Martin Whitmarsh is understood to have written to FIA President Max Mosley admitting to having brought Formula 1 into disrepute over the Melbourne 'lies' scandal – a move which suggests McLaren-Mercedes are fearing a hefty penalty when the World Motor Sport Council meets to debate its fate at the end of the month.
McLaren has been summoned to appear before the WMSC in Paris on 29 April, charged on five counts of breaching Article 151c of the International Sporting Code for having 'deliberately misled' Australian Grand Prix stewards on two separate occasions last month, seemingly in an attempt to get Toyota star Jarno Trulli penalised and inherit the Italian's rostrum place in Melbourne.
Pit-to-car radio communications subsequently published by the FIA proved the declarations of reigning F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton and the team's respected long-time sporting director Dave Ryan to have been false. The latter has since been dismissed over the matter, with suggestions Hamilton may himself be looking for an escape clause.
The charge is one so serious that the sanctions available to the WMSC – which will cross-examine senior team members during the hearing to try to determine the exact sequence of events that led to the lies – stretch as far as exclusion from the entire 2009 season, though suspension from a number of races seems to be the more likely outcome. Whitmarsh's letter, therefore, could be seen as the equivalent of a defendant making an early guilty plea in court in an effort to mitigate the sentence handed down.
According to British newspaper The Times
, the letter also includes a full and contrite apology for McLaren's latest misdemeanour, as well as arguments designed to try and curb any further penalty deemed necessary. This is entirely in contrast with the team's attitude during the Ron Dennis era, when the approach when under accusation was invariably to fight back.
The latter has since severed all of his ties with the squad – again ostensibly in a bid to limit the punishment meted out, given his famously fractious relationship with Mosley – whilst Hamilton made an emotional public plea a week later in Sepang, in which he repeatedly insisted that he is 'not a liar'. Whether this was entirely genuine or whether it was more of an act put on in a desperate damage limitation exercise to try to salvage his tarnished reputation, however, has been the subject of much debate.
What's more, a suspension would to all intents and purposes torpedo the 24-year-old's hopes of successfully defending his hard-fought 2008 laurels, with the nine-time grand prix-winner already on the back foot given the poor performance of his MP4-24 in the opening grands prix.
The paddock view in Bahrain this weekend is that the former multiple world championship-winning outfit will most likely escape with a suspended sentence, points penalty – thereby adversely affecting its television revenue in 2010 – and possible fine. A source from one key sponsor has already indicated that it could well walk away should the team find itself more heavily punished [see separate story – click here
Two years ago, the Woking-based concern found itself disqualified from the constructors' world championship and received a sporting record $100 million fine over the espionage row – a move some within the sport perceived as another indication of an FIA-led vendetta against McLaren.