JULY 31, 2007
The Italian press is reporting that Ferrari is to lodge a complaint against McLaren with the public prosecution service in Modena. The Italian investigators would then look at the case when there is time available and would decide whether there is any evidence to warrant action. The complaint against Nigel Stepney, made a month ago, has not resulted in any charges thus far and it may be that Ferrari is happy with this situation, as it may prefer to negotiate a settlement with Stepney in order to strengthen its case against McLaren.
There are several reasons why this might be a good idea: Stepney seems to believe that he has information that Ferrari (or at least some of its staff) would not like to become public information and, at the same time, the Englishman is facing the possibility of serious penalties in Italy. Thus a deal might suit both parties. The question is whether Stepney has anything that would add to Ferrari's case against McLaren and whether or not this evidence would carry much weight in court, given some of the revelations to date.
The Italian team must be confident that it has sufficient evidence against Stepney as Ferrari team boss Jean Todt recently named him as the source of 780-page document found at McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan's house. Stepney has denied giving the data to Coughlan and if he is confident in his own innocence he could sue Todt for slander.
Going to the civil courts is a step that will not please the FIA, which has already ruled on this matter and any decision outside the sport could undermine the power of the federation. This has been built up gradually over the years and the courts in France (the jurisdiction under which the FIA operates) have ruled on several occasions that the federation has the right to regulate itself (notably in 1988 when a case brought against the FIA by Peugeot Talbot Sport - under Todt - was thrown out by the French court of appeal). The FIA's position was strengthened considerably when the European Commission declared itself to be entirely satisfied with the rules of the FIA.
The other question is whether or not there is sufficient evidence for a successful legal action in any court. The FIA and McLaren have not given any details of the case, while in Italy there has been much leakage of information that seems to back up the Ferrari case, so it is perhaps inevitable that people do not fully understand the decisions that have been made. The decision by McLaren not to give more information seems to have been made because the team wants to be seen to be acting correctly and thus not to prejudice any future legal actions.
The FIA looked very closely at the evidence available and could not find any reason to punish McLaren. The World Council is not a court of law but there is no reason to assume that a civil court would feel any differently. Ferrari argues that in a civil case it can at least have more involvement, which is true, but this does not mean there would be any more evidence.
There are also likely to be arguments about legal jurisdiction as McLaren is unlikely to want to be examined by the Italians and the alleged activities took place in the UK, involved UK citizens and a UK company.