Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Japanese Connection

There is a lot that doesn’t smell right about the Stepneygate-Coughlan affair but the Honda connection is something I find particularly fishy.

The mysterious three-way job interview between Nick Fry and the troublesome duo seems to have been put on the backburner amidst the legal proceedings but it remains deeply suspicious in my view.

True, Honda are currently headhunting just about anything that moves in the paddock. Even so, what on earth was Coughlan doing looking for a job with Honda after obtaining and sharing the Ferrari data within Mclaren? And together in one meeting? That’s a strange kind of job interview if you ask me.

One explanation is that both men knew the game was up and were anticipating the axe from their respective teams. But here’s another take on things, a quick conspiracy theory for you. Pure speculation, but then that’s what blogs are for.

Honda have been having a dismal season. Their results have been embarrassing and hugely damaging for the Honda brand; innovation say the ‘Honda Mentalism’ ads, failure say the team’s results.

So orders come from Japan to improve the car at all costs.

Some bright spark from management comes up with a quick fix: “lets copy one of the top teams’ designs”. And another goes one better: “lets copy both of the top teams”.

After releasing a bit of cash from the team’s massive budget Honda go headhunting. They come across a disgruntled Stepney who’s peeved that he didn’t get Ross Brawn’s old job. Stepney can’t believe his eyes, a chance to jump ship for a huge salary and more importantly, a chance to get revenge on Ferrari for not properly acknowledging him: “I can get my hands on some hot shit,” he tells Honda’s recruitment consultant. Stepney realises he can’t pull off the move alone – Ferrari will be watching him like a hawk once they know he’s off to Honda. So he gets in touch with his buddy at Mclaren who's also looking for a new career direction. The duo realise that their prospective salary and bonus package at Honda will increase significantly if they can get their hands on some of the designs that have made their respective teams so successful.

An opportunity presents itself to Honda: a chance to get intellectual property from both of the top teams – yes that’s right, I reckon Stepney has Mclaren data and information stashed away somewhere – and crucially a chance to do so without getting their hands dirty. The rest as they say is history.

It all goes tits-up. Coughlan couldn’t resist telling a few of his Mclaren colleagues about obtaining the Ferrari document and even worse gets found out by Ferrari after a tip-off from a photocopying shop.

Honda panic and send out polite rejection letters to their would-be employees.

So there you go. Honda are implicated in someway or another, I’m sure of it. But then I’m biased, I have never been a fan of Honda ever since I found out how they treated Frank Williams after his car accident.

Here is what Nick Fry has said about Honda’s involvement in the espionage saga:

“Yeah, our position is as it has been for some time. As everybody knows, we’ve interviewed rather a large number of senior engineers over the last two or three months, if not a bit more and hired a few that people know about now.

“Nigel Stepney was one of those people who applied to us, so the first correspondence was from Nigel to us and he asked to be considered for a position.

“I saw Nigel and it was the first time I’d ever met Nigel in my life in fact, so it was a perfectly normal get-to-know-you-type of discussion, nothing confidential, nothing was offered, nothing was received but he did mention at that time that there was another person who might also be interested and told me it was Mike.

“I subsequently saw both Mike and Nigel together and the second conversation was principally with Mike, as I’d already had a discussion with Nigel.

“Again, Mike was not someone I knew, so we again had a get-to-know-you-type of discussion, not in great detail, more about what he’d done in the past, about what the issues with our team were.

“And that was the end of it. Again, in the second conversation there was nothing at all that made me vaguely suspicious at all.

“Neither of them said anything inappropriate, they were both loyal to their teams, obviously not overly happy with various circumstances, but there wasn’t any finger-pointing or anything and subsequent to that, that was the end of it.

“There’s been no contact with either of them since that discussion. I was asked by Jean – I’d obviously spoken to Jean and Ron about it more than once – and was asked by Jean, in fact, to write a chronology of those discussions which I did, which I sent the Monday before last – what’s that? July the ninth - to both Jean and Ron and also to the FIA saying that was the chronology of events, and if they required any further information, then obviously we would be happy to provide it.

“Since then I’ve heard nothing at all, so I can only assume that the matter is now between Ferrari and McLaren.

“From our point of view, I think I wouldn’t be doing my job if, when you have offers of the chief designer of one of the top Formula One teams and the person who has been involved in probably the top Formula One team over the last decade, saying they want to work for you, I think I would be somewhat remiss not to at least see them.

“But I emphasise that neither of those two gentlemen said anything or offered anything or nothing was received or asked for on our part. It was very straightforward.”

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