“Things may have happened below our radar”: Why the FIA needed new powers to keep F1 teams honest

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Last year’s ‘photocopier’ case, which saw Racing Point (now Aston Martin) heavily penalised for duplicating Mercedes rear brake duct design, sent shockwaves through the sport, for the verdict and subsequent regulation changes clearly defined the levels of permissible technical co-operation between teams.

The team had taken the art of copying – excuse the oxymoron – to new heights, effectively building a replica of a Mercedes, allegedly by way of various photographic technologies. The long-term implications for the sport were potentially massive had a ‘not guilty’ verdict been handed down: how long before the F1 grid consisted of two originals and anything up to 18 (or more) copies?

Copying in F1 is, of course, not new. Back in the sixties a number of replica Coopers and Brabhams (dis)graced grand prix grids. In 1978 the London High Court found that the Arrows FA1 was effectively a copy of a Shadow’s DN9 – no surprise given the engineering team had defected from the latter team to the former. More recently, McLaren’s 2007 ‘spygate’ controversy saw the team fined $100m for using Ferrari’s intellectual property.

The legal sharing of components moved up a gear in 2009 when Force India (precursor to Racing Point and thus Aston Martin) signed a rear-end supply deal with McLaren, for effectively a full Mercedes powertrain, including gearbox, which permits the use of out-sourced rear suspension components, in turn facilitating similar geometries. This transferred to Mercedes when the company entered F1 in its own right.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Force India, Spa, 2009
Force India began using Mercedes hardware in 2009
Haas shifted the out-sourcing process into overdrive by taking it a step further by sourcing permitted components (see ‘non-listed’ parts below) from Ferrari, with Dallara producing the rest. Then, as revealed here in December last year, Ferrari has established a design office in Maranello specifically to supply Haas with technical and design services.

Modern technologies have made full-on one-on-one replicas the work of a relative moment. The flipside is developing new car designs for each new season is horrifically costly, hence previous budgets of $400 million (without engines). So F1’s regulators permit (and, in certain areas, encourage) co-operation between teams. However, ‘reverse engineering’ via photocopying was never the intention, nor is it in the spirit of the sport.

Listed team components (LTCs) – those parts to which teams are required by the regulations to hold the design rights – are defined as the monocoque, survival cell, front impact structures, roll over structures, bodywork, wings, floor, diffuser, and – from 2020 – brake ducts. Note: front and rear suspension components are not included; thus these may be shared or copied.

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The sharing of ‘non-listed’ parts – to which teams need not hold the IP – among teams under current regulations has resulted in a number of technical alliances: ‘in-house’ as that between Red Bull Racing and sister AlphaTauri; the Mercedes/Aston Martin deal (there are shareholder links), or the straight-forward design and sourcing agreements as prevails between Ferrari and Haas.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2008
FIA studied 2008 McLaren closely after ‘Spygate’ controversy
In addition, Ferrari supplies Alfa Romeo’s Sauber-run team with ‘complete rear ends’, while Williams has signed a 2022-onwards deal with Mercedes transmissions to complement its (existing) Mercedes contract.

That ultimately means eight out of 10 teams have some form of alliance – Mercedes with two partners, Ferrari the same, and Red Bull/AlphaTauri. Alpine (formerly Renault) and McLaren the odd ones out. McLaren sources Mercedes power units, but draws on its own transmission and full suspension designs – and thus shares no geometries with Mercedes.

Despite the brake duct verdict there are, however, concerns that data and methodology could potentially be shared within the respective three groups. In particular, the sharing and exchange of consultancy services, set-up and run data, strategies and the methodologies of operating cars with shared components to the detriment of the two ‘independents’.

The issue was first raised by Renault in a request for clarification – a copy of which was seen at the time by RaceFans – to the FIA in August last year, shortly after the brake duct verdict was handed down. The FIA duly responded in late October – the elapsed time seemingly pointing to the complexity of the matter – with its reply circulated to all teams under the guise of TD43/20.

The technical directive, details of which were shared with RaceFans, outlines exactly what is (or not) permitted, with, for example, the FIA stating that the sharing of data – more specifically tyre modelling, contact patch force, thermal dynamics, wear characteristics and tyre shape/deformation is “not acceptable”, even where teams share the same software.

Alpine alerted the FIA to the problem of data-sharing last year
Also deemed “not acceptable” is the sharing of ride heights, yaw, steer, roll, exhaust-blowing, tyre shapes (with the exception of data provided by the tyre supplier) plus a host of additional data, including LTC dimensions and geometries. This listing is by no means complete, but these extracts illustrate the extent of the challenge facing the FIA in controlling the flow of data between teams.

The five team bosses present in Friday’s FIA press conference expressed their confidence in the governing body’s controls when asked to comment by RaceFans. “We’re confident the FIA will monitor [the situation] very closely and will make sure that the rules are executed as they should be,” said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown.

However, he added, “We’re an independent team [and] are of the view that everyone should be a constructor. There is obviously the ability to collaborate, but we just have to have our trust in the FIA; that they’ll monitor the situation and make sure the rules are followed accordingly.”

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner added: “Last year we saw the regulations stretched to the limit of what’s feasible and what isn’t, and I think the FIA are acutely aware and again, as the governing body, you have to trust in them to police [it] accordingly.

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“The FIA need to be on top of ensuring that no team artificially benefits through that of a customer or affiliate or associate team. It’s something we at Red Bull take very seriously, and the relationship with AlphaTauri has scrupulous discipline to how we operate, respectful of those rules. Of course you trust in the governing body to police those and enforce those accordingly.”

Concerns over teams’ data use surfaced during testing
However, despite expressions of confidence in the governing body, concerns remain that some areas – particularly with respect to set-up and car run data – may not be totally controllable. A number of team personnel privately shared their doubts with RaceFans during and after testing. For the avoidance of doubt, these concerns were aired by personnel from both inside and outside teams with alliances.

Clearly, then, there is a potential issue, certainly in the opinion of a senior team member, who told RaceFans: “[Team X] continue to get suspension geometry data from [supplying Team Y] and [Team Z from Team A]. The fans and FIA are being fooled to believe there are 10 constructors on the grid.

“This is only the tip of the ‘copying iceberg,” he concluded.

Then on the Friday of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend the stewards issued Document 15, which announced: “In order to complete deeper technical checks of cars in the championship, the technical delegate will routinely and randomly select one car at each event following the race for deeper disassembly, conformity checks and checks of software and systems.”

The document continued, “Additional checks may also be carried out on the competitor’s other car,” concluding with, “The stewards emphasize that while this is a new procedure in this championship, it is routinely carried out in other FIA world championships and competitions.”

On Friday evening the FIA’s head of single seater technical matters Nikolas Tombazis met with a select group of journalists – including RaceFans – in the circuit’s ‘mix zone’ to outline the rationale and methodology of the random checks.

“All teams are deeply suspicious of their competitors, that maybe team X or Y is doing something,” he said. “I’m sure that on occasion, maybe some things may have happened below our radar.”

He stressed that there are no existing suspicions but added: “It’s good practice to start checking the cars a bit more thoroughly. We had to inform the teams in advance [of checks] because there are a few things that need to be organised in order to do it properly.”

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
Mercedes were first to experience the FIA’s rigorous new checks
Tombazis told the group that the first car to be checked had already been selected via a random [number drawn from a hat] process, although he was obviously not at liberty to divulge which entry had been selected. (In the event was Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes, which was cleared after the checks.)

“That car will be fast-tracked through the platform and weighed so that it’s back at the team’s garage as soon as possible,” Tombazis explained.

“There [will be] two or three people from the FIA there to start with, and the teams will have to follow a step-by-step process. The FIA people will finish the [usual] post-race [checks] and join them. We will start with two or three and end up with five or six people there,” he revealed, adding, “We have increased our resource a bit in order for us to improve and do things better.

“Sometimes we’ve wanted to do a better job and we haven’t had the resource. Yes, we still rely on whistle-blowers, there’s always that mechanism, so everything that has happened in the past is still possible. But we think [this is] giving an extra little element.”

Although mainly a technical inspection, Tombazis said information thus obtained could also assist the governing body in auditing compliance with the financial regulations, aka ‘budget cap’.

“We would be doing this work anyway, unrelated to the cost cap,” he said. “Teams have to declare in their cost cap the inventory they use. A car has 15,000 pieces on it and we can’t check 15,000 pieces. But we can check 50 random components are on the list, and keep them honest in that way.

“So there’s an element of cost-cap related check, but the primary focus is a technical check.”

The latest checks should eliminate some of the paddock distrust, although sources are doubtful whether such random checks will reveal any set-up or data sharing. However, increasingly stringent controls can only benefit the sport in the long run, particularly as 2022’s regulations permit increased component sharing – and thus potential for data sharing. The issue is to ensure it does not unfairly penalise the independents.

“There will be some infrastructure that’s being shared within the regulations and obviously that creates the positive effect of economies of scale, [of] revenue streams for the bigger teams and fantastic state-of-the-art facilities for the other teams,” Mercedes Motorsport CEO Toto Wolff told RaceFans in Bahrain.

Sergio Perez, Racing Point, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
Analysis: Is any team prepared to resist the ‘rise of the clones’?
“But we equally recognise a situation like McLaren [and Alpine] has, that this needs to be, in a way, ring-fenced in terms of the regulations, so there’s absolute clarity what’s on and what’s not.”

The governing body has no easy job for it is tasked with monitoring 10 teams who employ amongst the brightest engineers on the planet, each of whom is (highly) paid to find legal loopholes in the (extremely complex) regulations that pertain to those 15,000 parts. The FIA’s task is further complicated by a constant flow of ever-more sophisticated technologies and compounded by acute levels of paranoia amongst teams.

Paranoia is, of course, one thing but incontrovertible proof of cheating is a different matter entirely. The good news is that the FIA has increased its ‘policing’ resources, and hopefully prevention turns out to be better than the need for high-profile punishment. Regular cross-referencing of operating data across allied teams – on a similarly random basis – should put to rest all suspicions, and above all, “keep them honest.”

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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Posted on Categories 2021 F1 season articles, Feature, RacingLines

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  • 31 comments on ““Things may have happened below our radar”: Why the FIA needed new powers to keep F1 teams honest”

    1. Most of the outcry (as per the “turn 4” “debate”) is because those shouting loudest have a vested interest & appear to either not have sufficient work ethic to remind themselves of the rules or are trying to game the system.

      Racing Point shot themselves in the foot last year with the blatant Mercedes “roundel” nosecone; I doubt anyone would have noticed otherwise. Looks like they’ve had their just desserts (or “deserts” if it’s Bahrain-only; rolls eyes) with the performance this year.

      Arrows cars pre-c. 1990 were not “FA”, just “A”. Amazing how this error has lasted many times longer than Footwork’s F1 involvement.

      Was Bahrain a great race? I may have to re-calibrate my expectations.

      1. Not George

        Racing Point shot themselves in the foot last year with the blatant Mercedes “roundel” nosecone; I doubt anyone would have noticed otherwise.

        I think the dramatic improvement in performance would have given it away, performance that could not be attributed to the brake ducts.

        1. Dieter ask:
          : how long before the F1 grid consisted of two originals and anything up to 18 (or more) copies?

          Answer:
          Next year
          As rules dictate

          Reply moderated
          1. If Racing Point’s pre-2020 spiel was anything to go by, they were surprised something close to it hadn’t happened at some point in the late 2010s (although theirs was more like “2 originals, 10 copies and 8 cars too skint to attempt copying”).

      2. Totally agree about the round nosecone. Like a big neon sign announcing what they were doing!

      3. Not George, Racing Point told everyone, very loudly with “we’re suprised nobody has tried this before”, that they were trying to go for as close an emulation of Mercedes design philosophy as possible.

        Stealth was never on the agenda, and going for a radically different nose would have defeated the point of trying to learn Mercedes’ design philosophy in the first place.

    2. Well, as said here, copying is nothing new and the regulations to police it are getting increasingly complex and demanding. There always will be the school of thought that says: You have $145 million, 110 kg of fuel and here is a box you must fit into…let’s go racing. But more than ever this is a wishful thinking fantasy.

      1. But even then there would be loopholes. Spend 5m of that money buying a complete rear end of a Mercedes, discounted because you’re taking one of their drivers and supplying R&D suspension data in return.

        F1 is by nature incredibly complex because spending money (or trading in place of cash) buys performance. I reckon the FIA are doing the best they can given the rule book.

      2. Well there’s copying and there’s trying to run a second team with ‘technology transfer’. Why didn’t Mercedes protest about the brand formerly known as Racing Point copying their car? Therein lies a story surely. Had, say, Ferrari or Renault copied their car design, I don’t think the reaction would have been quite the same. Red Bull and Ferrari have their ‘second teams’ on the grid, it would be unsurprising if Mercedes didn’t want to cultivate their own in some form or other. Should it happen? No.

        1. Excellent point about the lack of a Mercedes protest…

        2. @david-br if one were to play devil’s advocate, if we were to take your hypothetical scenario and, for example, we had Renault turn up with a visually similar car to Mercedes – could Mercedes actually launch any sort of formal protest?

          Until recently, the rules have done nothing to stop teams from copying each other, and certainly copying of components is a long standing part of the sport. If one car looked similar to another – well, the original team could grumble, but actually getting anything to stick against the other team would be rather difficult.

          The Arrows FA1 case is pretty much the only legal case I can think of brought on charges of copying, but even though the FA1 might have been ostensibly banned, Arrows never received a penalty for using that car in 1978. If anything, it’s notable that, for all the accusations over copying, teams often haven’t been especially vocal about it and often even less reluctant to launch formal protests.

          I can think of other similar instances in the past where one team was accused of copying another, but the team that was being copied was less vocal than you might have expected. Back in 2003, there were certainly many who wondered why Toyota’s TF103 bore more than a passing resemblance to Ferrari’s F2002, although that didn’t go much beyond some initial public questions.

          As for Toyota’s 2004 car, the resemblance to the F2003-GA first brought about allegations that the car was based on copied files from Ferrari, and then ultimately wound up with an international criminal investigation against Iacconi, Santini and Brunner – the latter being eventually cleared, but sidelined and then quietly leaving Toyota, whilst the former two were eventually given suspended sentences for industrial espionage.

          However, even though there probably would have been enough evidence against Toyota to do so, Ferrari never launched a formal protest against Toyota or even really threatened to launch a protest; indeed, they were not especially vocal against Toyota, even though you might have expected them to be.

          It’s not the first time either – there was also the case of Spyker back in 2007. Firstly, you had Red Bull asking how Kolles was able to walk around the paddock carrying blueprints for the chassis of both the Red Bull and Toro Rosso cars, and then questions over whether the F8-VIIB model incorporated elements from both Red Bull and Toro Rosso into the B spec car: again, however, you might be surprised how quickly those complaints petered out and how quickly Red Bull dropped the whole affair.

          Even in more recent times, when you look at Haas’s 2018 car, which was accused of being a copy of Ferrari’s 2017 car – isn’t it notable that the complaints about copying died down fairly quickly?

          1. @anon, I’d be really out of my depth trying to answer all your excellent points. I guess it’s a question of which other teams are complaining or protesting: it seems to be either the team being copied or the rivals of the copied and/or copying teams. And that’s a big difference. It’s clearly in the interest of the top teams, such as Mercedes, to have other teams competing more with their rivals. Certainly there was no real threat to Mercedes from Racing Point last year, so any boost they got from copying the Mercedes would actually help the latter team indirectly by taking points off other teams like Red Bull. Another point is the synergy between teams using the same engine technologies, which can generate information and potential solutions or improvements for all the connected teams. Like I said, I’ve no real idea what happens at this level, not my area of expertise at all! However, it strikes me as a likely scenario and something that must be extremely difficult for FIA to keep a handle on.

    3. Good move although I doubt they will ever dismantle a car. Hopefully the threat itself will stop the worst of it.

      1. That is exaclty what this check is though – be present when the team, under supervision of the FIA, takes the car apart and check several components in detail @balue.

      2. @balue I’m sure there will be a full dismantling of the relevant part of a car at least once, if only at the end of the season to say there’s a point to them having that power. (Also, technically, the scrutineers had that power before, they just didn’t use it because there are already too many checks to do without pre-emptive dismantling being included).

    4. I guess one has to ask the question of how secure is the information given to the FIA’s Data Police? After all, the FIA won’t want to be the source of an information leak.

      1. @drycrust It was pretty leaky in the 2000s, but I’ve not heard of any similar leaks in the 2010s.

    5. As i see it, one area with the biggest potential for abuse, is the rule banning qulifying modes.

      In theory, the engine mode the car qaulifies in, is the engine mode the car ought to race in. The question is how do you policy that? You could have some teams observing the letter of the new rule, whilst other teams turn that rule to their advantage.

      eg turning the eng up to 11 to qualify, but turning it down to a more sustainable 9+ for the race. Or else they could be doing what they did before the rule, and varying the engine mode throughout the race to suit circumstance. eg the infamous party mode.

      All it would take is an undocumented software setting.
      Where before everyone was open about their ‘party mode’, the new rules may have driven this feature underground.

      1. Isn’t that why every team is required to use a single supplier, homologated ECU so the FIA can access that?

    6. This still to me doesn’t entirely answer the question I have as to what happens with for example AM for next year. They will not have a 2022 style Mercedes car to copy, so of course Mercedes can and will help them as much as they legally can, but surely to a bigger extent than the last two seasons AM will have to come up with more original stuff, no? At least I would hope and expect so. Then ok for 2023 they can revert to Merc’s 2022 car if that is prudent, but…it’s next year I’m curious about. To me if the 2022 AM car is basically a Mercedes car then I think that is terrible and as much as I’d like to cheer for this ‘Canadian’ team and driver, I can barely respect them now. Oh I respect the money they’re putting into the team to make them one of the top ones, but I sure wish they would just design their own thing, for they will never actually win the big titles by copying the originators. Surely they get that and can’t continually copy others and expect that to get them where they ultimately want to go which is past the works factory teams.

      1. @robbie What I understand of the new rules is that as of this season teams are more restricted on “copying” or using designs from other teams. I think it’s had an immediate effect on AM as they were well of the pace they showed last year in as they have dropped down the field in comparison to where they were. While everyone else seemed to maintain position.
        Bit of a fresh start next year so they will have the opportunity to show their in-house skills.

        1. @johnrkh Good stuff. Thanks. Yeah I’d really like this to be a pride thing for them and to really step up.

      2. I lost a little respect for both RP (now AM) and Merc last year after I had some long discussions with some engineering colleagues about how possible/likely it would be to accurately reverse engineer a F1 car from photographs.

        Next year will, or should, be very revealing indeed. I’m hoping that Stroll and AM have just taken the easiest/cheapest path to competing in 2020/21 in order to maximise their efforts in actually developing a 2022 car. The new regulations though do allow for a pretty big load of “sharable” items and are also pretty restrictive so I do expect all cars to end up looking pretty similar even from the start.

        Its going to be interesting, especially with budget caps, to see who gets it right and who doesn’t and whether any that don’t will actually be able to afford to catch up. Even AM, if they do their job properly instead of trying to copy something should have a chance to shine at the very top next year.

      3. @robbie I wish people including you would, just once, remember that this is the same design team that spent the previous 10 years designing a car everyone agreed was original. Of course they’re capable of designing an original car. Also, most cars are deriratives of the previous design that particular team has produced, and Aston Martin never made a secret that the 2020 attempt to mimic the previous year’s Mercedes’ design philosophy was a stopgap measure until the (then 2021) new regulations.

        1. @alianora-la-canta I have to admit I hadn’t heard/read that they had stated their copying was a stopgap measure, and thank you I’m glad to hear it. I don’t think I have said since they were first ‘exposed’ last year to have copied to the degree they did, and even illegally so, that they weren’t capable of designing their own. That’s why I have been disappointed, since they came from being such a best-bang-for-the-buck team, so I look forward to an original car from them next year.

          1. @Robbie Check specifically Andrew Green’s statements on February 20. When you’ve finished having a good giggle at the whole “worrying about every risk except the one that actually bit them” aspect, you’ll find the following quote:

            “My question would really be why hasn’t anyone else done this before? It seems when we look at it and we look back on it, we think ‘crikey this is something that maybe we should have done earlier’.”

            That, and the segment afterwards, should shed light on the “mimicry” aspect.

            Then there was a quote about the stop-gapness:

            With new technical regulations arriving in 2021, Racing Point had less to lose by gambling on a major change in its car design, Green added.

            “It’s all going to get thrown away anyway at the end of this year. With all the new regulations in 2021 the risk of having to go back again was zero because there is no going back. It all changes in 2021, a completely different set of regulations that.

            Naturally, by the time anyone was in a position to attempt a protest against Racing Point, four-and-a-half months had passed and the entire interview was considered old hat. Racing Point knew that no journalist is interested in teams reheating its own staff’s quotes from that far back unless it’s a Raikkonen comment…

    7. Broccoliface
      1st April 2021, 9:57

      I don’t think that’s an oxymoron

      Reply moderated
    8. I would have preferred the FIA to try using the powers it did have, before finding excuses to grant itself more power – that last weekend proved once again that it has difficulty wielding in a manner compatible with a sport.

      1. FIA is fighting a losing battle. They’ll never be able to prevent sharing information and are just wqsting resources & making things complicated for everybody. They should just let teams do what they want.

        Some teams will always be secondary teams (Alpha Tauri), but for some teams collaboration is only temporary, a stepping stone to higher level (Aston Martin, Haas maybe).

        So if FIA would give it time, the problem would become smaller without doing anything.

    9. Sensible decision, but I wonder if control software a listed part? Do some teams use the software of another one ? Because if it’s different systems, comparing configurations will be a nightmare, hardly enforceable. But at least it’s a start.

    10. Does anybody honestly think that the FIA has a budget to get close to any serious cheating? Come on, these teams spend hundreds of millions in technology and steal technicians from the governing body.

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