Personality politics and the internecine conflicts within the Formula 1 world are the stuff and nonsense of the Netflix hit, Drive to Survive. The series has boosted the popularity of the sport in a way that no-one could have envisaged.
But top-flight motor racing has been ripping itself to sheds since long before the 2018 season when Guenther Steiner expanded the vocabulary of the television audience.
A decade before there was a scandal like no-other. This is documented in the BBC World Service Podcast “Sport’s strangest crimes: Spygate”.
Written and presented by F1 journalist Sara Holt as a foil to celebrity DJ and superfan Pete Tong, who adds passion and incredulity. In parts, it’s like two friends chatting in a pub. “You won’t believe what happened next”. It’s not quite up there on that side of things with the UK’s biggest motoring podcast Smith and Sniff, but you do feel as though you are listening to friends.
Tong’s racy delivery suits the sensation of the story, with a well-crafted pause in the pace as he pits for status updates from Holt who fills in the bigger picture.
It would be a mistake to spoil the narrative with too many details. A riveting romp through relationships between rival drivers battling harder within the team than against others. The team principals struggle keep a lid on what’s going on day to day against the backdrop of the most incredible intrigue and espionage.
This is a case of spying which is hard to believe. All F1 teams study their rivals cars in detail. In his autobiography Adrian Newey, the genius Red Bull designer and architect of the Aston Martin Valkyrie, explains it’s not about what is in the rules. It’s what is not in the rules. If an engineer has found a legal loophole it won’t take long before it is either promulgated throughout the paddock, or declared illegal and the instigator grassed up to the authorities.
But that was nothing to the level of black ops which was unmasked between the two top teams of the 2007 championship.
This was Lewis Hamilton’s first season in F1, paired with three-time world champion Ferdinand Alonso. But far from following in the wheel tracks of the master the young Brit took the lead at the first corner and didn’t let up all season.
Holt and Tong detail the races, and the players. In particular they look at McLaren team principal Ron Dennis and Ferrari’s sporting then director Stefano Domenicali. The main protagonists are engineers: Nigel Stepney Mike Coughlan. The story of how they changed the course of Formula 1 is told through narration, reporting of meetings and interviews with those there at the time including the journalists Maurice Hamilton and Andrew Benson. There are contributions from F1 technical director Mike Gascoyne, and Luca Colajanni who was the press chief at Ferrari during the scandal.
In a similar model to Drive to Survive the podcast uses the races as a way to cement the timeline and hangs the happenings off-track around them. In doing so it evokes the glamour of a time in F1 before spending caps, in a time when the sport was awash with tobacco money. Crazy parties and a feeling that nothing succeeds like excess.
One of the things the podcast captures so effectively is the magnitude of the personalities. In particular F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone and President Max Mosley. A man who was no stranger to scandal after a UK newspaper revealed his love of orgies and kinky sex parties.
The FIA, Formula 1’s governing body may be based in Paris, and the industry international but there is something very British establishment about the way it conducts its business. Indeed one of the episodes is entitled “The Iron Fist In The Velvet Glove”. The tough, brutish British boardroom battles between Bernie, Max and Ron. All told in an excitable tone by Pete Tong.
This podcast is, as the title says, an examination of the Spygate incident but by necessity it encapsulates the wider nature of the sport. Winning is everything. Just don’t get caught. And you have to wonder if there have been other breaches of the rules, perhaps more extreme, where the perpetrators have got away with it.
Not that F1 cleaned up its act after the 2007 Spygate. In 2008 there was Crashgate, which saw Renault team boss Flavio Briatore banned from all Formula One events for instructing Nelson Piquet Jr. to deliberately crash in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, causing a safety car incident and allowing Fernando Alonso to pit at an optimum time and go on to win the race. The Briatore ban was lifted on appeal but the shock of the incident has put Spygate in the shade, which it should not have done, particularly since Alonso would not have been in a Renault that year were it not for what went on in photocopy shop in sleepy Surrey more than a year before.