MARCH 9, 2008
Nigel Stepney versus the FIA
The FIA announced on Friday night that it has concluded its investigations into Nigel Stepney, regarding "the unauthorised use of intellectual property within Formula 1". This was odd and raised more questions than it answered. The carefully-worded statement was published at a time that was obviously designed to minimise coverage, and mentioned that the federation had listened to "allegations" that Stepney passed confidential Ferrari information to "an employee of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes". It was added that Stepney admitted the allegation and apologised to the FIA.
It was not clear from the statement how the investigation was conducted.
Stepney responded on Saturday with a statement from his lawyers denying the FIA claims that he had admitted the allegations and had apologised. He did admit that Mike Coughlan had obtained very limited information as a result of what he described as his carelessness. But he claims that this was not the 780-page dossier that police found when they raided Coughlan's house last summer. Stepney is under investigation in Italy for suspected industrial espionage. The statement said that Stepney has never admitted any dishonest intention and that the FIA is aware of that.
"Our client blew the whistle on certain matters to FIA officials; that is not in any contention," the statement said. "The Italian authorities were made aware of this last month; they, too, accept his position."
The FIA statement said that the federation was recommending that its licence holders "do not professionally collaborate with Mr. Stepney without conducting appropriate due diligence regarding his suitability for involvement in international motor sport" until July 1, 2009.
In previous statements Stepney has claimed that he has had to "endure months of unfounded allegations" but has remained silent in the hope of being able to explain his activities at an FIA disciplinary hearing. This had been scheduled for Thursday, February 7, but was called off because the FIA legal team had problems with flights in Geneva. A replacement meeting never took place and Stepney now says that the FIA is "simply accepting one side of the story".
It is an interesting exchange as it is very clear that the FIA is unable to take any official action against Stepney as he is not an FIA licence-holder and dares not venture beyond that, for fear of getting tangled up in European law. After July 1, 2009 Stepney can work in the sport again without a cloud hanging over his head. This does not seem to be much of a punishment given the claims that have been made against Stepney and it is incongruous when compared to the $100m fine that was levied on McLaren for allegedly using a few elements of detail that appeared in the dossier which Stepney is supposed to have given to Coughlan.
In the circumstances it might have been a better strategy to do nothing at all and thus avoid pointing out the FIA's impotence.
There has been no word at all about any punishment for Coughlan, although there have been rumours that Coughlan agreed to a voluntary ban of some kind, probably on the understanding that this was kept out of the public domain. Stepney seems to feel rather more strongly about matters and says that the full story will emerge when he publishes his book on the subject later this year.
In the meantime the Italian police continues its investigations and there are still some in the sport who seem keen to keep the story running for as long as possible, as it acts as a useful blunt instrument for battering McLaren.
The results of the police inquiries will be greeted with much interest as anything other than serious charges will be be seen as evidence that McLaren was unfairly treated by the FIA. Even if there are charges made, the case would then have to go to court.
In the interim, it is best for F1 to get on with racing and try to avoid too much mud-slinging, as there is always the possibility that there will be legal repercussions for those involved once the Italian legal procedures come to an end.
This will all end one day and there is little doubt that it will end badly for one side or the other.