Why Aston Martin was cleared over new sidepods — but may have copied Red Bull legally


Two years after the 'Pink Mercedes' controversy, Aston Martin's F1 car is once again looking suspiciously familiar. But the team has quickly been cleared of any wrongdoing under new rules that prevent reverse engineering

Red Bull Aston Martin comparison

The similarities between Red Bull and Aston Martin sidepods have raised eyebrows

In an intriguing development in Spain on Friday the FIA put out a statement confirming that Aston Martin has done nothing illegal in creating an updated version of its AMR22 that bears an uncanny resemblance to the title-chasing Red Bull RB18.

The similarity was immediately obvious when the Aston rolled out of its garage at Barcelona this morning; the bodywork over its newly-chiselled sidepods now angling diagonally downwards in a similar form to the Red Bull.

But no sooner were comparisons being drawn  — and cans of green-branded Red Bull appearing next to Christian Horner on the pitwall — than the FIA released its announcement clearing Aston Martin of any wrongdoing. But the team may still have legally taken inspiration from Red Bull.

Aston Martin before and after sidepod comparison

It was an unusual process in that it was a different take on previous copying cases – and specifically one concerning the very same team, then known as Racing Point, back in 2020.

On that occasion it was about co-operation between partner teams, which has long been a thorny subject. It really came to the fore in 2020, when the Racing Point looked very much like the previous year’s Mercedes.

The Silverstone team admitted that it had been inspired by the Mercedes in what was essentially a short cut to a new concept – one that would meanwhile allow it to focus its R&D resources on the longer term, and the new regulations.

Related article

However rival Renault protested the “pink Mercedes” on the basis that its brake duct design was too similar to that of the team’s engine, gearbox and suspension supplier to have been created independently.

In the end the FIA agreed that Racing Point had broken the rules and copied the Mercedes parts. The team was fined €400,000 and docked 15 constructors’ points – which ultimately meant a very expensive difference between third and fourth place.

Two years on and as most teams showed up with their latest update packages in Spain the Silverstone team again caught the eye, with its sidepod design resembling that of the RB18 – enough to prompt cynics to dub it the “green Red Bull.”

This was a very different issue. Clearly there is no partnership or co-operation between Aston Martin and Red Bull. However several key RBR aerodynamic people have switched camps to Aston as part of Lawrence Stroll’s recruitment drive, including top man Dan Fallows.

Admittedly he only started a few weeks ago, far too late to have an influence on the Spanish package, and Aston has also recruited from other teams. But it was enough to set a few tongues wagging. Had someone come with a little too much information in their back pocket?

Racing Point

Racing Point’s RP20 was an unashamed copy of the previous season’s Mercedes

Getty Images

Aside from any suggestion that information might have transferred from RBR to Aston, there was another issue – while being inspired by or copying other people’s ideas has been an established practice, you cannot do it via the process of “reverse engineering,” as Article 17.3 of the F1 technical regulations makes clear.

The rules refer specifically to LTCs, or “listed team components.” Those are the parts you have to design yourself and cannot buy in, which in essence means the chassis and the aerodynamic surfaces of the car, defined as “components whose design, manufacture and intellectual property is owned and/or controlled by a single competitor or its agents on an exclusive basis.”

In the regs reverse engineering is defined under the following four categories:

“The use of photographs or images, combined with software that converts them to point clouds, curves, surfaces, or allows CAD geometry to be overlaid onto or extracted from the photograph or image.

“The use of stereophotogrammetry, 3D cameras or any 3D stereoscopic techniques.

”Any form of contact or non-contact surface scanning.

“Any technique that projects points or curves on a surface so as to facilitate the reverse-engineering process.”

The rules further state that in cases where parts “closely resemble” those of a competitor “it will be the role of the FIA to determine whether this resemblance is the result of reverse engineering or of legitimate independent work.”

In fact even before the Spanish GP the FIA was on the case, alerted by the process whereby teams now have to keep the governing body up to speed with details of any updates that it intends to bring to the track.

2022 Aston Martin F1 with Barcelona sidepod upgrade

FIA was monitoring the sidepod design during development

Aston Martin

The FIA duly carried out a routine investigation, during which Aston Martin had to prove that it had indeed designed its new package from scratch. The investigation indicated that there was no evidence of any information deriving from Red Bull, or indeed of the reverse engineering categories as outlined above. Aston showed that it had done its own R&D, and over a period of months.

As noted teams have always been influenced by other cars – the 1979 Tyrrell 009 looking remarkably like the previous year’s Lotus 79 is one classic example – but now there’s a strict definition of what you can do: “Although it is permissible to be influenced by the design or concept of a competitor’s LTC using information that must potentially be available to all competitors, this information may only be obtained at competitions or tests.”

In other words you can’t go to a friendly team’s factory and view their car armed with a camera and tape measure…

It’s worth noting that when the AMR22 was launched back in February Aston chief technical officer Andrew Green made it clear that the team didn’t know if its chosen concept would work, and had designed its chassis to be adaptable to different sidepod and cooling designs, should they be required. And that is ultimately what has happened.

Related article

In a statement issued today the FIA noted: “Both teams collaborated fully with the FIA in this investigation and provided all the relevant information.

“The investigation, which involved CAD checks and a detailed analysis of the development process adopted by Aston Martin, confirmed that no wrongdoing had been committed, and therefore the FIA considers that the Aston Martin aerodynamic upgrades are compliant.”

The FIA further noted: “Article 17.3 specifically defines and prohibits “reverse engineering”, i.e. the digital process of converting photographs (or other data) to CAD models, and prohibits IP transfer between teams, but equally, this article permits car designs getting influenced by those of competitors, as has always been the case in F1.

“In the analysis we carried out we confirmed that the processes followed by Aston Martin were consistent with this article’s requirements.”

Not surprisingly Aston quickly followed with a statement that stressed that the team has been found to be compliant: “We have shared details of our update with the FIA technical people. Having analysed the data and the processes used to create the update, the FIA has now confirmed in writing that our update was generated as a result of legitimate independent work in accordance with the technical regulations.”

Shortly afterwards came a take from Red Bull that seemed to suggest that the Milton Keynes team was not entirely convinced by the FIA’s conclusions. It said that RBR has “noted the FIA’s statement with interest.

“While imitation is the greatest form of flattery, any replication of design would obviously need to comply with the FIA’s rules around ‘reverse engineering’.

“However, should any transfer of IP have taken place that would clearly be a breach of regulations and would be a serious concern.”

If that’s the end of the story, it will be remembered as a storm in a teacup. It was also a good example of how there is now more transparency on these matters, and a useful reminder to all teams that everything they do can potentially come under the FIA spotlight.

These days there’s the added element of the budget cap – clearly taking short cuts to a new design instead of doing the (expensive) ground work yourself would infringe the financial regulations, and not just the technical rules, and that’s another reason for the FIA to stay on top of things. Big Brother is watching, in other words…