In all the excitement over the title race, it’s easy to overlook a more technical story involving more than half the grid. In a cheating row, Racing Point has been accused of copying Mercedes parts in a way that unfairly benefits the team. Now that appeals have been launched, the story is likely to linger on, and prompt wider questions about how much one team can borrow designs from another.
The row essentially boils down to a question of regulations. Until this season, it was legal for one F1 team to buy brake duct designs from another, but they have now been added to a tally of listed parts which must be designed in-house. This is due to their “enormous aerodynamic effect”, and is the list of parts is one of the ways the governing body ensures F1 remains a constructor’s series.
Racing Point were in an awkward situation – the car already had the designs from Mercedes, and used them on last year’s car. They couldn’t just forget the ducts, and they couldn’t build a new car from scratch.
What we have, then, is a case where the regulation changes affected something that was already in effect – the Racing Point car. The stewards who looked at the case acknowledged an “absence of specific guidance or clarification” from the sport’s governing body, the FIA. The body itself admitted that “the regulations are not black and white in this area and, therefore, open to interpretation”.
Racing Point were fined €400,000 and docked 15 points
This judgement was not upheld, however. Following a protest by Renault after the Styrian Grand Prix, it was concluded that Racing Point was in the wrong – by using Mercedes drawings, the team had been able to shortcut the design of a listed part, thereby allowing it to use those design resources elsewhere and potentially gain an advantage over rivals.
Racing Point were fined €400,000 and docked 15 points in the constructors’ championship, but they have been allowed to continue using the brake ducts because it is not feasible to replace him. This ruling has led to appeals on both sides of the argument.
Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Williams are unhappy that Racing Point is able to continue using the brake ducts and, on a more general level, that the entire car is essentially a copy of the 2019 Mercedes. Racing Point say they achieved this through analysing photographs, but there’s a lot of scepticism that this is possible to such an extent.
Are we allowed to copy, or not, an entire concept?
– Mattia Binotto
Before Ferrari made their intentions to challenge clear, team principal Mattia Binotto said: “One thing that is important is that it has somehow been clarified that there has been a breach of regulation. That is the starting point. Obviously, that is relative to the braking ducts, but there is an entire concept behind, which is about copying. Are we allowed to copy, or not, an entire concept? But the two things need to be split. On the braking duct there is a breach of regulation – that is a fact and it has been clarified. Is the penalty sufficient or not?”
McLaren Racing chief executive officer Zak Brown said: “My initial reactions are that Racing Point has been found guilty and I am concerned that they still have those… what were deemed illegal in Austria on the race car now. That is confusing for the fans, how something that is not legal in Austria is still on the car. This is, potentially, the top of the iceberg, the starting point of looking at what’s happened here, because I don’t think it’s healthy for the sport.”
On the other side of the aisle, Racing Point had lodged an appeal to clear their team’s name. Team principal Otmar Szafnaeur said: “We need to appeal it because we stayed completely within the regulations for sporting ad technical, and we need to clear our name. We shouldn’t be losing 15 points; we shouldn’t be charged €400,000 – we did absolutely nothing wrong. We shouldn’t forget that we did not get a part from Mercedes at all. We didn’t shortcut the process, we didn’t gain any manufacturing time, we didn’t gain any money by buying parts.
“So we’ve always designed our own brake ducts. The thing that is a conundrum here is that now it’s a listed part. So, the information that in 2018 we purchased [the parts] from Mercedes is now looking backwards – people are saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t have been able to purchase that.’ But in 2018, it wasn’t even contemplated, this thing becoming a listed part. So, what we did is completely legal, completely right.”
They are dragging our name through the mud and I will not accept this
– Lawrence Stroll
The team’s owner, Lawrence Stroll, said he was “angry” and the accusations of cheating, stating they were “completely unacceptable and not true”. In a public statement, he said: “I am appalled by the way Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Williams have taken this opportunity to appeal, and in doing so attempted to detract from our performances. They are dragging our name through the mud and I will not stand by nor accept this.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff offered his thoughts on the ruling. He said: “The verdict that came out today is extremely complicated. It comes up with an interpretation that is new – new to all of us. We have provided certain data in 2019, which was totally within the rules. The rule came in place for the 2020 season. So you were allowed to supply drawings and data in 2018, it was permitted.”
He added: “I don’t think the brake ducts are the reason that they suddenly compete for the first six positions. I think it’s a splendid engineering team there that has extracted the most from the regulations. I think we can have the debate or ‘do we want this going forward?’ in terms of having copies of whole cars.”
The appeals are set to go ahead soon – they will cast a long shadow over this F1 season, and the eventual rulings could have a longer-term impact on the sport. Legal disputes may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but the way this one will shape F1 cannot be understated.