* Written by Anshul Ramesh and Nilesh Chopra
Aston Martin, previously known as Racing Point, had a dominating Formula 1 season in 2020. Backed by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, the Racing Point car in 2020 finished at the top end of the midfield, outperforming several of its competitors in terms of pace. Their one and only victory in Formula 1 history was delivered by race driver Sergio Perez at the Sakhir Grand Prix. Racing Point finished fourth in the Constructor’s table (it refers to the championship between the teams as a whole), narrowly behind rivals McLaren. A huge part of that success was the heavy inspiration that Racing Point drew from the Mercedes AMG Petronas 2020 car ‘W11’. In fact, it was often referred to as the ‘Pink Mercedes’, and even faced legal controversy when Ferrari, Williams, Renault and McLaren appealed against the copying of Mercedes’ brake ducts. In a strange decision, Racing Point was allowed to use the same car (including brake ducts) for the rest of the season, however were fined €400,000 in the process.
Racing Point, having drawn from Mercedes, had a low rake design (explained below) in comparison to teams like Redbull and Toro Rosso who have traditionally had high-rake systems. The low rake system is not preferred by most teams; however Racing Point and Mercedes have dealt with the downside of that system by the use of slots in the floor to create downforce. The new change in Technical Regulations in 2021 meant that these slots were no longer permissible, thereby giving an apparent advantage to the teams with a higher rake system. The effects of this change are very apparent on this years’ racetracks, as Aston Martin’s lack of pace has led them to the bottom of the midfield in the constructors' championship. Both Lance Stroll and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel have failed to secure a single point in the opening four races of the 2021 season. This has caused severe uproar in the Aston Martin dugout, with Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer prepared to drag the FIA’s need to change the regulation into a legal battle.
This article will delve into the concept of rake, and how the change in the regulations have caused an apparent but clear disadvantage to Aston Martin’s 2021 hopes. It further deliberates on the regulations itself, the legal procedure with respect to how the rules are changed and the legal mechanism for Aston Martin to potentially drag the FIA into a legal battle.
CHANGES IN THE 2021 TECHNICAL REGULATIONS
The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (hereinafter “FIA”) is the foremost motor racing regulatory body in the world and is bestowed the power to promulgate and enforce regulations in furtherance of the fundamental principles of safety and sporting fairness enshrined under Article 1.1 of the International Sporting Code for Motor Sports. The FIA introduces three categories of regulations every year, i.e. Sporting, Technical and Financial, which are binding on all Formula 1 racing teams in the respective season.
In 2021, the Technical Regulations underwent significant changes to the car’s floor and diffuser structure (other minor changes can be found here). Article 3.7.5 of the Technical Regulations mandates that the construction of the floor structure of a formula 1 car should be “uniform, solid, hard, continuous and rigid”. Previously, certain parts of the floor and the slots poking out of the rear structure were allowed which would help in regulating downforce levels but this has been prohibited under Article 3.7.3 of the Technical Regulations. Additionally, Article 3.7.2 of the Technical Regulations mandates the exclusion of any volume or bodywork near the rear wheels of the floor. Moreover, Article 3.7.4 of the Technical Regulations requires the cars to have slanted edges in the floor structure instead of straight edges witnessed in previous years. Lastly, Article 3.9.5 of the Technical Regulations prohibits the designers to make enclosed holes in the floor structure to primarily prohibit the manipulation of airflow through slots, holes and aerodynamic furniture in that region. The FIA stated that the introduction of these restrictive changes were due to the need of decreasing downforce to make racing safer. Additionally, these regulations were also influenced by the robust material of rubber tyres provided by Pirelli which would also increase downforce levels of cars.Overall, all these regulations have to be complied with by all the F1 teams, as stipulated under Article 2.4 of the Technical Regulations.
WHAT IS RAKE AND HOW DOES IT AFFECT FORMULA 1 CARS
The foregoing regulations have unintentionally impacted certain teams such as Aston Martin and Mercedes because of their ‘low-rake’ structure. Rake refers to the altitude of the car by raising the rear end higher than the front or vice versa, which is visible when viewed from a side angle. Hence, F1 cars are categorised into ‘high-rake’ and ‘low-rake’ cars. A high-rake car has a more discernible difference in angle between the front of the car and the rear, where the diffuser is jacked up considerably and the front tray of the floor runs very close to the ground. In comparison, a low-rake car has a much-reduced angle, and so the incline of the diffuser means it’s much closer to the ground. The idea behind increasing rake is to increase the effective volume of the diffuser while also helping to accelerate the airflow underneath. By increasing the velocity of the airflow, the floor can generate lower pressure, and thus the suction created develops a sturdier level of downforce. It relates to Bernoulli's principle which states that higher pressure regions have lower fluid speed and lower pressure regions have higher fluid speed. As fluid – in this case, air - moves from a small volume to a large volume, the velocity increases to generate that reduction in pressure. This is why teams such as Redbull and Toro Rosso prefer a high-rake car.
IMPACT OF THE REGULATIONS ON ASTON MARTIN
The low rake teams such as Aston Martin and Mercedes to overcome this disadvantage had slots in the floor to offset that pressure, creating a seal to develop a much more consistent level of downforce. This was removed by the changes adopted via the 2021 Technical Regulations. Hence, teams like Red Bull and Toro Rosso who have a high-rake structure are benefitting from the 2021 Technical Regulations.
LEGAL PROCEDURE TO PROTEST AGAINST THESE REGULATIONS
This apparent advantage enjoyed by other teams is the reason why Aston Martin and Mercedes wish to protest the regulations. They also feel that the involvement of a commercial rights holder, i.e., in the formulation of these regulations is arbitrary and illegal. Aston Martin have the right to protest against this regulation under Article 17 of the Sporting Regulations, 2021 that render the procedure of protests and appeals to the FIA. Article 17.1 of the Sporting Regulations states that F1 teams can protest according to the provisions of the code with a fee of 2000 Euros.Hence, this is the first step that Aston Martin needs to follow to protest against the change in these technical regulations. In case they are not satisfied with the decision, they have the right to appeal under Article 17.2 of the Sporting Regulations along with a fee of 6000 Euros.The instances which cannot be appealed against are stipulated under Article 17.3 of the Sporting Regulations, 2021. As an amendment to a technical regulation does not fall under the ambit of the instances in the aforementioned article, an appeal is permissible. The FIA is deemed to be the final appellate body in motor racing and the same has been envisaged under Article 1.2 of the International Sporting Code for Motor Sports which clearly states that the FIA is the “final international court of appeal for the settlement of disputes”.
The Aston Martin Team Principal Mr Otmar Szafnauer despite having reflected disappointment to the new regulations feels that the right thing to do is have discussions with the FIA to find out the exact reasons for the introduction of these regulations to determine whether they were equitable and approach the legal escalation after a clear understanding. On the other hand, Mercedes Team Principal Mr Toto Wolff stated that it would be incorrect to comment on the fairness of the regulations without knowing the whole picture. Hence, both the Team Principals clearly show that an amicable discussion with the FIA is pertinent before taking the legal route. However, Aston Martin is the only team to explicitly talk about legal threats against the FIA pertaining to these regulations as their team have failed to score even one point in the last four Grand Prix. Mercedes, despite having a low-rake design, has managed to be at the top of the table which is why they have not actively engaged in the issue other than certain breezy comments. After all, the teams are free to seek clarifications from the FIA under Article 2.4 of the Technical Regulations and if unsatisfied, they can pursue the legal escalation. In this case, we feel that the regulations were decided fairly by the FIA and were not particularly against any team. It is their absolute domain to enact regulations under the contours of ‘safety’ and these regulations have been enforced only to reduce downforce levels which make cars safer.
*The authors are both law scholars from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. Anshul is also an Associate Editor with Global Sports Policy Review.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)
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