Paris Spying doesn't pay.
Accused of using leaked secret data from its main rival Ferrari, the Formula One team McLaren was hit with a record $100 million fine Thursday by the World Motor Sport Council in the biggest scandal to hit auto racing's premier circuit.
Although McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso escaped punishment Thursday, the espionage claims have rocked the sport and tainted McLaren's lead in the drivers' standings.
The team, also stripped of its constructors' points, already was battling accusations that it had used team orders to decide which driver would win races this season. Now, it is facing a new crisis.
The F1 case broke in July when a 780-page technical dossier on Ferrari cars was found at the home of McLaren's chief designer, Mike Coughlan, who was later suspended. Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney, who allegedly supplied the documents, was fired.
McLaren escaped censure by the World Motor Sport Council in July due to insufficient evidence that Ferrari's technical documents were misused. But Honda's revelations that Stepney and Coughlan had approached team boss Nick Fry in June about joining the F1 team whipped up further concerns over Ferrari's intellectual property.
The $100 million fine imposed on McLaren is 40 times larger than the previous F1 record ($2.5 million). Still, Dennis argued the fine is halved because McLaren doesn't have to forfeit revenue it's earned this season. He added that the financial strength of McLaren also would help absorb the impact of the fine.
"We still effectively have as an offset the revenue from the point earned to date," he said. "That will probably effectively halve the size of the check that we ultimately have to sign - if we ultimately accept this fine. We turn over roughly $450 million to $500 million a year and we are debt free, so we're a very strong company (with) phenomenal growth."
And it likely won't cost McLaren the Formula One drivers' title. Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who lead the drivers' standings, are well ahead of Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa with four races left. Hamilton, in his debut Formula One season, leads with 92 points, followed by two-time champion Alonso with 89. Raikkonen (74) and Massa (69) are third and fourth. And Alonso and Hamilton finished 1-2 in Sunday's Italian GP - at Ferrari's home track of Monza.
FIA said it did not penalize McLaren's drivers "due to exceptional circumstances" because they provided evidence in exchange for immunity.
Asked whether the futures of Hamilton and Alonso at McLaren had been compromised by the scandal, McLaren chief Ron Dennis said the two drivers are under contract. Dennis said the evidence given by his drivers, engineers and staff Thursday demonstrated that his team did not use any leaked information to gain a competitive edge.
"The evidence today was primarily e-mail traffic between our drivers, and in one instance, Mike Coughlan," Dennis said. "These were a few e-mails and the drivers have stated categorically that no information was passed to the team, and of course, the team had no knowledge of this e-mail traffic at any stage."