The all-conquering F1 team have filed court papers against one of the key engineers engaged in developing their world-beating engine

Mercedes are threatening one of their top engineers with legal action as the race to beat the most dominant team in Formula One history switches to the backroom brains.

In an echo of the infamous “Spygate” case that rocked F1 in 2007 when McLaren were fined $100 million (about £62 million) for handling confidential documents belonging to Ferrari, Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains Ltd, sister company of the F1 team, has filed a legal claim in the High Court against one of the key engineers at the centre of developing the team’s world-beating hybrid engine, according to Bloomberg news agency.

Benjamin Hoyle was to join Ferrari after the expiry of his Mercedes contract at the end of this month, but Mercedes are 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 200mph cars in F1 are as much in demand as the top drivers. 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 championships, rejected an offer of a £23 million annual salary to switch to Maranello last year. James Allison, former technical director at Lotus, was hired to head the Scuderia’s technical operation 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. 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 of the Mercedes claim by the Bloomberg.

Hoyle is expected to deny the allegations — filed at the Queen’s Bench division of the 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 the 2016 season, Bloomberg adds.

The Times has been unable to contact Hoyle for comment, but a Mercedes statement confirmed: “Legal action is under way involving Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains Ltd and an employee. The company has taken the appropriate legal steps to protect its intellectual property.”

Brain drain in F1
• Ferrari pulled off the greatest heist of top staff in F1 history when in 1996 they hired Ross Brawn, technical director; Rory Byrne, chief designer, and Nigel Stepney, chief mechanic, from Benetton

• The Scuderia failed to lure Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s chief designer, in 2014 despite offering him £23 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; Paddy Lowe, McLaren’s technical director, whose salary at Mercedes is estimated at £5 million

• McLaren recruited Peter Prodromou, an aerodynamicist and Newey’s right-hand man at Red Bull, on a multimillion-pound salary