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 John Briggs.
"We would be blissfully ignorant of all this were it not for a tip-off we received."
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.
- THE INDEPENDENT