Since the Watergate break-in of 1972, the media has indiscriminately applied the suffix “gate” to hundreds of scandals, most of them trivial by comparison. Few have had the honour of being “gated” twice in two years – Formula One team McLaren being a rare exception. Its major sponsors, Vodafone, Exxon, Diageo and Banco Santander – which pour colossal sums of money into the sport every year – must have had their patience tested to the limit. McLaren may find itself bankrupt if “Thirdgate” ever comes to light.
Let’s briefly recap. “Spygate” resulted in McLaren being fined nearly 50m in 2007 after the sport’s governing body, the FIA, caught it red-handed pilfering rival race team Ferrari’s most closely guarded engineering secrets. 50m is toy-town money in F1 circles: much more serious were the criminal charges being prepared by the Italian authorities. Just as McLaren was celebrating getting these dropped earlier this year, up pops “Liegate”.
This centred on the rather baffling and, at first sight, trivial matter of the precise circumstances under which McLaren’s lead driver, Lewis Hamilton, allowed rival driver Jarno Trulli to overtake him and claim third place in the recent Australian Grand Prix. The important point is that Hamilton lied through his teeth when cross-examined by the stewards, apparently under instruction from his sporting director, Dave Ryan, who was subsequently fired. At the same time, it’s probably no coincidence that former McLaren chief Ron Dennis, already on the way out after Spygate, has been obliged to relinquish all further involvement in McLaren motor sport operations. In short, the rottenness at the heart of McLaren’s F1 operations has been put on full display.
McLaren got off lightly at the FIA World Motor Sport Council hearing last week, with a suspended three-race ban. Everyone, or at least everyone who mattered, was in agreement when it came to the FIA’s verdict. New McLaren boss, Martin Whitmarsh, said it was “very fair”; Max Mosley, FIA president, said it had been “entirely fair”; F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone went so far as to describe it as “good, fair, honest and straight” and added: “[McLaren] had its wrists slapped. That was all it needed.” We heard nothing from the sponsors, of course, but we can be tolerably certain they were 100% behind the “fairness” of the verdict as well.
Light-touch regulation – Ecclestone’s “slapped wrists” – is indeed in everyone’s interest. The key is in the word “suspended”. Had McLaren been banned outright, or even banned from actually participating in three races, Mercedes – the constructor element in the McLaren team – seems to have been considering breaking its contract. This, presumably, was the significance of Daimler-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche’s warning the previous weekend that an “unreasonable punishment” would cause the car maker to “consider its position” in F1.
We can only surmise what “unreasonable punishment” might have meant for the sponsors. For the principal sponsor, Vodafone, egg on the face certainly: the public perception that it had been massively irresponsible (and incompetent) in investing a huge wedge of its marketing budget (an estimated 50m a year) in such a dodgy organisation. For Santander, the Bilbao-based banking group, the consequences of an outright suspension or ban would be especially piquant. The next two grand prix take place in Barcelona and Monaco, which, humiliatingly, would have let fans, and customers, observe the bank’s dismal judgement at first hand.
If sponsorship is about anything it is about creating a feel-good factor around brands. It does so by appropriating, through association, the chief attributes of what is being sponsored. In the case of Formula One, we might reasonably assume that some of these chief attributes include: excitement (of a positive, crowd-pleasing kind), integrity and the highest standards of fair-play.
McLaren has been dishonest (it lied, on numerous occasions) and it cheated. Arguably it has provided a good deal of excitement during “Liegate”, but not of the sort that sponsors would find positive. Instead it has left them with what looks like a busted flush into the foreseeable future. It has gone from being hero to zero, with Hamilton and his teammate well down in the current grand prix ratings. Indeed Hamilton, last year’s sainted world champion, is now soiled goods and, reportedly, a disillusioned man. Nor does the prospect for next year look much brighter. Whitmarsh’s principal task must now be to make McLaren as boring as possible, for fear of creating further scandal.
Not, on the surface, the ingredients of a very good sponsorship package, you’ll agree. But that’s the glass half-empty. It’s the glass half-full that sponsors will be looking at. In it, they will discern a huge amount of indifference among F1 supporters to what is a difficult-to-understand technical infraction by one of the teams. All right, Lewis did lie, but he apologised handsomely: it’s fair to say that the ethical standards by which major sporting events are benchmarked are more forgiving than they were 30 years ago. As one informed observer puts it: “This is not exactly a case of mother-rape, is it?”F1 has become a lot more competitive than at any time in its recent history, due to a rewriting of the rulebook. Winning is no longer restricted to the momentum and power of the leading teams, Ferrari and McLaren: even the new team, Brawn, could come out top. That may, ironically, make it harder for Hamilton to defend his world championship, but it’s what really matters to the punters – and therefore to his sponsors.
So for McLaren “it’s back to the track” – unless “Thirdgate” should ever rear its ugly head. For Hamilton’s personal sponsorships the future is harder to predict. Certainly he’s lost some of his wholesome sheen. David Beckham at his height managed to ride out several threats to his reputation. But Hamilton is no Beckham. He lacks the easy charm and friendliness.