Bizarre tale of the F1 engine, missing plans and former Stasi agents

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The Independent Online

Perhaps when the top flight of motor sport abbreviated its name to F1, it should have expected people with an interest in computer keyboards to find it irresistible.

The extent to which the two have overlapped, however, became apparent yesterday when the Benetton team claimed former East German secret service hackers had stolen its plans for a multimillion-pound new engine.

According to Jean-Jacques His, the technical director for Renault, which owns the Benetton team, former members of the Stasi had hacked into the team's computers and downloaded information about a new engine Renault hopes will revive its flagging fortunes in international competition.

When the discovery was made a year ago, Renault called in the French Secret Service to help. Computer specialists traced the hacking back to the former East Germany and came to the conclusion that former Stasi officers were most probably the culprits.

"We discovered in July last year that some of the data from the design of the engine had gone," said Mr His. "Someone had got into the system. We did not believe it at first, but then we were shown what information had gone missing.

"We had expert investigations and we are certain that it was done by someone from outside. It has been traced back to Germany – we think to people who used to work for the Stasi. There are a lot of them out of work now trying to make a profit with their skills.

"We had to change direction in certain areas of the design, but I am 99 per cent certain there is nothing on the engine now that others could have seen."

Renault is very protective of its engines. During the 1990s it provided the propulsion for the Britons Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, the Frenchman Alain Prost, the German Michael Schumacher and the Canadian Jacques Villeneuve to win F1 world championships.

Formula One teams have become increasingly paranoid about espionage in recent years, even resorting to hiding cars behind screens before and after races. The concern is that unscrupulous motor sport enthusiasts might try to take pictures of engines or aerodynamics that would be worth something to the opposition. This, however, is thought to be the first time hacking has been used to gain an advantage.

Sir Frank Williams, owner of the Williams team, said: "To find one-tenth of a second out of a car these days you easily spend half a million pounds. Seeing half a million quid taking a trip down the pit-lane is not very funny."