Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

It doesn't make any sense // The Coughlan/Stepney story raises more questions than it answers

Published by Mr. C

Kimi in a Ferrari

I've been wanting to discuss the Nigel Stepney predicament on the podcast since the moment the story broke, almost 3 weeks ago. However, seeing as we're in the midst of the busiest part of the F1 season and we have so much other stuff to get through, the story always gets sidelined.

This week's show will also be a busy one (read: late one), which means I'm just going to have to write my thoughts down instead. So if you could read the following as if you heard me say it, that would be great. Oh, and bear with me, I go on a bit.

The first thing that sprang to mind the moment I read the headline 'Stepney Faces Criminal Enquiry' on the Autosport website, was "That's nonsense". I read and re-read the article and after something like 15 minutes of consideration my thoughts remained the same.

Nothing I read made any sense, and nothing added up. Ferrari had taken action against Nigel, but he was still their employee? Nigel was on holiday, and uncontactable? As far as I know Stepney rarely sleeps during a championship campaign, let alone takes a holiday and why didn't Ferrari dismiss him immediately?

A bit of context is probably important at this point. The Scuderia's troubles kicked off in March when an unhappy Stepney kicked up a fuss in the media, about the staffing changes made within the team following the departure of technical director Ross Brawn. Supposedly the technical manager wanted to take a sabbatical and await Brawn's next move. He also made it abundantly clear he would be open to offers from rival teams: "If an opportunity arose with another team, I would definitely consider it."

I don't know about you, but I'm guessing that a member of the Italian team saying those words out loud, must've been like taking a knife to Jean Todt's chest and giving it a firm twist.

The next thing we hear on the subject is Ferrari decline Nigel's request and he's moved out of the spotlight into a factory role. The PR people put a positive spin on the situation and all appears well. That is until May, when Autosport publish rumours of a possible link between Nigel Stepney and the Honda team. Honda F1 CEO Nick Fry is quoted as saying:

I can't comment on which teams they might come from, but one thing I will say is that there are two things I have been very impressed with.

- Nick Fry

Which is quite a statement read with hindsight.

Button in a Honda

That brings us back to the current fiasco and the red team opening a criminal investigation into the man of the moment. Although this appears to be quite a significant move, in Italy, it's quite possible to sneeze at the wrong moment and find you've inadvertently opened a criminal investigation.

Crazy rumours kick off as to what the charges might be, but Ferrari will only confirm that it's something to do with a situation occurring at the factory before the race in Monaco. Stepney's lawyer Luca Brezigher is quoted as saying:

I can only say with certainty that Stepney is formally investigated, but the charge against him at the moment is rather unspecified.

- Luca Brezigher

Again I'm thinking this is all nonsense. Taking a leak against the factory wall could be considered a situation inside the gates of Maranello. With no further information offered, there's nothing, it's all hearsay.

Rumours rumble on and the next significant milestone is McLaren are implicated, supposedly an engineer from the team has been in contact with Stepney. Ferrari finally dismiss Nigel and a civil action is brought against McLaren's chief designer Mike Coughlan. The High Court issues a warrant and supposedly evidence is found that suggests the man was caught red-handed with incriminating evidence. McLaren have no choice but to suspend Mike while the FIA step up and begin their own internal investigation.

Ron Dennis is forced to publicly plead his team's innocence, putting on his best soap-star tears in the process. Before Nick Fry of Honda pipes up and admits that Mike and Nigel had approached the green team with a plan to provide a solution to their current performance woes. This plan may or may not have involved other staff from the two rival teams

This week Ferrari took action against Coughlan and his wife Trudy claiming she was responsible for taking a bunch of illegal material to the local photocopiers and that it was the copiers that gave them the tip-off. But today Ferrari cancelled part of their High Court request in return for the Coughlan's cooperation.

Phew! Okay, so here a couple of questions for you:

  • Why didn't Ferrari allow Nigel to take a sabbatical?
  • Why didn't Ferrari immediately dismiss Nigel at the first place?
  • Why did Ferrari bring a civil case against Mike and not involve the police?
  • If Mike had anything to hide, why didn't he bury the lot, the very second that Stepney looked to be in trouble?
  • Why would an intelligent woman walk into a public copying agency with a pile of illegal papers?

Final question:

  • What are the chances of a Ferrari fan working in a copy shop, figuring out something was up, and then having the wherewithal to contact the team?
Alonso in a McLaren

That I think is the most pertinent question of all. Put yourself in that position, you photocopy papers for a living. Firstly would you realise what you were looking at, and would you then really call up this offices of Scuderia Ferrari Marlborough and explain what you've seen? Would you not speak to your boss first? Would you not call the police first?

When was the last time that you saw something dodgy in F1...and then phoned up the team to tell them? All very odd goings on. Very odd indeed.

Here's a couple of random thoughts. If you were in a key position in a Formula 1 team and you discovered that one of your employees was planning to jump ship (taking a couple of important staff members with him), what would be your next move? If you also discovered that said employee was planning to hook up with a rival team's engineer, in order that they both head to a third team, what would be your next move?

I've no doubt that this saga is going to run and run. I'm also in no doubt that both Nigel and Mike's reputations will be forever tarnished whether they be absolved of all wrongdoing or not. Whatever happens in the future, I think it's a safe bet that any other potential deserters will think twice before heading for the door marked 'Exit' and I'll leave you with my favourite quote thus far. It's from the man at the center of the allegations, a man who's clearly up for a fight:

I've been with Ferrari for 14 years and there's been a lot of controversy over the years, and I obviously know where the bodies are buried.

- Mike Coughlan