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Sacked Ferrari staffer was a McLaren spy


London : McLaren are embroiled in a spying row following claims that one of their leading staff illegally received information from arch-rivals Ferrari.

McLaren suspended a "senior member" of their design team after learning he had "personally received technical information from a Ferrari employee", reports BBC on its website.

The man in question is understood to be chief designer Mike Coughlan.

The move came after Ferrari sacked former team manager Nigel Stepney following an internal investigation.

Ferrari believes Stepney stole parts and gave technical information to rivals.

Italian police are investigating Stepney after Ferrari filed a formal complaint with the Modena district attorney, although no charges have been brought.

"We have proof that Stepney had been supplying technical information to a McLaren employee," a Ferrari spokesman said.

"A search was carried out of the (McLaren) engineer's house, where we found this information," he added.

"This is a very serious situation. We are talking about a lot of information being given to a prominent McLaren engineer. We are not talking about rumours or speculation."

A McLaren statement said: "McLaren became aware on July 3, 2007 that a senior member of its technical organisation was the subject of a Ferrari investigation regarding the receipt of technical information.

"The team has learnt that this individual had personally received a package of technical information from a Ferrari employee at the end of April.

"While McLaren has no involvement in the matter and condemns such actions it will fully cooperate with any investigation. The individual has in the meantime been suspended by the company pending a full and proper investigation of the matter."

Coughlan and Stepney worked together at the Benetton team in the early 1990s and later at Ferrari's old UK design studio, which was based in Surrey until 1997.

Stepney has said Ferrari is waging a "dirty tricks campaign" against him.

His lawyer said last month: "Nigel wishes to make clear that he has nothing to do with this and is not guilty of anything."

The development is highly embarrassing for McLaren, whose boss Ron Dennis periodically points out the nefariousness of rivals who he claims have been caught trying to spy on the team.

McLaren and Ferrari have a long and difficult relationship, and there is an atmosphere of mutual distrust between the two outfits.

The situation may also prove a distraction from McLaren's attempt to win the British Grand Prix this weekend and strengthen their lead in the world championship over Ferrari.

McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton is 14 points clear of teammate Fernando Alonso in the title chase, with Ferrari drivers Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen three and five points behind the Spaniard.

Stepney joined Ferrari from Benetton in 1992 as chief mechanic, rising to the post of race and test technical manager during the team's period of domination between 2000 and 2004.

He moved to a factory-based role earlier this year after voicing his dissatisfaction over the direction of the team following Michael Schumacher's retirement and Ross Brawn stepping down as technical director.