMSC is set to publish its findings Friday.) But it emerged in July that Mike Coughlan, McLaren's now suspended chief designer, had obtained almost 800 pages of secret documents on Ferrari's racecar. The documents, Ferrari says, came from Nigel Stepney, its since sacked performance director, who denies the charge. At a hearing later that month, the WMSC found McLaren guilty of fraudulent conduct. But without sufficient evidence that the team benefited from the leaked data, McLaren escaped any penalty. New evidence, presented to the WMSC at Thursday's hearing, reportedly centered on e-mail and phone traffic between Stepney and Coughlan dating back to March. Also apparently under examination: e-mails between Alonso and McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa.

Further twists and turns could follow. McLaren — which is also subject to a related criminal probe in Italy — is expected to appeal the sanctions. "We have never denied that the information from Ferrari was in the personal possession of one of our employees at his home," McLaren chairman and CEO Ron Dennis said in response to the verdict. "The issue is: was this information used by McLaren? This is not the case and has not been proven today." And sanctioning the team, but not the drivers who represent it, has befuddled some inside the industry. "I'm not promoting the idea of taking points away from drivers, but it doesn't sound very logical," says Jackie Stewart, a three-time Formula One World Champion and former team boss. "The governing body is suggesting that information had been transferred to the benefit of McLaren; why else be eliminated from the constructors' championship?"

Formula One might be a wealthy sport — it brings in more than $4 billion each year and budgets at top teams like McLaren top $400 million — but coughing up for such a bumper fine will be tricky. "It'll come from future R and D, so McLaren may not be competitive for 2008," Stewart suggests. And the drivers' title may get the most attention, but McLaren's engineering suppliers are unlikely to be so forgiving at losing out on the constructors' trophy. The team's engine maker "Mercedes-Benz will be horrified," Stewart says. The constructors' championship is "why they're in the business." Still, come the final race in Brazil in October, McLaren may be hoping for some consolation. "We have got the best drivers and the best car," Dennis said defiantly in Paris. "And we intend to win the World Championship."