The first few years of the twenty-first century marked a time when Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated the sport of formula one. The stellar performances of the “Dream Team” consisting of Schumacher and four other Scuderia Ferrari employees from 2000 to 2004 aroused a massive amount of hatred and envy in the competition. One such team was McLaren- a team with a legacy almost as grand as Ferrari themselves, that pretty much anihilated Ferrari’s hopes at a World Title in the closing years of the twentieth century. The envy and hatred grew to a point where Mclaren eventually crossed a line which led to one of the biggest and most expensive controversies in the history of sports.
Characters- Nigel Stepney, Michael Coughlan, Fernando Alonso, Pedro de la Rosa, Ron Dennis, Max Mosley
Part 1: The Dream Team
Ferrari’s dream team dominated the sport after the turn of the millennium, thanks to the joint efforts of four very important Ferrari employees, Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Nigel Stepney. These four men worked on the car tirelessly under the direct supervision of Jean Todt, the Team Principal of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula One Team.
This success, unfortunately, had to come to an end. After a couple of years without a championship, Michael Schumacher, the driver, retired and Ross Brawn, his mechanical engineer, took a sabbatical. As the dream team slowly dismantled, Nigel Stepney, the Chief Engineer, found himself in a bit of a distressing situation. Weirdly enough, Stepney did not hold a college degree. Despite this, Ross Brawn’s power and influence in the team helped cement Stepney’s position at a very important post.
Being an extremely competent Chief Engineer and leading his team to multiple world titles just wasn’t enough for Ferrari. Stepney’s lack of a degree did bring a lot of mistrust from within the team. With Schumacher and Brawn gone, so did his power. He was very publicly open about his unhappiness in the team. In an interview with AutoSport, he was quoted saying “I am not currently happy with the situation within the team. I really want to move forward with my career and that’s something that isn't happening right now. Ideally, I’d like to move into a new environment here at Ferrari, but if an opportunity arose with another team, I would definitely consider it”.
If one thing is for sure, it’s that Ferrari is particularly brutal about employees that speak out against them, something that usually ends with the employee being fired. They didn’t fire Stepney, however, due to fears of putting their technology at risk. Instead, they decided that he would not be travelling with the team to the races anymore, thus diluting any power he had. He was moved to the Ferrari factory in Italy, where he was demoted to the post of ‘Head of Team Performance’, which was undeniably motivating.
Part 2: The Saboteur
We jump to the 2007 season. Three races have already passed, and the season has delivered scintillating results all the way thus far. The sport is about to head for the Monaco Grand Prix, the most prestigious and royal race in motor racing. A week before the race, however, one of the Ferrari mechanics found a white powder outside one of their cars. Being very careful about their vehicles and the safety of their drivers, the police were called and every employee on the scene was searched. As it turned out, a white substance similar to the one found near the cars was found in the pocket of none other than, you guessed it, Nigel Stepney.
Two weeks later, Ferrari officially lodged a complaint against Stepney, accusing him of sabotage. The court in Modena in Italy brought forward their own criminal investigation against Nigel, following which, in a span of 2 weeks, he was fired from the Scuderia Ferrari Formula One team.
Ferrari wasn't done yet. They had reason to believe that there was an external factor involved in this sabotage as well. So, in conjunction with Stepney’s termination, they also announced an investigation on “an engineer from the Vodafone Mclaren-Mercedes Team”.
Part 3: The Outsider
Imagine you live in a place called Surrey County in the UK, and you are the biggest Ferrari fan on planet earth. You work at a local copy store. It's an average day for you, nothing out of the ordinary, when suddenly, someone walks in. You are immediately intrigued by her when she asks you to burn seven hundred and eighty pages worth of information onto a disk drive. You take it to the back of the store and inspect the pages before completing the transaction. Shockingly, every single page has a Ferrari emblem at the bottom. You think to yourself, “why would someone be in possession of official Ferrari documents?”. Once you complete the transaction, you ring the customer. Now it’s time to look her up on the internet. You open the browser and carefully type the letters- ‘T R U D Y’ space ‘C O U G H L A N’. A couple facebook pages show up, but nothing too flashy.
This is where caution strikes. Being a loyal Ferrari fan, you look up the email address of the highest ranked Ferrari employee you can contact over in Italy, and you do exactly that. You email their sporting director, stating the lady’s name and the documents she was in possession of, and only hope that he receives and reads your email. He does. Trudy might not be a very famous person, but the surname ‘Coughlan’ isn’t new to his eyes. As it turns out, Trudy is the wife of Michael Coughlan, the Chief Designer of the Mclaren-Mercedes team, located in Surrey County. This is what led Ferrari to open up investigations on the Mclaren engineer. What you just read was a true account of how this controversy unravelled, at the hands of one diligent Ferrari fan paying attention to his job.
Part 4: The Lie
Ferrari had more than enough evidence to prove that the Coughlans were guilty for being in possession of vital information related to Ferrari’s formula one campaign. Due to the severity of the consequences, however, they had the Coughlans’ full cooperation for the entirety of the investigation. In return, Ferrari also agreed to drop all legal charges against the couple and solve the matter internally. Things seemed to cool down all until Mclaren decided to bring the issue back into the light by holding a press conference. Ron Dennis, Mclaren’s CEO at the time, announced that their own internal investigation into the matter had revealed that the information taken from Stepney to Coughlan had not reached anyone else inside the factory.
Later that month, the Mclaren team was brought in front of the World Motorsport Council to answer for the charges they were faced with. They were fairly transparent throughout the proceedings and reinforced the statement made by their CEO. Furthermore, as there was no evidence that the information stolen from Ferrari was actually used in the Mclaren cars, the Council altogether decided not to penalise the team. They did, however, decide to leave the investigation open in case any future evidence was brought to light.
It is now time to introduce to you the drivers that drove for Mclaren in 2007.
Fernando Alonso was a fresh world champion in 2007, winning the two previous seasons in 2005 and 2006 with Renault. He then ditched them to join Mclaren with the hope of adding to his streak of two titles.
Alongside this world champion was a twenty-one year old debutant. His praises echoed in the ears of all his competitors long before he entered the sport. He lived up to, if not exceeded everyone’s expectations in his rookie season, despite being paired up with such a fierce teammate. None other than Lewis Hamilton, one of the greatest drivers ever in Formula One. One who has broken almost every record there is. But even the greatest of careers couldn’t steer clear of such a controversial start.
Now every team has a reserve driver, that assists the team with car developments and also replaces either of the main drivers in case of injuries or any other mishaps. Mclaren’s reserve driver was Pedro de la Rosa and in addition to helping the Mclaren team, Pedro also got them into heaps of trouble. As it turns out, he was in possession of the information stolen by Coughlan. Pedro was in regular contact with Coughlan via e-mails, through which the information passed and later, Alonso got knowledge of this information as well.
The championship was getting awfully close and exciting, and Hamilton was proving to be more than a threat to Alonso. After a few infuriating clashes between the two, Alonso went to Dennis, the team principal and openly threatened to tell the FiA, which was the motorsport board, about the fact that he did have access to the stolen documents from Ferrari. The objective of the threat was to get Dennis to instruct Hamilton that Alonso was their priority at the time. In panic, Dennis went and informed the President of the FiA, Max Mosley, in confidence, about the little conversation he’d had with Alonso.
Mosley, after hearing of this, didn’t take any drastic action. However, he was keeping a close eye on the Mclaren drivers. Now you know that the information was passed from Coughlan to Pedro via e-mails, and sometimes text messages as well. I’m sure you already know that every email leaves a certain online trace which makes it easy to track. Text messages are fairly easy to track as well. Now this was a pretty ameteur move on the part of the Mclaren employees. After getting a hint of what was going on, Mosley opened an investigation on behalf of the FiA. This investigation brought forward quite a lot of information that could put Mclaren in a bigger twist than they already were in. In total, there were 288 text messages, 35 phone calls and also hundreds of emails between the team, which were directly incriminating the drivers as well as the management. One email that really did it for FiA, it was one from Pedro de la Rosa to Fernando Alonso, which said, “All the information from Ferrari is very reliable. It comes from Nigel Stepney- their Chief Engineer. I don’t know what post he holds now. He’s the same person that told us in Australia that Kimi Raikkonen was stopping on lap 18. He’s very friendly with Mike Coughlan, our Chief Designer, and told him that.”
This is now getting awfully long, and I do have a college degree to study for. To know what happens next, all you have to do is wait another week. Until then, c’est la vie…..
- Saahil Banatwalla