Some obituaries are easy to write, others are more difficult. Nigel Stepney’s story is likely to end up being contentious because he was man of many talents and much energy but he also had some major flaws. He ended up being famous for all the wrong reasons and while he deserved some of the criticism, he felt that the true story had not been told.
Nigel was killed in a road accident on the M20 motorway near Ashford in Kent in the early hours of this morning. He was 55. According to police reports, he parked his van on the hard shoulder of the motorway and was hit by a lorry when he ventured into the roadway. It is not clear why this happened.
Stepney grew up in the town of Southam, near Coventry and played football for the Warwickshire county team before becoming an apprentice mechanic with the Coventry-based Broadspeed Racing team when he was still in his teens. Broadspeed, run by Ralph Broad, prepared some of the most successful touring cars of the era, notably Ford Capris and Jaguars for the European Touring Car Championship. The team ran into financial trouble in the late 1970s and so Stepney looked for another job in racing and at the age of 21 joined the Shadow F1 in Northampton as a mechanic. He developed a close working relationship with rising star Elio de Angelis and followed the Italian to Team Lotus in 1980. Stepney became chief mechanic on de Angelis’s car and the two worked together until Elio moved to Brabham in 1986. He was killed later that year in a testing accident at Paul Ricard. Stepney had not followed de Angelis to Brabham and instead worked with Ayrton Senna for the next two years. After Senna moved to McLaren in 1988 Stepney stayed on at Lotus for the season and then moved to Benetton where he worked with Nelson Piquet. Three years later Piquet suggested that they work together to create a Formula 3000 team called Piquet Racing, running a young Monaco driver called Olivier Beretta. The team was not a success but at the end of the 1991 season Stepney was offered a job by John Barnard, with whom he had worked at Benetton, and Nigel went to Italy to try to put some structure into the Ferrari racing team. He remained a key player after Barnard was replaced by Ross Brawn and remained team coordinator until 2001, playing a vital role in ensuring that Ferrari’s reliability was as good as its rivals. At the start of 2001 he was promoted to the position of Racing Manager, and one of the clan of non-Italians who made Ferrari the great team it was with Michael Schumacher.
He was very highly paid in this role and in this period he began to develop bigger ambitions that were perhaps rather too elevated. He felt that he would have been a good successor to Brawn and was unhappy when he was not even considered for the post when Brawn left the team at the end of 2006. Relationships soured rapidly and Stepney later said that one of the reasons that he gave some information to McLaren was because he did not like the ethos of the racing team after Brawn had departed. At the same time it was clear that Nigel was trying to get himself a much bigger job elsewhere and offered his services – and those of designer Mike Coughlan – to other teams. The reality was that he also gave Coughlan a huge amount of Ferrari information, which the latter kept at his home. It is arguable whether McLaren knew the extent of the information that Coughlan had.
The relationship between Stepney and Ferrari got uglier that season. Nigel believed he was being set up and claimed that there were car chases, tracking devices and private detectives involved. After Monaco there was a very bizarre incident in which Stepney was accused of having tried to sabotage the Ferrari team in Monaco. Nigel denied the claims, pointing out that the story made no sense at all. In July 2007 he was fired as the spy scandal developed.
Stepney went on to work in GT racing with JRM and the cars he was running won the 2011 FIA GT1 World Championship,
“From the moment Nigel joined JRM in 2010, he was a vitally important member of the team and brought a level of engineering experience to us that was unrivalled,” James Rumsey said in a statement. “A man that engineered Ayrton Senna at Lotus and helped to guide Michael Schumacher to five Formula One world championships with Ferrari was the perfect candidate to establish JRM as a serious team in circuit-based motorsport and the role that he played in achieving that standard will never be underestimated or forgotten. Nigel was an intense and fierce competitor and always strived for excellence in our racing. We certainly could not have achieved our level of success without his leadership and experience. Away from the track, he was a focused, driven and passionate member of the JRM Group, and a loving father to his family. The rest of the engineering and race team here at JRM learned an unimaginable amount from Nigel in the four short years he was with us and his death this morning has shocked everyone to the core. Today, the motorsport world has lost one of its greatest characters and competitors. He will be sorely missed and we send our sincere condolences to his family and the many friends he leaves behind.”
Nigel is survived by his partner Ash and daughter Sabine. He also leaves Laura, Cassie and Josh, three older children from a previous marriage.
For many years Nigel talked about publishing a book telling his side of the 2007 scandal but that never happened. It is a shame in many ways as a lot of what was going on that year was not as it seemed.