Saturday, 14 July 2007


It’s amazing how much we rely on the internet for our news and information. I’ve been out of the loop for about a fortnight for various reasons and one of the biggest stories of the F1 season breaks. According to my RSS reader I have some 215 F1 blog entries and 1027 news stories to wade through. A large number of these seem to be dedicated to the Stepney-Coughlan espionage saga. F1 journalists must have been drooling over their keyboards with this one. It makes for a fantastic yarn but it is seriously damaging for the sport’s reputation.

The last I heard about this was at the French Grand Prix. Stepney was under investigation by Italian police and had been told by Ferrari not to come the Grand Prix after it emerged he had passed on intellectual property to Mclaren. I must have missed something though as I didn’t realise just how involved Mclaren were in the shenanigans. I won’t regurgitate the whole episode but I will briefly recap on the events for my own benefit:

April 07
Mike Coughlan, chief designer at Mclaren and a good friend of Nigel Stepney, received a confidential document containing Ferrari data and intellectual property. The document was some 700 pages long. Coughlan’s possession of this document has only recently come to light publicly.

May (Monaco GP)
Ferrari suspects Nigel Stepney of attempted sabotage after white powder was found on Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa’s Ferraris. Italian Police launch an investigation at Ferrari’s bequest.

Ferrari disown Stepney and tell him not to come to the next few Grand Prix pending both internal and external investigations.

June 21
The Police discover evidence at Stepney’s home that links him with Mclaren

June 26
Mclaren suspend Mike Coughlan

July 3
Ferrari lodge a formal complaint to the FIA and confirm the termination of Nigel Stepney’s contract.

Ferrari and Mclaren set about proving that they did not use the intellectual property from another team to gain a performance advantage.

British Grand Prix
Honda admits that it was approached by both Stepney and Coughlan regarding jobs in the team.

Week 9 -13 July
The espionage allegations against Mclaren and Coughlan are heard before British courts.

It emerges that Coughlan had in his possession a confidential 780 page document which Ferrari claimed had been stolen. Also in his possession were items including reports of races and test sessions – not necessarily data that can be used in car development but still in breach of FIA regulations.

The court heard that Jonathan Neale, managing director of Mclaren, knew that Coughlan had the Ferrari documents in his possession.

13 July
Mclaren are summoned by the FIA to appear before the World Motorsport Council on July 26th. They have been charged with:

“unauthorised possession of documents and confidential information belonging to Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, including information that could be used to design, engineer, build, check, test, develop and/or run a 2007 Ferrari Formula One car”

Which is in of the International Sporting Code specifically article 151c which refers to “any fraudulent conduct or any act of prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interest of Motorsport generally.”

Mclaren and Ron Dennis categorically deny the allegations.

As one?
For me the main issue of concern here is to what to what extent is Mclaren as a team responsible for the individual actions of one person? Mclaren have been quick to distance themselves from Coughlan:

“Whilst McLaren wish to continue their full co-operation with any investigation into this matter, they do wish to make it very clear that the documents and confidential information were only in the possession of one currently suspended employee on an unauthorised basis and no element of it has been used in relation to McLaren’s Formula 1 cars.”

And Ron Dennis has been adamant that the information obtained by Coughlan has not been used to Mclaren’s advantage:

“Clearly if an individual has access to information that information is in that person.

”Our system is a matrix system which means that the technical work we do is not a pyramid structure with one individual at the top, it is a flat structure.

“Therefore, I can categorically state that there are no developments, whatsoever, that have occurred in the months preceding 28th April or the months following 28th April and we can categorically demonstrate that to anybody who needs to have that information and of course that is the FIA“.

But can he really categorically deny this? Intellectual property is a tough cookie. It is not necessarily something that you can concretely prove as having been drawn upon. There is unlikely to be a one-to-one match between what was in the document and a resulting design change or modification. But that does not mean that the knowledge didn’t influence decision-making or approaches to developing a particular aspect of the car. We are dealing with data, information and knowledge here not blue prints. Instructions and advice from Coughlin could quite easily been disseminated across a matrix structure and drawn upon by employees unwittingly. So long as Coughlan was working within the team it is impossible to categorically deny that Ferrari’s information wasn’t used to Mclaren’s advantage.

So regardless of whether or not Ferrari’s document has helped Mclaren gain an advantage – and realistically you would have to bet against this – Mclaren will be hard pressed to prove that it hasn’t influenced their design process.

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