The Technology Behind the Formula One Scandal

A British team got secrets about Ferrari's tech tricks by e-mail

5 min read

8 October 2007--In Europe and Asia, Formula One is the undisputed king of motor sports. No other form of motor racing can compete with the glamour, money, and technology that F1 teams draw on. But for much of this racing season, the sport has been engulfed in a spying scandal wherein members of one team allegedly acquired secret details about the technology used by a competitor. That team, the UK-based McLaren, was recently fined an unprecedented US $100 million. As details of the affair have leaked out, fans have been shocked by the confessions and betrayals behind the scandal, which would seem more at home in an airport thriller than a multibillion-dollar sport.

The technical secrets at issue remain just that--secrets. But enough information has emerged from the scandal's investigation to put together a picture of what happened and what McLaren stood to gain.

The story began in June when Ferrari, which runs one of the most successful teams, accused its competitor McLaren of spying and initiated a criminal investigation. A court-ordered search of the home of McLaren's chief designer, Mike Coughlan, uncovered a 780-page dossier of confidential information belonging to Ferrari.

At that point, Formula One's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), charged McLaren with possessing information relating to almost every aspect of Ferrari's car: its weight distribution, aerodynamics, gearbox, suspension, hydraulics, fuel system, and more.

McLaren said that it had been given the dossier by a rogue Ferrari employee but claimed it had not circulated the information within the team nor made use of it. At a hearing in July, the FIA gave McLaren the benefit of the doubt, and there the matter would have rested.

But at the beginning of September, the FIA discovered a series of e-mails that cast serious doubt on McLaren's version of events. The e-mails were exchanged between McLaren driver Fernando Alonso, the current world champion, and Pedro de la Rosa, a test driver for the team. The e-mails also included Coughlan. ”The e-mails show unequivocally that both Mr. Alonso and Mr. de la Rosa received confidential Ferrari information via Coughlan,” said the FIA in its judgment of the case.

The e-mails cover a wide range of technical details about Ferrari's car, and although the FIA and Ferrari have removed any reference to confidential information, the e-mails give a unique insight into the technologies critical to winning in Formula One.

The e-mails imply that far from keeping the information secret, Coughlan actually gave de la Rosa precise details of the Ferrari car's weight distribution so that he could test it in a simulator. The FIA rules specify that a car's minimum weight should be 605 kilograms, but on their own, most cars are much lighter than that. This allows teams to add ballast to the car in a way that creates an ideal distribution of weight. The distribution is altered in response to the way engineers modify the car's aerodynamics for different racetracks. Knowing how a car's weight is distributed can give important clues about its performance. In the event, the distribution was so different from McLaren's that de la Rosa said he decided not to test it.

In another exchange, de la Rosa said that tests had been carried out on a flexible rear wing, which is ”a copy of the system we think Ferrari uses.” As the cars travel, the wings create a huge downforce, increasing their grip on the track, particularly during turns. This force is much higher than in the IndyCars driven in the United States, which generate a 1:1 downforce (equivalent to their own weight) when traveling at 190 kilometers per hour (118 miles per hour). F1 cars, on the other hand, generate a 1:1 downforce at only 130 km/h (81 mph) and a 2:1 downforce at 190 km/h. Knowing the efficiency of Ferrari's design could be an important piece of information, although it may equally have been garnered from photographs of the Ferrari car.

Another e-mail from de la Rosa to Alonso identifies a gas that Ferrari uses to inflate its tires.”We'll have to try it; it's easy,” he wrote. Compressed air is known to cause problems in high-performance tires. It contains water vapor that can condense, causing a drop in pressure. A pressure drop can also result because oxygen tends to leak faster through rubber than nitrogen does. So compressed nitrogen that is free of water vapor is the gas of choice for many tire makers. It seems unlikely that McLaren would be unaware of this, so analysts have speculated that Ferrari may have identified a gas with a higher specific heat capacity than nitrogen. This would require more energy to heat it by a degree centigrade and so could allow the tires to run cooler and prevent them from blistering. But of course, Ferrari is tight-lipped on the details.

De la Rosa also asked Coughlan about Ferrari's braking system. ”Can you explain to me as much as you can Ferrari's braking system with the [reference to detailed technical information]? Are they adjusting from inside the cockpit�?” Adjustable brakes would allow the driver to change the ratio of front to back wheel braking during a race if it began raining or as the fuel load was used up and the vehicle's weight distribution changed, for example. But manually adjusting the ratio could also be a risky strategy as judging the amount of change would be tricky midrace.

It also emerged that the rogue employee who is alleged to have passed the document to Ferrari, chief mechanic Nigel Stepney, had also been supplying other confidential information. In one e-mail, de la Rosa mentions Ferrari's stopping strategy--F1 cars do not carry enough fuel to complete a race and so have to stop, sometimes more than once, to refuel. De la Rosa wrote: ”All the information from Ferrari is very reliable. It comes from Nigel Stepney, their former chief mechanic--I don't know what post he holds now. He's the same person who told us in Australia that Kimi [Raïkkönen] was stopping in lap 18. He's very friendly with Mike Coughlan, our chief designer, and he told him that.” Ferrari sacked Stepney earlier this year.

In a ruling released on 13 September, the FIA imposed the fine on McLaren and docked the team all its points in the F1 constructors' championship (teams as well as drivers accrue points according to their finishing positions). McLaren had enjoyed a comfortable lead, and the points penalty ensures victory for Ferrari. McLaren's car will also have to be checked before next season to ensure that no Ferrari innovations have been included in the design. The McLaren drivers, however, escaped censure.

Ferrari criticized the FIA's decision. ”We feel it's a soft penalty considering the whole story,” Ferrari team principal Jean Todt told reporters. He added that Ferrari would continue a civil court action against McLaren in the UK and a criminal case in Italy where Ferrari is based.

On 21 September, McLaren said it would not appeal the decision. ”We believe the time has come to put this huge distraction behind us,” McLaren team boss Ron Dennis told reporters.

About the Author

Justin Mullins, a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum, is an artist and writer based in London.

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