Nigel Stepney, the former F1 chief mechanic and one of the chief players in the sport’s ‘Spygate’ scandal, has been killed in a road accident in the early hours of Friday morning. He was 55 years old and is survived by his partner Ash and their daughter Sabine.
Stepney was struck by a lorry on the M20 motorway in Kent. According to police reports, he parked his van on the hard shoulder, and was hit when he ventured onto the roadway. It is not clear why this happened.
Nigel was a man of great talent, whose illustrious F1 career ultimately came unstuck in the 2007 scandal where he was a central player. The event unearthed some questionable characteristics in a man who, up until that point, had been much admired and respected. While he certainly deserved the criticism he received – and amazingly went rather unpunished – he also argued that his side of the story had never been told.
For many years he had talked about publishing a book telling his side of the story, and these will now be stories that will remain untold.
Nigel was a county-level football player as a youngster before his motorsport career kicked off when he joined the Broadspeed Racing team as an apprentice mechanic. The outfit enjoyed some success preparing cars for the European Touring Car Championship, but the team ultimately ran into financial trouble in the late 1970s, leaving Stepney out of a job.
Aged 21, he joined the Shadow F1 Team as a mechanic and developed a close working relationship with Elio de Angelis, whom he followed to Lotus when the Italian joined the team in 1980. He was promoted as Elio’s chief mechanic and the pair worked together until the end of 1985 when de Angelis moved onto Brabham. Tragically, de Angelis would be killed a few months later in a testing accident at Paul Ricard.
Stepney, meanwhile, switched to the other side of the Lotus garage as Ayrton Senna’s lead ‘spanner’ until the Brazilian moved to McLaren. He then paired up with Nelson Piquet, and moved with the three-time champion to Benetton in 1989.
The pair had a brief flutter running the Piquet Racing Formula 3000 team, and in 1991 Stepney’s big opportunity came: former Benetton designer John Barnard offered him a gig at Ferrari.
Stepney remained with the Italian team for the next decade-and-a-half, becoming chief mechanic, Team Coordinator and then Racing Manager. He earned much praise in developing the almost bulletproof reliability that helped the team and Michael Schumacher dominate the sport in the early to mid-2000s under the technical leadership of Ross Brawn.
Brawn’s departure at the end of 2006 triggered a change in Stepney, who had designs on the burly Englishman’s role and was furious when he was snubbed for the position. The relationship between Stepney and the team rapidly soured, and it proved the trigger for him pinching the technical dossier of the F2007 racer and sending it to McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan.
The pair were trying to shop themselves around to other teams, and while it’s not known exactly how much information from that dossier ultimately found its way to McLaren HQ, there was enough evidence to see the Woking team excluded from the Constructors’ Championship standings and fined a record $100 million.
Stepney himself suggested that Ferrari was trying to set him up, and amid claims of wild car chases and suggestions he’d tried to sabotage the cars on the grid at the Monaco Grand Prix, he was sacked as the details of the spy scandal began to emerge.
His F1 career finished, Stepney later found himself a role with the JRM endurance racing team, helping the outfit take the 2011 FIA GT1 World Championship crown.
The RichardsF1.com team extends its sympathies to Stepney’s family and friends.
Image via Ferrari Media Centre