AUGUST 1, 2007

Stepneygate - the whole story

One of the big problems with the ongoing Stepneygate Affair is that there is a huge amount of hearsay, but not a great deal of fact. There are two affidavits: one from Mike Coughlan and one from his wife Trudy.

One of the big problems with the ongoing Stepneygate Affair is that there is a huge amount of hearsay, but not a great deal of fact. There are two affidavits: one from Mike Coughlan and one from his wife Trudy. Elements of these documents have been reported in detail in Italy and have been copied elsewhere in the media, but no-one is admitting to having the affidavits or of having supplied them to the press. This is because these statements are privileged information and are only available to the Coughlans, their lawyers, High Court officials and Ferrari, McLaren, the FIA and their respective legal teams.

There are elements of truth in what has been published, but it is by no means clear whether all the details have come out, nor whether the timing of the various events has been taken into account in the stories that have been written. The timing of events is clearly important because between March and July, the relationship between McLaren and Mike Coughlan was changing. In parallel to this story, Nigel Stepney, Coughlan and four others (three at Ferrari and one at McLaren) were developing a plan to join forces to create an engineering group that would be employed by another Formula 1 team. The problem therefore is to distinguish at what point Coughlan was working for himself, or for Stepney's engineering group, and when he was working for McLaren. Ferrari claims that McLaren was involved throughout.

The story begins, however, back in 2006 when Ferrari made Coughlan an offer to join the team in Maranello.

This was not possible because at the time Coughlan had just agreed a new deal with McLaren to run from 2007 to 2009. We hear that the World Council also heard that Coughlan was involved in discussions with Toyota in the same period. This information apparently came to light when McLaren went through Coughlan's e-mails after the current crisis began.

It is clear, therefore, that from late 2006 Coughlan was interested in moving elsewhere. Engineers can leave their employment with just six months of gardening leave, if they can find a way to get their intended new team to settle with their current employers. According to our sources Coughlan wanted to move from earning around $700,000 a year to become one of the highly-paid big name engineers in F1.

At the same time Nigel Stepney was becoming very disaffected at Ferrari, as he was not happy with the new management structure at Ferrari after Ross Brawn's decision to leave the Italian team. This relationship deteriorated over the winter and around the time of the Australian Grand Prix, Coughlan received an e-mail from Stepney alerting him to technical questions about the Ferrari. McLaren apparently argued to the World Council that this was a case of whistle-blowing and that this event should be viewed as being entirely separate to later developments. This argument was backed up by the fact that in mid-April Coughlan asked for a firewall to be created to stop further e-mails arriving from Stepney.

Coughlan travelled to Barcelona on April 28 and it seems that McLaren was under the impression that he was going there to tell Stepney to stop him sending e-mails.

In his affidavit, it seems that Coughlan says that he returned to the UK with 780 pages of Ferrari documents.

The meeting in Barcelona seems to have triggered an approach by Stepney to Honda. He informed Honda that he had a group of engineers from different teams who wanted to work for Honda. This led to a meeting between Stepney and Honda's Nick Fry at Heathrow Airport on May 9. At this meeting Stepney told Fry that Coughlan was involved in the plan.

On May 21, according to Ferrari, Stepney put white powder in the fuel tanks of the Ferrari F1 cars that were due to go to the Monaco Grand Prix on May 27. Stepney denies this and says that he is being framed.

It was in the same period that Coughlan asked McLaren Racing's Jonathan Neale for an early release from his contract. Neale then suggested that they meet away from the McLaren factory to discuss this - because the glass walls in the McLaren factory make it easy for people to see if there is a lively discussion going on. It was agreed that they would meet for breakfast at a local golf club on May 25. It is alleged that during this meeting Coughlan tried to show Neale documents, but McLaren says that he refused to look at them.

Within a few days of this meeting Coughlan and Stepney met Fry at Heathrow on June 1, and discussed doing a deal.

There have also been suggestions that the two men also made an approach to Toyota.

By June 7, the F1 circus had moved to Canada and it was there that McLaren and Ferrari agreed to work together to solve disputes over the regulations, without the FIA having to be involved. While the teams were in Canada and the United States, Mike Coughlan's wife Trudy took the Ferrari documents to a copying shop in Surrey and asked for them to be put on a disk. She paid with a personal cheque. The original documents were then destroyed, apparently having been shredded and then burned in the back garden of Coughlan's house.

At some point in this period Ferrari learned via the copying shop in Surrey that Coughlan was in possession of Ferrari documents.

There were rumours at Indianapolis that there was about to be a new espionage scandal and stories circulated that Nigel Stepney had been arrested. These were not true, but on June 21 Ferrari announced that Stepney was under criminal investigation in Italy. Stepney responded the following day saying that he was the victim of "a dirty tricks campaign".

In this period Ferrari went to the High Court in London and obtained a search warrant for Mike Coughlan's house. They found disks containing the data from the Ferrari paperwork. McLaren immediately announced that it had suspended Coughlan. The Coughlans appeared in court in London on July 10 and the following day agreed to provide Ferrari with sworn affidavits.

The rest of the story is now public information.

The schedule above may not be 100% correct because it is very hard to get exact dates but it is useful nonetheless to see how the story has developed.