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Not another spying scandal?

NEWS STORY
30/05/2010

Formula One seems to thrive on scandal. Hardly a year goes by without some kind of off-track dispute putting the sport on the front pages rather than the sports pages.

In recent years we have had Tyregate, Spygate, Liegate, Crashgate and even Spankgate. What next? Well, according to a report in the Express by Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt, it looks like a Spygate sequel is on the horizon.

Records at the UK's High Court show that Force India has launched a damages claim against the companies which run Lotus Racing alleging that they copied the windtunnel model which its car is based on. The claim has echoes of the row which erupted in 2007 when the FIA fined McLaren $100m for possessing blueprints from Ferrari.

The claim has been filed against the 1Malaysia Racing Team company in the UK and Malaysia. It also names Lotus Racing's chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne and Italian automotive firm Aerolab which worked with Lotus to develop its 2010 car. Aerolab previously worked with Force India for three years until September 2009 and Gascoyne was the team's chief technology officer from November 2006 until November 2008.

Force India allegedly left its windtunnel model with Aerolab and this has led to the accusation of copying since Lotus used its facilities when it rejoined the sport in September last year after a 16-year hiatus.

According to Mark Buckley, litigation partner at Fladgate, which is representing Force India, "it is really too late to put right what they (Lotus) have done which is basically copy the windtunnel model rather than the car itself." A value has not yet been put on the damages but it is likely to be around 17.9m since this is the amount Force India annually spends on research and development of its car.

The claim was filed in February and followed reports of legal action from Aerolab against Force India for "serious and persistent" breaches of contract. "Aerolab is suing Force India for not fulfilling its obligations," said Aerolab managing director Jean-Claude Migeot in a statement last November.

Lotus claims that "the civil proceedings referred to are between Force India and Aerolab. These proceedings do not allege any wrong doing on the part of Lotus Racing. Aerolab vigorously denies any wrong doing and has provided Lotus Racing with a full indemnity in relation to the claim." In response Buckley says Force India has "significant evidence of copying and is confident that either there will be a settlement or it will be successful if it goes to court."

He adds that defences from the 1Malaysia companies, Gascoyne and Aerolab are "due in the middle to end of June." Regardless of whether Aerolab has provided Lotus with indemnity (meaning that the team will not need to pay any costs even if Force India were to win in court), the financial impact may not be the biggest problem if the case goes against Lotus.

The reason for this is that it is understood that the Concorde Agreement, the contract which commits teams to race in F1, still requires each entrant to build its own chassis (hence they are referred to as being constructors). If it is proven in court that there is a material similarity between the Lotus and Force India cars, due to the same windtunnel model being used to design them, then the FIA may decide to bring its own case against Lotus.

We are a long way from that happening but as ever in F1, scandal is only just around the corner.

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