LONDON • Mercedes is taking legal action against one of their top engineers, as the race to beat the most dominant team in Formula One history switches to the backroom brains.
Echoing the infamous "Spygate" case that rocked F1 in 2007 when McLaren were fined US$100 million (S$141 million) for handling confidential documents belonging to Ferrari, Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, sister company of the F1 team, has filed a legal claim in the London High Court against one of the key engineers at the centre of developing the team's world-beating hybrid engine.
Benjamin Hoyle was to join Ferrari after the expiry of his Mercedes contract at the end of this month, but Mercedes are now trying to block his appointment after alleging that the engineer saved files and data from the Hungarian Grand Prix this season, which was, ironically, won by Sebastian Vettel, the Ferrari driver.
The scientists, technologists and designers behind the 320kmh cars in F1 are as much in demand as the top drivers.
Brain drain in F1
• Ferrari pulled off the greatest heist of top staff in F1 history in 1996 when they hired Ross Brawn, technical director; Rory Byrne, chief designer; and Nigel Stepney, chief mechanic, from Benetton.
• The Scuderia failed to lure Red Bull's chief designer Adrian Neweylast year, despite offering him £23 million (S$49 million).
• Mercedes built the strongest technical team in F1, hiring Aldo Costa, Ferrari's chief designer; Bob Bell, former Renault team principal; Geoff Willis, former Honda technical director; and Paddy Lowe, McLaren's technical director.
• McLaren recruited Peter Prodromou, an aerodynamicist and Newey's right-hand man at Red Bull, on a multi- million-pound salary.
THE TIMES, LONDON
As Mercedes have swept up two consecutive world championships, finishing 275 points ahead of second-placed Ferrari in this year's constructors' championship, the Italian team have led the charge to raid rivals to get the best brains.
Adrian Newey, the chief designer of the Red Bull cars that won four consecutive world championships, rejected an offer of a £23 million annual salary to switch to Maranello last year.
James Allison, the former technical director at Lotus, was hired to take charge of the Scuderia's technical operations and he has brought in Jock Clear, Nico Rosberg's former race engineer at Mercedes.
Top staff are paid in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, but the best can command millions.
The secret of Mercedes' success lies in the Brixworth engine factory in Northamptonshire, England.
The Mercedes engine has outpaced rivals for two years and Ferrari are desperate to catch up before the start of next season, which would make luring the best engineers at Brixworth a priority.
Hoyle, who has worked for the Subaru World Rally Team and the Cosworth engine-maker, became a target as one of four team leaders at Mercedes since joining them in 2012.
When Mercedes discovered Hoyle was going to Ferrari, they reassigned him to new duties away from F1, while key data was removed from his laptop, according to a report by Bloomberg.
Hoyle is expected to deny the allegations - filed at the Queen's Bench division of the London High Court in October - by Mercedes who say that he saved confidential data and indulged in "actions calculated to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust", the lawsuit reportedly claims.
Mercedes are seeking the return of all documents and information, payment of legal fees and want to stop Hoyle, who intends to defend the claim, from joining Ferrari or any other rival until after 2016.
Hoyle has refused comment.
Ferrari said yesterday that they never had any contract with him.
"There were talks but nothing led to a formal contract. He's not even going to join us in the foreseeable future," a spokesman for the Italian team said. "It's not true that he was on the verge of joining us. What he did concerns only him and the company he was working for. We are not involved in this."
THE TIMES, LONDON, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS