• Racing Point's 2020 car in the FIA spotlight.
• Their new pace is attributed to the "carbon copy" of Merc's winning 2019 car.
• If their car is found to be illegal, all points could be lost.
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
After last weekend's Styrian Grand Prix, the Renault Formula One team officially protested the legality of the Racing Point RP20 for using the brake ducts of last year's Mercedes W10, on which the entire RP20 concept has been revealed to be more than just loosely based.
The sport's governing body, the FIA, found sufficient grounds for an investigation and impounded the offending parts from Racing Point's cars as well as commandeering the 2019 equivalent items from the Mercedes team.
A date is yet to be set for the hearing, but its verdict could have a profound effect on the business model - and by extension, the future - of customer teams in Formula One. That's six out of 10 teams.
How did we get here?
At the Barcelona pre-season test in February, all teams revealed their 2020 cars under the prying eyes of competitors and media before the stopwatches started clicking.
The top three teams were expected to retain their superiority at the top of the timesheets, but who would rank best of the rest remained uncertain. McLaren narrowly beat Renault to fourth in the constructor's race last year: surely business as usual then?
Enter the Racing Point RP20, a midfield team more famous for their pay drivers and pink colour scheme than their point-scoring ability. Now in 2020, the car appeared as an extremely faithful reproduction (or shameless copy) of last year's championship-winning Mercedes W10.
Image: Getty Images / Clive Mason
To add insult to injury, and in an ultimate zero-to-hero turn of events, the RP20 went like the W10, too, flying - though not under the radar - by clocking top-two times a little too often to avoid suspicion.
For its part, Racing Point denied any wrongdoing, having extensively consulted the FIA and Mercedes themselves (as well as using their wind tunnel) during the RP20's conception to avoid the legal wrangles it was anticipating once the season kicked off.
Certainly an odd phenomenon: except it wasn't.
Under Formula One's customer model, smaller non-manufacturer teams are allowed to purchase a specified number of components from parent teams to save on development and production costs.
Appendix 6 of the FIA Sporting Regulations details that other than the engine, these so-called non-listed parts include the gearbox and suspension; but crucially for 2020, brake ducts and drums are not - but categorised as listed parts instead, and therefore be proprietary to each team.
Strict rules guide the legality of such usage; sharing of computer-aided drawings and other performance-defining intellectual property (IP) is disallowed and all teams have to manufacture their own chassis, bodywork, and crash structures.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, then labelling is the best way of verbalising contempt.
While the now-christened "Pink Mercedes", "Tracing Point", or simply "Last year's Mercedes", has understandably drawn the ire of rival teams down the pitlane for taking liberties with the bought-not-built concept (and making it work a little too well) - they aren't the first.
Haas F1 team - Image: GettyImages/Mark Thuompson
The Haas team - F1's newest team and a privateer outfit bearing the name of US billionaire industrialist Gene Haas - has been doing the same through its relationship with Ferrari since 2016, and Alpha Tauri (néé Toro Rosso) is a junior Red Bull team in all but name.
The Ferrari-Haas relationship has evolved to the point of circumventing the rules through the transfer of staff and thereby the ability to take IP with them. But none have been as offensively shameless as Racing Point in 2020, if only because Haas's results have never been sufficiently stellar to stand out as a consistent threat throughout an entire season.
While the anti-Racing Point sentiment continued to stew post-Barcelona, it was sidetracked at Melbourne but regained momentum during the lockdown.
In the spirit of goodwill and celebration of F1's triumph over the fallout surrounding the Covid-19 virus, the Renault team chose not to protest the Racing Point at last weekend's season opener in Austria.
Formula One had been through enough, but when the pink cars continued to finish out of position at both Austrian races, the midfield teams presciently fearing a slip down the standings along with their associated earnings from reduced prize money, had seen enough.
Renault appears as the only signatory to the Racing Point protest. Still, you can bet your bottom dollar that the French team enjoys tacit support from McLaren, Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri, and Williams in its crusade to stop the pink scourge from spreading.
A genuine fear now exists that Racing Point will finish the year in third position in the constructor's championship.
Do Renault have a point?
Under the monsoon conditions of Saturday's qualifying session for the Styrian follow-up race to the Austrian Grand Prix, Sergio Perez qualified 17th.
Still, he fought his way up to an incredible fifth place, before clashing with Red Bull's Alex Albon for fourth and losing two positions, while setting several fastest laps and at times matching Lewis Hamilton in the works Mercedes for pace.
Renault's Daniel Ricciardo finished behind both Perez and teammate Lance Stroll; this, in a time where the company has already had to evaluate their F1 programme earlier this year in the wake of the automotive industry asking increasingly difficult questions about vanity projects such as F1 when profits are under pressure, and jobs are being shed.
By last year, Renault had spent $1 billion in F1 since officially returning to the sport as a manufacturer in 2016, with not a single podium to show for their investment yet.
In a sport where gaining tenths over competitors is measured in millions spent, Renault's indignation at Racing Point is understandable.
Brake ducts are performance differentiating in that they fulfil an aerodynamic purpose as well as aiding the control of tyre temperatures and consequently tyre usage, which in turn is a significant determinant of success in F1.
But performance enhancements aside (and the possible realisation that their design is inferior), Renault's primary contention is that the ducts are not Racing Point's own design and therefore illegal. And although the sharing of such information regarding the ducts between teams was allowed in 2019, the 2020 rule change has seen to it that that information cannot be interpreted for use this year.
Valtteri Bottas in the Mercedes 2019 car - Image: TeamTalk
So what happens next?
According to F1 rules, the responsibility of proving legality lies with the competitor and not the plaintiff. While external geometries are easy to copy through the use of photographs (and have clearly been done so), it's up to the FIA to inspect the internal geometry of the ducts to see if the similarities run deeper.
Is the RP20 an outright copy of the W10? If the car is declared to be illegal, Racing Point stands to lose all points earned from this year's races to date, in addition to a probable fine and a slap on the wrist.
Should the decision be in their favour, all bets regarding the purchase of performance are off, and the hitherto black-and-white rules regarding the use of IP will turn a few shades whiter, especially when considering that more non-listed parts will be tradeable as part of F1's budget-friendlier major rules reset in 2022.
Junior outfits such as Haas, Alfa Romeo, Racing Point, and Alpha Tauri, could turn into test teams for their respective engine supplying masters. And even if the FIA blocks that avenue, they'll be left with no choice but forced to reason that the only way to beat the best car in F1 is to copy it. Why spend a fortune when you can copy and win for much less?
And that, inevitably, would make F1 a pointless exercise.