McLaren Mercedes, who are facing possible expulsion from the Formula One World Championship for cheating and lying to the stewards at the Australian Grand Prix, have told the FIA that they admit the charges against them.
The Times understands that Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, has written to Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, informing him that his team accept that they are in breach of Article 151c of the Formula One sporting regulations, which covers bringing the sport into disrepute. The letter also contains a full apology from Whitmarsh for this latest serious transgression by the Woking-based team.
According to informed sources, the letter is said to go on to offer mitigating arguments and then effectively to throw McLaren at the mercy of the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC), a quasi-judicial body that has a range of sanctions open to it, from imposing a fine to suspending the team from a number of grands prix or throwing them out of the championship.
The admission of the charge under Article 151, which the FIA regards as a very serious matter, is clearly an attempt by McLaren to limit the scale of punishment the team are likely to face. In the past, McLaren, under Ron Dennis, their previous team principal, have tried to fight their corner when charged by the FIA with cheating - notably in the “spygate” scandal in 2007 - but Whitmarsh is taking a new tack this time as part of his strategy to forge a co-operative relationship with the governing body.
The team are charged with five counts under Article 151 relating to the attempt by Lewis Hamilton, McLaren's world champion driver, and Dave Ryan, their former sporting director who has since been dismissed, to try to rob Jarno Trulli, the Toyota driver, of third place at the race in Melbourne last month by lying to the stewards on two separate occasions. Apart from Ryan losing his job, the affair has also prompted Dennis to relinquish all involvement with Formula One and an emotional apology from Hamilton.
The question now is how the FIA is going to respond, given the measures McLaren have taken and the letter from Whitmarsh. Mosley has previously been accused of running a personal vendetta against Dennis, something he denies, so in this instance the FIA is likely to be keen to be seen to be punishing McLaren and not letting them off the hook purely because Dennis has fallen on his sword. A balance will thus have to be found by the WMSC in Paris on Wednesday, when McLaren will effectively be on trial.
In the paddock, as preparations gather pace for the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, the view of some observers is that the team will get away with a penalty of up to 30 constructors' points. That will, in turn, affect the amount of money they receive from the sale of Formula One television rights next season. According to this view, McLaren will be handed a suspended sentence, excluding the team from possibly two races, which could be activated should there be any further transgressions this season.
However, closer to the seat of motor racing power, there is still talk of a fine and an automatic suspension from two or even three races, which, for what was termed “repeatedly lying to the referee”, would exclude McLaren from competing at the grands prix in Catalunya (Spanish), Monaco and, possibly, Istanbul. This could have a big knock-on effect for a team who are still reeling from the trauma of the scandal, with suggestions that key sponsors could walk away because McLaren would be in breach of contract.
More important for fans of Hamilton is that a two or three-race ban would effectively end his chances of defending the World Championship, having scored only four points in two races at the wheel of an uncompetitive car after he was stripped of his points from the Australian Grand Prix.
The WMSC hearing, at which members of the council will cross-examine representatives from McLaren, is unlikely to focus expressly on Dennis's role in the affair. However, the WMSC will want to establish who said what to whom as matters unfolded after Australia and try to develop a clear understanding of the sequence of events that led to Hamilton and Ryan lying twice to the stewards. Whether or not the spotlight falls on Dennis will depend on McLaren's answers to these points.