Even in its off season, Formula One still manages to find a way to make the headlines. No Formula One drivers are involved here, but reports are running wild that Formula One could be bracing for another spy gate controversy. According to these reports, Mercedez-Benz AG has sued one of its Formula One engineers for allegedly taking confidential data and documents in preparation for a move to Ferrari.

The engineer, identified as Benjamin Hoyle, has incurred the wrath of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, the motorsports division in charge of building the engines used by the Mercedes Petronas team in Formula One, after the team discovered that Hoyle lifted some highly confidential technical documents from the team — including files containing codes that can decrypt raw race data files. The lawsuit was filed in October 19, 2015, five days before the 2015 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Details of the lawsuit only went public on Monday, December 8, 2015. According to the Mercedes lawsuit, Hoyle also took with him mileage and damage data related to Mercedes’ F1 engines and a race report from the 2015 Hungary Grand Prix that was won by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Hoyle’s contract with Mercedes was set to expire at the end of 2015 after the engineer told the team that he would be resigning his post once his contract expired. The team found out later on that the engineer would be joining Ferrari, so it took the necessary measures to ensure that Hoyle couldn’t get access to confidential racing and technical documents. It was only after these steps were done that the team reported seeing Hoyle looking at race reports and confidential data after that access was taken away from him.

Mercedes is looking to retrieve all of the documents and information Hoyle allegedly stole, in addition to the payment of its legal fees. The team is also seeking to have Hoyle banned from joining Ferrari or any other Formula One team until after the 2016 season.

For its part, Ferrari admitted that it had talks with Hoyle about joining the team, but a company spokesman told Bloomberg that the engineer has never signed a contract with the team and isn’t going on board “in the foreseeable future”.

Continue reading for the full story.

Why it matters

If this whole episode sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Back in 2007, a similar spying controversy involving McLaren and Ferrari sunk its claws in Formula One, resulting in McLaren getting fined an incredible $100 million and disqualified from the 2007 Constructors’ Championship. Nigel Stepney, Ferrari’s chief mechanic at that time, was the central figure in complaints made by Ferrari, alleging that Stepney passed along confidential technical information to the McLaren Formula One team. The allegations eventually became the subject of a long drawn-out legal battle in Italy and an FIA investigation that resulted in McLaren getting slapped with the aforementioned penalties.

Now, history is repeating itself as Mercedes has taken serious legal action against one of its employees who they believe to have knowingly lifted these highly classified technical documents with intent to share them with Ferrari. Knowing how secretive Formula One teams are with their engine development, Mercedes is well within its rights to be aggrieved by this situation. Remember, Mercedes and Ferrari are two of only four companies that supply engines to the sport. The other two are Renault and Honda. Even the tiniest technological advantage could make the difference between having a championship-caliber engine and a middling engine. It just so happened that over the past two seasons, Mercedes’ engines have been the class of the sport, propelling Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton to two straight world championships.

I’m not saying that what Hoyle allegedly did was right, but if there ever was a team to look at in terms of engine development in the sport, it’s Mercedes. That’s a big reason why the team is pursuing any and all avenues it has to keep these classified documents from falling into the hands of its competitors.

As for Ferrari, the team is understandably distancing itself from the controversy right now by denying any agreement it had with Hoyle that would see him move to Maranello in 2016. It’s the right move to make at this point, but the company also knows that it has to be careful with the steps it takes in the course of this legal battle. If it’s determined that Hoyle’s resignation from Mercedes is tied into him moving to Ferrari, the Italian Formula One team could be implicated and be slapped with penalties that are just as harsh as the ones McLaren received eight years ago.

In any event, it looks like this Formula One off season will be dominated by Spygate II.

Source: Bloomberg

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