On the eve of the British Grand Prix, former Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney has spoken to the media, denying accusations that he stole and attempted to pass on confidential documents from his employer at the time. Ferrari have fired the British worker from their company, and the ensuing investigation has now embroiled McLaren through their now-suspended chief designer Mike Coughlin. Not content with leaving it there though, Honda have now admitted that the pair arranged a meeting with Nick Fry at Brackley, although Honda are insisting that nothing untoward happened.
The whole saga is very serious, with a criminal investigation taking place in Italy, careers in Formula One on the line (or even already finished), and possible sanctions from the FIA, who have launched their own enquiry into the issues to ensure nobody has breached the International Sporting Code and the F1 Technical Regulations. McLaren team principal Ron Dennis has strongly stated that no documents from any other team have infiltrated the Woking-based operation, but the FIA have insisted that of they do find anything, they may penalise the team and the points collected so far. As you can imagine, Dennis is “hacked off”. The experienced team operator is very upset by the media outburst, and is disgusted that people he trusted have seemingly turned against him and the brand he has worked so hard for.
Nigel Stepney, on the other hand, has been interrogated by the Italian authorities and has now fled the country. The Briton was holidaying in the Philippines when the news broke, and after he returned with his girlfriend Ash, felt his life was in danger after a series of car chases, followings and the stalking of the pair.
There have been high-speed car chases. We’ve been followed by more than one car, with Italian plates, and when we cornered one of them last Thursday evening the men in it refused to speak. I don’t believe they were journalists. Ash has been stalked at the house. There was tracking gear on my car. Someone was going to get hurt. I had no option but to get out of Italy. Nigel Stepney.
Nigel has categorically denied passing confidential documents on to people outside of Ferrari, and had the following to say to the press.
I categorically deny that I copied them [documents], or that I sent them to Mike Coughlan. I knew I was being watched all the time at the factory and that everything I did or said was being reported back and that people knew whenever I accessed files on the computer. I have no idea how anything came into Mike’s possession. If he has some documents, they came from another source. Nigel Stepney.
Stepney has offered some reasoning as to why this has happened to him, and although the investigation is still ongoing, he believes his name will be cleared.
Ferrari is terrified that what I have in my mind is valuable. I guess I know where the bodies are buried from the last ten years; and there were a lot of controversies in that time. But do you think [Chief Designer] Nicolas Tombazis came to Ferrari from McLaren without something in his mind? The new Ferrari front end aero came from McLaren, because it was in his head.
I’m just a bit confused. I was never a yes man and as soon as I went against the system at Ferrari, I got squeezed. I started to get the blame for things, and began to feel framed. I have been accused, but have not been charged with anything; right now, there is just an investigation. But I feel like I am in the wilderness. Ferrari is unique in Italy; it’s a religion. If you go against it, it’s like going against the Vatican.
I’m anxious, naturally, but I haven’t done anything wrong and I believe in the legal system in Italy. Nigel Stepney.
This whole saga has put a black cloud over Formula One. This weekend everyone should be focused on one man’s plight to win his home race for the first time, another man’s attempt to reclaim his reputation as World Champion, and one team’s fight to edge a little closer to taking the lead in the title race.
However, as Formula One is anything but routine, this sad state of affairs has dominated the headlines, and it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Unfortunately, I fear the 2007 World Championship will be remembered for one or two things; Lewis Hamilton’s rise to stardom, and as coined over at Autosport, Stepneygate.