A TALE OF TWO BRAKE DUCTS: A CASE FOR RACING POINT’S INNOCENCE
This post has been authored by Mr Abhijit Vadavalli.
Abhijit is a second-year student of the B.A. L.L.B. course at the leading NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. His interests include Sports Law, Constitutional Law and Commercial Arbitration.
The practice of reverse-engineering has been a looming threat to the competitive integrity of Constructors’ Championships in Formula 1. Reverse-engineering allows teams to build car parts from publicly available images and scans, overriding regulations against the sharing of certain intellectual property. In the 2020 season, the use of a particular automotive part by the team Racing Point in their cars led to protests from several other clubs, such as Renault and Ferrari. The parts in question were brake ducts, which were allegedly copies of those used in the cars of the Mercedes team in the previous season. However, these parts had not been developed from publicly available images; as it was later discovered, Racing Point had developed them based on computer models and data developed and provided to them by Mercedes.
For this offence, Racing Point was fined €400,000 and had 15 points docked from their Constructors’ Championship score. However, they were still permitted to use the copied brake ducts. In this article, the author attempts to explain why Racing Point was permitted to use copied brake ducts, why they were merely fined instead of being disqualified, and why Racing Point was not at fault for using non-compliant brake ducts.
COPIED BRAKE DUCTS AND THE NATURE OF DESIGN
While certain parts used in Formula 1 cars can be copied and purchased from other teams, parts that significantly affect the aerodynamics of a car are not permitted to be sold or leased amongst teams. These parts are referred to as Listed Team Components (“LTCs”).[i] In the 2019 version of the FIA Regulations, when Racing Point had acquired computer models and data for building brake ducts from Mercedes, they were not classified as LTCs.
However, in recognition of their immense impact on the aerodynamics of cars, they were reclassified under the 2020 Regulations. An issue arose as a result of this reclassification: it was unclear what was to be done with brake ducts that were acquired in 2019 and used in 2020. In particular, Racing Point’s use of Mercedes’ brake ducts became the subject of protest.
The stewards attending to this dispute had to address the issue of what constituted a step in the design process within the meaning of Appendix 6 of the 2020 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations.[ii] The test they used was a qualitative one, i.e., whether the step was crucial in the creation of the part in question. To understand their decision, some knowledge of the anatomy of Formula 1 cars is required.
Two sets of brake ducts are used in Formula 1 cars: a set on the front wheels, known as Front Brake Ducts (“FBDs”), and one set on the rear wheels, known as Rear Brake Ducts (“RBDs”). In 2019, when Racing Point received the models for Mercedes’ brake ducts, they implemented the FBD system into their 2019 car. However, due to technical incompatibilities, the RBD system was not implemented. This system would only find its way into the Racing Point car during the 2020 season.
Keeping in mind that the FBDs were first used at a time when brake ducts could be acquired from other teams, the stewards could not penalize Racing Point. They further ruled that as of the 2019 season, the FBD system had become a part of the Racing Point car’s DNA. On the other hand, the use of the RBD system violated the 2020 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations. Through the application of the test of the criticality of design, the stewards had determined that the RBD system had been designed by Mercedes.
However, though there was no doubt that Racing Point was not permitted to use Mercedes’ RBDs in their 2020 car, the stewards could not require it to recreate an entire RBD system. Racing Point had already acquired the know-how required to make Mercedes’ RBD system, and any measures directing Racing Point to recreate their own would require them to “unlearn” this information. Hence, to neutralize the unfair competitive advantage created, the stewards decided to dock the team’s points and impose a fine on them.
LENIENCE TO RACING POINT AND THE FIA’S SHORTCOMINGS
Though the stewards could not require Racing Point to recreate a brake duct system, they were empowered under the International Sporting Code to disqualify it from the Championship.[iii] However, their decision permitted Racing Point to continue racing with the copied RBD system, only bearing a fine and a 15-point docking. The amendments to the Sporting Regulations intended on preventing reverse-engineering were also phrased to permit Racing Point to continue using Mercedes’ RBD system.[iv]
This seemingly-lenient penalty was given to Racing Point due to the failure of the FIA to clarify the status of Racing Point’s brake duct system, and Racing Point’s continuous transparency and belief in their compliance. Firstly, while the FIA had directed that brake ducts were now to be classified as LTCs, the details of how this transition was to be made were not provided. Secondly, during a routine compliance check, the compliance officials had become aware of Racing Point’s use of Mercedes’ brake ducts. At that time, the officials simply dismissed any concerns surrounding the situation, and the team was told that their use of Mercedes’ brake ducts was permitted. Naturally, this led Racing Point to believe that their RBD system was in full compliance with the 2020 Regulations. The stewards noted this fact, reasoning that the officials had led Racing Point to believe that their RBD system was compliant because they were focused on the compliance of the car in its entirety.
ISSUES OF ESTOPPEL AND RACING POINT'S INNOCENCE
While the stewards’ decision succinctly addresses the issue of design, the author believes that its justification of the compliance officials’ oversight is insufficient. It can be reasonably understood that the entirety of a car includes all the parts that make it drivable, which, at the very least, would include the LTCs. Because brake ducts were LTCs in the 2020 season, the compliance officials should have been better equipped to gauge their compliance. The creation of a distinction between the entirety of the car and its brake ducts is done with no justification as to their mutual exclusivity, making the decision arbitrary.
The principle of estoppel prevents a party from asserting something contrary to what their actions had implied.[v] Since the question of assessing the compliance of the brake ducts falls within the scope of the compliance officials’ inspection, their waiver of the concerns raised by Racing Point estops the FIA from penalizing them. In other words, the FIA, through its agents, and the compliance officials had led Racing Point to believe that their RBD system complied with the 2020 Regulations, and as a quasi-judicial body, it would be improper for it to penalize Racing Point despite being estopped from doing so.
The lack of legitimate justification for the problem of the compliance of Racing Point’s RBD system falling outside the scope of the inspection of the compliance officials is troubling insofar as the distinction is arbitrary. If this was the case, it would legally absolve Racing Point of any wrongdoing. The arbitrary distinction between the entirety of the car and the RBD system hence diffuses into the decision to penalize Racing Point, tainting the penalty with arbitrariness. On this ground, not only would a disqualification be improper, but the seemingly lenient penalty of a fine and a docking begins to appear unjust.
In conclusion, the author believes that though Racing Point was misusing brake ducts in the 2020 season, their actions were free from any intentional wrongdoing. It was the inadequacy of the FIA that led to the use of the noncompliant RBD system. Penalizing Racing Point for the FIA’s inadequacy is not only based on a justification founded on an arbitrary distinction but is also highly inequitable.
The author can be reached for comments on her email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cite as: Abhijit Vadavalli, A Tale of Two Brake Ducts: A Case for Racing Point’s Innocence, Extra-Cover: The Sports Law Blog of India (23th Jan. 2021), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/a-tale-of-two-brake-ducts-a-case-for-racing-point-s-innocence [Date of Access].
[i] Article 22.3, 2021 Formula 1 Technical Regulations [ii] Appendix 6, 2020 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations [iii] Article 12.3.1.m, 2020 International Sporting Code [iv] Article 6.3, 2021 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations [v] Black’s Law Dictionary, p. 648