After taking initial testimony today, the High Court in London has adjourned until tomorrow the hearing on Ferrari’s request for a permanent injunction barring Mike Coughlan, chief engineer of Formula One rival McLaren, from disclosing Ferrari proprietary information to anyone. A large number of secret Ferrari documents were found last week when Coughlan’s British residence was searched, after a Ferrari fan employed at a photocopying shop tipped Ferrari officials to Coughlan’s possession of them.
Reports on the reasons for the delay were somewhat contradictory, but it appears that the primary basis for the adjournment was Coughlan’s desire to obtain more legal advice about his rights against self-incrimination. The implication is that Coughlan was surprised by some of the information presented by Ferrari, and is concerned that his participation in the current civil lawsuit by Ferrari could adversely affect his ability to defend potential criminal charges. Ferrari has said is intends to institute criminal proceedings in Italy against Coughlan and Nigel Stepney, Ferrari’s former director of development and the man some think passed the stolen documents to Coughlan.
Despite the adjournment, there were some additional facts which came out at the court hearing.
The documents in question numbered 780 pages, and included technical drawings. It was not Coughlan who took them to be duplicated: it was his wife, Trudy, who ran that errand. In light of the recovery of the documents from Coughlan’s residence, he has apparently been ordered to pay for the costs of that search.
But the most fascinating revelation was this: it is being claimed that McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale knew that Coughlan had the purloined Ferrari papers.
In a statement made yesterday, a Ferrari spokesman strongly implied that Ferrari would challenge past race results in Formula One, should there be an indication that McLaren obtained the information which Coughlan possessed and used it. McLaren has been denying any knowledge of Coughlan’s conduct and has repeatedly asserted that it is innocent of any wrong-doing.
Should it prove that Neale knew what was going on, the FIA is going to be in a very difficult position. Even if it cannot be established that McLaren used information illegally obtained from Ferrari, it will also be unlikely that McLaren can prove it didn’t. Left with that conundrum, the FIA may be faced with imposing penalties that establish the sanctioning body values principles over results.
But the worst problem for the FIA is time. There is no way of predicting how long legal proceedings in England and Italy may take. When Ayrton Senna was killed at Monza, Italian authorities tried to pin the blame on Williams’ technical director Patrick Head and chief designer Adrian Newey. In the end, both were acquitted, only to have an Italian court reinstate the charges. By the time this Byzantine and torturous Italian legal system has finally worn itself out, with both of the defendants exonerated, at least five years had been consumed in the process.
The FIA can’t wait that long, if McLaren wins the season, to decide whether it won it legally.