Italian magistrate to question McLaren bosses

LONDON Thu Feb 7, 2008 2:01pm GMT

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LONDON (Reuters) - A prosecutor has asked McLaren boss Ron Dennis and other key figures in the Formula One team to face questioning in Italy as part of a legal probe into last year's spying controversy over leaked Ferrari data.

McLaren confirmed on Thursday that their lawyers "had received some papers from the Modena authorities which are currently being reviewed".

The team gave no details but Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper reported on Wednesday that magistrate Giuseppe Tibis intended to hear Dennis, chief executive Martin Whitmarsh, suspended chief designer Mike Coughlan and engineering director Paddy Lowe on February 18.

Former Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney was also on the list, the newspaper added, but McLaren employees Jonathan Neale and Rob Taylor were not because the magistrates did not have their home addresses in England.

There was no immediate confirmation from the prosecutor and Tibis's office said he was on holiday.

The McLaren men were notified during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September that they were under investigation as part of enquiries into the leak of a 780-page technical dossier from rivals Ferrari.

SEVEN PEOPLE

Italian media said at the time that Dennis was one of seven people to receive an "avviso di garanzia" from the prosecutor in Modena, a legal notification that the person is suspected of a crime and is being investigated.

McLaren suspended Coughlan in July after the Ferrari technical information was found in a search of his home in England.

Champions Ferrari accuse Stepney, who has been dismissed by the team, of sending him the material. McLaren have denied benefiting from the data.

Tibis has already interviewed McLaren's former driver Fernando Alonso, the double world champion who left McLaren for Renault at the end of last season, and Spanish test driver Pedro de la Rosa.

Ferrari originally accused Stepney of attempted sabotage after a mysterious white powder was allegedly found around the fuel caps of their cars before the Monaco Grand Prix in May last year. Tibis subsequently broadened the investigation to include the McLaren employees.

The governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) drew a line under the spy saga as far as the sport was concerned when it declared the matter closed in December.

McLaren, who were fined $100 million (51.5 million pounds) and stripped of all their constructors' points in September, apologised and acknowledged the Ferrari data had penetrated deeper into the team than they had suspected.

Despite the sporting closure, Ferrari said they would continue legal action against individuals in Britain and Italy.

(Additional reporting by Mark Meadows in Milan)

(Editing by Ken Ferris)

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