- Maurice Hamilton's blog
Nigel Stepney 1958 - 2014Maurice Hamilton May 3, 2014
If Nigel Stepney thought you were 'okay', he could be one of the staunchest allies you could wish for - on the understanding that this came with a wicked sense of humour. His passion for the sport was backed up by organisational skills and a tough work ethic that contributed so much to Ferrari's reliability during Michael Schumacher's run of success in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, Stepney's association with Maranello will be better remembered for his part in the Spygate scandal in 2007.
I can't remember exactly where I first met Nigel. But I do recall a smile playing on his lips in 1984 when, in his role as mechanic at Lotus, he listened to a bollocking I was receiving from Nigel Mansell over something I had written. Stepney, who had a permanent twinkle in his eye, appear to enjoy, at the very least, witnessing confrontation, if not taking part in it. He was well known for encouraging his colleagues to get up to no good but he would later mellow with age and the arrival of well-earned responsibility.
That came with the role of chief mechanic at Benetton, where he worked with John Barnard and, later, Michael Schumacher. When Barnard became technical chief at Ferrari in 1987, he could see that the colourful and at times slightly hysterical team was in desperate need of restructuring from the ground up. Stepney had built a reputation as a top organiser who understood the workings of F1 cars and, just as important, the people who built and serviced them. He was top of Barnard's list.
Nigel had no hesitation in moving from his native England to integrate himself fully with the way of life at Ferrari. He knew things could only get better with the arrival of Jean Todt in 1993 and, three years later, Ross Brawn (who had worked with Stepney at Benetton). The partnership was completed by the signing of Schumacher, Stepney eventually moving from chief mechanic to taking charge of the internal organisation of the race team and responsibility for making the cars reliable.
The dream team began to break up when Schumacher retired at the end of 2006 and Brawn took a sabbatical. Stepney was not happy when internal restructuring resulted in the promotion of someone he did not feel was best suited to having high responsibility on the technical side. The relationship between Stepney and Ferrari was about to go into steep decline, particularly when, at the beginning of 2007, he revealed to F1 Racing magazine that he was looking for an opportunity with another team. Ferrari were not amused. Stepney had another year to run on his contract and his employers were determined to hold him to it, increasing his displeasure by grounding him at the factory.
On May 10 that year, while en route to the Spanish Grand Prix, I bumped into Nigel at Gatwick airport. As we enjoyed a drink in the lounge, it was clear from his collar and tie that he had not been home on a social visit (later revealed as discussion with Honda). A few weeks later, the Modena district attorney opened a criminal investigation following a formal complaint by Ferrari over Stepney's conduct. The Italian newspapers were soon carrying stories connecting Stepney with sabotage when it was alleged powder had been found in the fuel tank of a F1 car prior to the Monaco Grand Prix on 27 May. Stepney denied allegations that, to most people involved in f1, seemed highly unlikely. Serious though this was, it would be small beer compared with what was to come next.
On 3 July, Ferrari dismissed Stepney, the same day that McLaren became aware their chief designer had been receiving technical information from the Italian team. And so began the so-called Spygate saga that rocked the paddock throughout the British Grand Prix weekend.
Along with journalists Jane Nottage and David Tremayne, I spoke to Stepney in a furtive early morning call from the Silverstone media centre on the Saturday. He said he had been forced to flee Italy after finding tracking gear on his car, his girlfriend and one-year-old daughter having been followed repeatedly. He categorically denied on three separate occasions that he had supplied documents to the McLaren employee. In 2010, an Italian court sentenced Stepney to 20 months in jail, as well as a €600 fine, but a plea bargain meant he did not have to serve any time.
To this day, I don't know the full truth behind the story. I am only sad that the scandal seriously tainted the reputation of a died-in-the-wool racing man highly regarded for his ability to efficiently run a team. Nigel Stepney was a character. I was not alone in liking him a lot.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.