July 17, 2007 An intriguing tale of industrial espionage and general skulduggery at the highest level is breaking out in the world of Formula One. Amidst an investigation of one of Ferrari's chief mechanics, who is under suspicion of sabotaging the two Ferrari F1 cars before the Monaco race this year, it has emerged that the McLaren-Mercedes team's chief designer was in possession of a large amount of highly classified documents detailing the design of the 2007 Ferrari F1 cars. While it may be some time until the truth emerges, this scandal in the top ranks of racing's richest competition is threatening to overshadow the jaw-dropping debut season of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton as the defining moment of the 2007 Formula One GP season.
For the last thirteen years, Nigel Stepney was involved with Ferrari's Formula One team at the highest level, holding positions ranging from Chief Mechanic to Race and Test Technical Manager during a period of total Ferrari dominance with Michael Schumacher at the wheel. Then, shortly after announcing that he was dissatisfied with the direction his Ferrari role was moving in, and would consider working for another F1 team, a scandal erupted.
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According to Ferrari, white powder was discovered sprinkled around the two Ferrari cars of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa 6 days prior to the Monaco Grand Prix, and residue was also found in the cars' fuel tanks. Both cars had to have parts replaced as a result of this possibly corrosive mystery powder in the lead-up to the race, in which Ferrari placed third and eighth. Samples of the powder have been taken for analysis with results due back in early August, and Stepney has been sacked by Ferrari pending a criminal investigation.
Then Ferrari claimed it received a tip-off that top-secret Ferrari design documents had found their way into the possession of McLaren's chief designer Mike Coughlan. Legal proceedings were launched, and Coughlan acquiesced to a police search of his home, during which two computer discs containing up to 780 pages worth of technical information on the 2007 Ferrari F1 race car were discovered.
McLaren immediately went on the defensive, suspending Coughlan and providing detailed information and access to FIA officials in order to prove that no innovations taken from the Ferrari documents had resulted in new development directions for the McLaren car - but this was obviously a huge embarrassment for the McLaren team.
Ferrari immediately moved to put pressure on Coughlan and McLaren, threatening Coughlan with criminal charges unless he provided them with full disclosure of how he had come into possession of the information - and Coughlan agreed provided Ferrari would drop the charges.
And while Stepney has constantly claimed his innocence in both matters, and that he is the victim of a "dirty tricks" campaign by Ferrari, it has now emerged in an extraordinary admission by the Honda Formula One team that Stepney and Coughlan approached Honda to discuss "job opportunities" as recently as last month.
With such amazing action being carried out in the courts, and an extraordinary meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council about to charge the championship-leading McLaren team with breaches of the International Sporting Code, it will be fascinating to see what comes out of the various investigations and affidavits that are due to be released in the next few weeks. Interesting times indeed!