By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - The Mercedes Formula One team is taking legal action against an engineer alleged to have downloaded sensitive performance data before he was due to join rivals Ferrari.
"A legal action is underway involving Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains (HPP) Limited and an employee who is due to leave the company at the end of the year," said a team spokesman on Tuesday.
"The company has taken the appropriate legal steps to protect its intellectual property."
The BBC identified the employee as Benjamin Hoyle. HPP design, build and supply the team's power units.
Mercedes have been dominant in Formula One since the introduction last year of the new V6 turbo hybrid power units that replaced the old V8 engines.
Britain's Lewis Hamilton, now a triple champion, has won the last two drivers' titles while Mercedes this year retained the constructors' crown they won in 2014.
Ferrari have been their closest rivals, winning three grands prix and closing the performance gap noticeably this year after failing to win a race in 2014. They aim to be much more competitive in 2016.
Mercedes this year supplied engines to Williams, Force India and Lotus, although the latter team are due to become Renault-powered next year with tail-enders Manor Marussia set to switch from Ferrari to Mercedes.
Key figures in Formula One teams are usually put on lengthy periods of 'gardening leave' when they hand in their notice to ensure they do not take technical information with them.
Jock Clear, Hamilton's former performance engineer at Mercedes, started at Maranello as head of engineering only recently after Ferrari announced a year ago that he would be joining them.
Formula One was rocked by a spy scandal in 2007 when a 780-page dossier of sensitive Ferrari technical information was found in the possession of then-McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan.
Coughlan was sacked by McLaren while Ferrari dismissed Nigel Stepney, the engineer accused of passing the information to him, in what became known as 'Spygate'.
McLaren were subsequently handed a record $100 million fine, although they ultimately paid less, and the loss of all their constructors' points that year, a move that secured Ferrari the championship.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)