By Ian Herbert and David Tremayne
July 11, 2007
It is among the most explosive tales of alleged industrial espionage the
sporting world has ever heard: a disenchanted senior executive at the
Ferrari motor racing team passes a dossier of information, embossed with
the firm's famous prancing horse livery to the chief designer of its
deadly British rivals McLaren team, whose young driver Lewis Hamilton
currently leads the drivers' championship.
But a most improbable twist to the tale of intrigue emerged at the High
Court in London yesterday when Ferrari began a compensation suit against
the McLaren designer accused of receiving the documents - Mike Coughlan.
The Italians, it was alleged, got wind of the alleged conspiracy when Mr
Coughlan's wife walked calmly into a photocopying shop at Woking,
Surrey, with the 780-page dossier and began copying it.
A staff member from the shop tipped off Ferrari after realising that the
documents were confidential and belonged to the Maranello-based team.
"We would not have found out about it were it not from a tip-off by the
photocopying agency," Ferrari's QC Nigel Tozzi, told judge Mr Justice
"We would be blissfully ignorant of all this were it not for a tip-off
The Coughlans, Mr Tozzi added, had "behaved disgracefully by taking
these documents, knowing they were not entitled to them, keeping them
and copying them".
The claims about Mrs Coughlan surfaced at a preliminary hearing in
Italian team's court case against Mr Coughlan, 45, who has been
suspended by McLaren, whose base is a short distance from the
photocopying shop, and his wife.
No details were given in court about how Ferrari allege the Coughlans
came into possession of the documents at the heart of a controversy
which has gripped the sport in the last week. But it is now clear that
the case centres on two computer discs believed to contain a total of
780 pages of Ferrari technical information.
After the tip-off these were seized in a search by investigators at Mr
Coughlan's home. Mr Coughlan was immediately suspended, while Mr Stepney
- an old friend with whom he worked at Benetton in the 1990s - has
already been fired.
Mr Stepney, 48, who played a key role in the success of former world
champion Michael Schumacher with Ferrari, claims he is the victim of a
"dirty tricks" campaign.
McLaren has also denied any involvement in the affair and promised to
co-operate fully with the investigation launched by the sport's
governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile.
But yesterday's hearing touched tantalisingly on how much Maclaren's
managing director, Jonathan Neale, actually knew about the dossier.
The court heard that Mr Neale was aware that Mr Coughlan had the
documents, but there was no definitive answer on whether Mr Neale was
told about the situation before Ferrari's launched its legal action
against the Coughlans - or after.
"It is unclear when and how Neale was told about the documents," Mr
Tozzi said. Ferrari remain unhappy with the explanation given by Mr
Coughlan about how he came into possession of the Ferrari material,
because there is a 'date discrepancy' which between what he has said and
date records obtained from the photocopying shop, the court heard.
The hearing was adjourned until today for Mr Coughlan to provide sworn
affidavits on how he came in possession of the Ferrari documents.
His lawyers are considering whether doing so would potentially affect
their rights to avoid self-incrimination in respect of related criminal
proceedings in Italy.
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