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F1 Mole | 13:37 UK time, Friday, 24 April 2009

The compelling start to this already incredible Formula 1 season has owed as much to events off the track as to those on it - and it is the backstage intrigue that continues to dominate gossip in the paddock in Bahrain.

Much attention is focused on McLaren's appearance on Wednesday in front of F1's disciplinary court - the World Motor Sport Council of governing body, the FIA.

The team are answering charges arising from the aftermath of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, when world champion Lewis Hamilton and McLaren's sporting director Dave Ryan were found guilty of misleading the race stewards.

Ryan has since been sacked and a beleaguered and haunted-looking Hamilton has admitted his mistakes while blaming it all on being misled by Ryan.

So far, McLaren have persisted publicly with the line that it was all Ryan's idea and that the senior management did not know anything about it.

The problem they have is that very few people in F1 believe that - because of the culture of control that has permeated McLaren for decades - and you can be sure that the World Council, not to mention FIA president Max Mosley, probably will not either.

That culture of control stemmed from the character of former McLaren boss Ron Dennis, and the decision for him to sever all ties with the F1 team is being seen within the paddock as part of a choreographed series of steps between McLaren and the FIA that will lead to a judgement on Wednesday that is harsh, but which allows the team to carry on racing.

(It is widely known within F1 that Mosley and Dennis have a strong personal dislike for each other, and Dennis's successor, Martin Whitmarsh, has admitted the team need a better relationship with the FIA).

The news on Friday that Whitmarsh has issued a formal apology to the FIA for McLaren's conduct over the affair is seen as another of those steps.

Lewis Hamilton

The big question, though, is - even if this behind-the-scenes dance is true - what judgement will be handed down on McLaren?

The range of possible penalties is huge - everything from being thrown out of F1 to no punishment whatsoever.

The issue will be how seriously the World Council takes it. Is this akin to a footballer diving in the penalty area, or should it be seen as bringing the entire sport into disrepute - a catch-all phrase in the F1 regulations that has been used in any number of cases in the past?

Clearly, lying to the stewards is a serious business, but most people within F1 think it would be ludicrously disproportionate to throw McLaren out of the championship because of it.

The British newspapers carried a number of dramatic stories on Friday discussing what might happen to McLaren if they were hit with a severe punishment in Paris next week.

But another version of events is emerging here at the Sakhir track.

That says that as long as McLaren jump through a few hoops at the hearing, they should be OK.

If they apologise unreservedly, don't bring a hot-shot lawyer to argue a defence, and show a clear change of culture post-Dennis, the story goes, there will be no further penalties - other than a suspended sentence which dictates that any further transgressions over a certain period would result in the severest punishment.

The change in culture might be the most difficult to prove, but McLaren are certainly trying.

As of 1 June, the McLaren Group will have a new chairman - current Cable and Wireless chief executive Richard Lapthorne, who is to fly into Bahrain on Sunday for the race. Dennis and Whitmarsh will both report into him.

In the meantime, a bit of recent history might help put 'Ryan-gate' into context.

At Monaco in 2006, Michael Schumacher parked his car against the barriers in the final qualifying session in a successful attempt to prevent title rival Fernando Alonso from completing his flying lap and stealing pole position.

Schumacher said it was an accident - not a deliberate attempt to hamper his opponent. But the move was so transparent that everyone in F1 realised what he had done, and he was called before the stewards to explain his actions.

There, he and Ferrari team boss Jean Todt persisted with the line that it had been a simple accident, caused by trying too hard.

That was despite the obvious evidence of the TV footage and in-car telemetry to the contrary.

The stewards did not deliver their judgement until late into the night - and they found Schumacher guilty.

Despite this, the seven-time world champion persisted with his argument - as did Todt. There was no acceptance of guilt - and certainly no apology.

The punishment the stewards came up with? Schumacher had to start the race from the back of the grid.


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