Analysis: Coughlan's version put to test

Former McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan has apologised to Ferrari and expressed his 'enormous regret' for embarrassing his own team by his involvement in the ongoing espionage affair that surrounds the two outfits

Analysis: Coughlan's version put to test

But his version of the events - of how he came to receive confidential Ferrari documents from Nigel Stepney and to what extent did he share that data with his team - could be tested at the World Motor Sport Council hearing today.

McLaren were already found in breach of the Formula One sporting code in a WMSC meeting on July 26th.

The Woking-based outfit escaped penalty on that occasion as there was no evidence to contradict Coughlan's admission that "McLaren received no benefit whatsoever in relation to their car or any aspect of its performance and that no use of any of the material has been made in relation to the car."

But the FIA has reconvened the WMSC after obtaining new evidence in recent days - reportedly including emails from McLaren drivers and reports of potentially extensive communication between Stepney and Coughlan.

Coughlan himself has so far maintained that he only communicated with Stepney on very few occasions and that no meaningful information was passed to other members of the McLaren team.

Furthermore, while Coughlan has confirmed that he received confidential Ferrari data from Stepney, he has stated that they are not close friends and that he only accepted the data because his 'engineering curiosity' got the better of him.

"He is not a close friend," Coughlan stated. "We are acquaintances who are both in the business of Formula One and have maintained cordial relations over the years.

"Stepney contacted me for the first time in five years on March 1st 2007.

"He subsequently telephoned me and informed me that he was very unhappy with the direction his career was taking at Ferrari and Mr Almondo's promotion above him.

"But he did not pass any technical information about Ferrari to me until mid-March 2007."

Communicating with Stepney

Coughlan claimed Stepney had contacted him only on a handful of occasions, comprising of a few email exchanges and three meetings face to face.

March 2007

Coughlan stated he was emailed by Stepney in March 2007 on three occasions, "on the basis that he wished to communicate concerns that certain features of Ferrari's car did not comply with the technical regulations."

These included Ferrari's floor device, a rear wing flap separator, and a technique to lower the floor of the car.

"Details of the floor device were sent to me by email to my McLaren work email address," Coughlan stated. "I showed the email fleetingly to Martin Whitmarsh, who asked me to take up the issue with Paddy Lowe, McLaren's engineering director.

"I produced a schematic drawing for Lowe, which I understand he forwarded to the FIA. The FIA subsequently declared the floor device as falling outside the regulations.

"Details of the rear wing device were also sent by email to me. I briefly showed this email to Lowe. I understand he reported this to Charlie Whiting of the FIA at the Melbourne Grand Prix, but he was of the opinion that the design was legal.

"As for the information about the subtle engineering technique, I felt it was inconsequential and so I did not show these details to anyone."

April 2007

Coughlan claimed that he did not feel comfortable by receiving such information from Stepney and wanted to stop the line of communication.

McLaren had promptly set up a firewall to block any electronic communications from Stepney, and Coughlan himself arranged to meet Stepney in person, "to ask him to stop communicating to me any further."

The two met at Barcelona Airport on April 28th 2007, and went to a restaurant at the city's marina.

"During the course of conversation, we discussed a feature of how Ferrari's rear brake disc works. This discussion is typical of the types of conversations that often take place between motor racing engineers in relation to non-critical aspects of car design.

"Stepney made a sketch to show how the brake disc worked. My view was that his drawing incorrectly characterised how this feature looked based on photographs taken at races, but I did not comment on this.

"After having lunch with Stepney I asked him not to send to me anything further.

"I then asked Stepney to drive me to the Airport. When I got into his car, he passed me a bundle of documents which he asked me to look at.

"My engineering curiosity got the better of me and I foolishly took the documents from him. I casually flicked through them over the course of 25 minutes or so the journey took for Stepney to drive me to the airport. I kept hold of the documents and took them home with me.

"I did not look further at the documents that weekend."

According to Coughlan, he met again socially with Stepney for dinner while the latter was in England. "He handed me what he said were drawings of Ferrari's brake disc, which comprised a number of A4 pages.

"I assume he realised that he had incorrectly sketched this at our meeting in Barcelona.

"So as not to appear rude, I took the pages away from the dinner but did not show them to anyone, study them or make any use of them. I put the pages with the other documents Stepney had given to me in Barcelona."

June 2007

Coughlan claimed his only other meeting with Stepney was on June 1st 2007, when the two met with Honda team chief Nick Fry at Heathrow.

"The meeting had been arranged by Stepney to discuss a possible career opportunity for him at Honda," Coughlan stated.

"I attended out of curiosity to hear what Fry had to say in relation to possible opportunities for myself at a later date. No Ferrari information was passed to Fry in the course of that meeting or by me at any other time."

Communicating with McLaren staff

According to Coughlan, only a few men at McLaren knew of his communication with Stepney - and only little information was actually conveyed to each. These include:

1) McLaren F1 CEO Martin Whitmarsh - Coughlan said he showed Whitmarsh the email Stepney sent him in March, regarding the Ferrari floor. This is the only time Coughlan mentioned the team's CEO.

2) McLaren F1 engineering director Paddy Lowe - Coughlan mentioned Lowe in relations to the initial information sent by Stepney, relating to devices on the Ferrari car that may be illegal.

He gave Lowe a drawing of the Ferrari floor, which Lowe then sent to the FIA as part of the team's inquiry about the legality of that device.

He showed Lowe an email from Stepney, also around the same time, regarding the Ferrari rear wing device - which Lowe also discussed with the FIA, although this device was deemed legal by the governing body.

3) McLaren F1 managing director Jonathan Neale - Coughlan stated that Neale was the person who took steps to block electronic communications from Stepney after the Australian Grand Prix.

"Following the Melbourne weekend, I expressed my concerns to Neale about Stepney sending information to me," Coughlan stated. "As public reports began to emerge of Nigel Stepney's deepening rift with Ferrari, I understand that Neale instructed McLaren's IT department to install a firewall to block any further electronic communication from him, which I believe was put in place in mid-April 2007."

Coughlan also told Neale he will be meeting Stepney in order "to ask him to stop communicating to me any further."

According to Coughlan, he and Neale met for breakfast on May 25th 2007 "to discuss my future with McLaren and the concerns I had."

Coughlan claimed that "At the very end of the discussion, across the table, I showed him two or so images from the material that Stepney had given to me, which was for no more than a few seconds.

"Neale reacted with surprise and immediately said that I should not have these documents and McLaren wanted nothing to do with them."

4) McLaren F1 engineer Rob Taylor - Coughlan claimed he had only ever shown Taylor a drawing made by Stepney relating to Ferrari's brake system, upon his return to the McLaren factory from meeting Stepney in Barcelona.

"I recall fleetingly showing the brake balance assembly diagram to Taylor as a point of historic interest, as it was a very similar part to the one he designed approximately 10 years ago at FDD during our time there together," Coughlan stated.

The Ferrari data

Coughlan has contended thus far that he had made no use of the 780-page dossier he took from Stepney at Barcelona. In fact, the Briton has claimed he barely looked at the material.

"I looked at the papers given to me by Stepney on only a few occasions," Coughlan stated. "Certainly the time I spent looking at them in total between receiving them and the search at my house on July 3rd was no more than one to two hours.

"I did not look at them in a discursive or methodical way, nor did I look at all of the documents.

"In the limited period of time I spent reviewing the documents, it was not possible to glean anything that would be of material use to McLaren that we did not already know from our own observation and photographs of Ferrari's car."

As for the scanned documents, Coughlan said he did not delve into these either.

"I only viewed the discs on one occasion," he stated, "solely to check that the documents had been properly scanned onto the discs and to see whether the image quality had been maintained. I reviewed perhaps a dozen pages of material very briefly for no more than a few minutes."

Coughlan, however, made no mention of data such as weight distribution, tyre use or race strategy. Moreover, he has claimed that at the time of his breakfast with Neale, on May 25, he had "resolved that the documents should no longer be in my possession.

"I had initially accepted them out of engineering curiosity but now felt increasingly uncomfortable holding on to them," Coughlan stated.

But, according to his version of events, it wasn't until he returned from the United States Grand Prix - which was held on June 17 - that he and his wife, Trudy, shredded and burned the documents, although not before making an electronic copy of them in a nearby shop.

"I cannot recall the exact date, but in early June 2007 I asked my wife to arrange for the documents to be scanned onto compact discs," Coughlan stated.

"I had decided to destroy all of the documents but I wanted to retain a copy in a more compact form that I could return to Stepney in the event that he requested their return.

"I gave the documents to my wife and asked her to get them scanned onto disk. Around the same time I ordered a document shredder, which I intended to use to shred the documents at my house once they had been copied.

"In or around 8 June 2007 I travelled to the United States for the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis. While I was in the United States, my wife took the documents to a shop and these were copied onto two compact discs.

"Following my return from the United States, I asked my wife to set up the new shredder and shred the documents and then burn them. She did this on 20 June 2007."

Quite coincidentally, news of a new criminal investigation against Nigel Stepney first began in the Indianapolis paddock...

Coughlan's remorse

There's no doubt that Coughlan indeed regrets his actions in the entire affair. Regardless of how Ferrari's civil case against him pans out in the London High Court, or what McLaren will endure in today's World Motor Sport Council hearing, Coughlan is likely to never work again in the sport he has loved so much.

"I sincerely regret my actions in accepting the information from Stepney and the fact that I did not take more steps to stop him providing this information to me," Coughlan stated.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see how I should have handled matters very differently, but at the time, having found myself in an uncomfortable and difficult position, my indecision as to how best to deal with this led me to fail to take proper action at all.

"I wish to apologise to Ferrari. My passion and enthusiasm for race-car engineering design has caused me to exercise poor judgement in my dealings with Mr Stepney.

"I enormously regret the unfair embarrassment I have caused to McLaren and to my wife.

"I can honestly say that McLaren received no benefit whatsoever in relation to their car or any aspect of its performance and that no use of any of the material has been made in relation to the car."

The problem is, that even genuine remorse may not be enough to undo the damage that has already been done.

Rodriguez tests for Spyker at Silverstone
Previous article

Rodriguez tests for Spyker at Silverstone

Next article

Paris hearing adjourned for lunch (updated)

Paris hearing adjourned for lunch (updated)
Load comments
The historic clues that offer hints of Hamilton’s next move Plus

The historic clues that offer hints of Hamilton’s next move

OPINION: Uncertainty over Lewis Hamilton's future has persisted since the race direction call that denied him an eighth world title in Abu Dhabi last month. But while walking away would be understandable, Hamilton has time and again responded well in the face of adversity and possesses all the tools needed to bounce back stronger than ever

What the FIA must do to restore F1’s credibility Plus

What the FIA must do to restore F1’s credibility

OPINION: The first stage of the 2022 Formula 1 pre-season is just over a month away, but the championship is still reeling from the controversial results of last year’s finale. The FIA acknowledges F1 has had its reputation dented as a result, so here’s how it could go about putting things right

Formula 1
Jan 25, 2022
The six F1 subplots to watch in 2022 as a new era begins Plus

The six F1 subplots to watch in 2022 as a new era begins

As Formula 1 prepares to begin a new era of technical regulations in 2022, Autosport picks out six other key elements to follow this season

Formula 1
Jan 24, 2022
Why newly-retired Raikkonen won't miss F1 Plus

Why newly-retired Raikkonen won't miss F1

After 349 grand prix starts, 46 fastest laps, 21 wins and one world championship, Kimi Raikkonen has finally called time on his F1 career. In an exclusive interview with Autosport on the eve of his final race, he explains his loathing of paddock politics and reflects on how motorsport has changed over the past two decades

Formula 1
Jan 23, 2022
Unpacking the technical changes behind F1 2022's rules shakeup Plus

Unpacking the technical changes behind F1 2022's rules shakeup

Formula 1 cars will look very different this year as the long-awaited fresh rules finally arrive with the stated aim of improving its quality of racing. Autosport breaks down what the return of 'ground effect' aerodynamics - and a flurry of other changes besides - means for the teams, and what fans can expect

Formula 1
Jan 21, 2022
Why new era F1 is still dogged by its old world problems Plus

Why new era F1 is still dogged by its old world problems

OPINION: The 2022 Formula 1 season is just weeks away from getting underway. But instead of focusing on what is to come, the attention still remains on what has been – not least the Abu Dhabi title decider controversy. That, plus other key talking points, must be resolved to allow the series to warmly welcome in its new era

Formula 1
Jan 20, 2022
The Schumacher trait that will give Haas hope in F1 2022 Plus

The Schumacher trait that will give Haas hope in F1 2022

Mick Schumacher’s knack of improving during his second season in a championship was a trademark of his junior formula career, so his progress during his rookie Formula 1 campaign with Haas was encouraging. His target now will be to turn that improvement into results as the team hopes to reap the rewards of sacrificing development in 2021

Formula 1
Jan 19, 2022
The “glorified taxi” driver central to F1’s continued safety push Plus

The “glorified taxi” driver central to F1’s continued safety push

As the driver of Formula 1’s medical car, Alan van der Merwe’s job is to wait – and hope his skills aren’t needed. JAMES NEWBOLD hears from F1’s lesser-known stalwarts

Formula 1
Jan 15, 2022