KNUTSON: The Line Between Innovation & Copying

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Back in 1978 and ’79, Colin Chapman and his Lotus designers and engineers stumbled upon ground-effects for their Formula One chassis.

The innovative Jim Hall had figured out the concept earlier with his 1970 2J Can-Am “sucker car,” which was the first ground-effects race car. But Lotus was the first F-1 team to have ground-effects cars and the result was the gorgeous and fast Lotus 79 that Mario Andretti used to win the 1978 world championship.

Rival F-1 teams soon copied the idea and some, such as Williams, created faster and better versions compared to the Lotus.

Copying designs of rival cars is nothing new but F-1, the FIA insists, will not become a pure copycat series.

Racing Point has created plenty of controversy with its 2020 car, called the RP20, which is a direct copy of the championship-winning 2019 Mercedes W09. The RP20 has been nicknamed “The Pink Mercedes” and it is very fast.

Is the RP20 legal? That is up for debate.

Nikolas Tombazis, who has worked for Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari, is the FIA’s head of single-seater technical matters.

“We, the FIA and Formula One, have been spending quite a lot of time discussing this topic,” he said. “First of all, copying has been taking place in F-1 for a long time: taking photos, and sometimes reverse-engineering them and making similar concepts or in some areas even identical concepts or close to identical as other teams. We do not think this can stop in the future completely.

“But what we do think is Racing Point took this to another level. They clearly decided to adopt this philosophy for the whole car for what I would call a paradigm shift. They should not be penalized as they have been original in deciding to follow this approach.

“However, we do not think this is what F-1 should become. We don’t want to have eight or 10 Mercedes or copies of Mercedes on the grid where the main skill becomes how you do this process.”

Just about everybody, it seems, is upset when it comes to the results of the official protests against Racing Point’s rear brake ducts. Renault filed several protests against the Racing Point RP20 and the stewards eventually concluded “that the principal designer of the RP20 RBDs (rear brake ducts) was Mercedes, not Racing Point.”

Racing Point was fined 400,000 euros ($474,000) and docked 15 constructors’ points. The team, however, is allowed to continue to use the ducts.

“It would be very unreasonable to expect Racing Point to forget their knowledge and to design again from a clean sheet of paper, from scratch, because designs never work that way,” said Tombazis. “They always start with existing knowledge, so somehow to expect them to do something completely different would be very unreasonable.”

The stewards’ ruling upset Ferrari and Renault officials, who filed an appeal because they think Racing Point got off too lightly, and that its drivers should have lost points as well.

“It’s thrown up a lot more questions than answers,” McLaren team boss Zak Brown said.

And Racing Point has also appealed because it believes it is innocent.

“They are wrong in that assessment,” Racing Point’s team principal Otmar Szafnauer said, referring to the stewards saying his team copied the Mercedes brake ducts. “We have 886 unique drawings for these brake ducts and the regulations say they have to be your design. We designed the whole thing ourselves. We have done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Brake ducts are “listed parts” in 2020 — which means the teams must design and build them, and they cannot buy them from another team. But they were not on the list in 2019.

Rival teams are certainly bitter because they believe Racing Point pushed the boundaries by copying the design of the 2019 Mercedes.

But the FIA examined the entire new car back in March and gave Racing Point a letter saying it was legal.

“I don’t think this is about brake ducts because when we do go to the court of appeal that will be a small bit of it,” Szafnauer said. “The real conundrum is that people are looking at our car and saying, ‘You copied the Mercedes’ or ‘you have copied more than we would have copied.’ Well, unfortunately, copying is what F-1 is completely based on.”

There are plenty of disgruntled people in the paddock at the moment. The lawyers, meanwhile, are happily anticipating the fat fees they will collect.