Red Bull’s F1 intellectual property concerns explained
By Mat Coch
Wednesday 25th May, 2022 - 11:02am
Red Bull is currently conducting an investigation into whether a departing staff member may have stolen intellectual property from the world championship-winning Formula 1 team.
It’s a significant accusation that must be taken seriously as it has both sporting and legal implications if it is indeed the case.
Fundamentally, the issue surrounds whether new hires at Aston Martin, some of whom joined from Red Bull, brought with them data which was then used in the sidepod design of the AMR22B.
In Spain, Aston Martin introduced a new specification of car, which many have dubbed the AMR22B such was the magnitude of the upgrade, which boasts a number of striking similarities to the RB18.
Indeed, so striking were the similarities that the car was soon being referred to as the ‘Green Red Bull’.
Attention quickly turned specifically to the sidepod area and its swooping design, one which is very reminiscent of that on the Red Bull.
The similarities didn’t stop there, with cooling louvres positioned in a remarkably similar location, and even the floor design sharing more than a passing resemblance between the two cars.
Why this is significant is that it fundamentally changes the approach Aston Martin has taken with its design.
The model revealed at launch is believed to channel air over the sidepods in an effort to energise both the beam wing and rear diffuser.
On the AMR22B, however, informed opinion is that the team has changed tack and is instead looking to energise the floor more than the diffuser.
It’s a key divergence at an early part of the season, and sees the team effectively mirror the approach Red Bull has employed all season with the RB18.
Predictably, questions were raised as to how that came to pass.
Prior to the Spanish Grand Prix the FIA looked into the matter and confirmed that it was satisfied that there was no wrongdoing.
It noted the similarities and effectively deemed them coincidental, the result of two independent design offices reaching a near-identical solution.
However, it rattled Red Bull enough that it announced an internal audit of its systems, data, and people amid concerns, and thinly veiled accusations, that its intellectual property had somehow been used.
In a sporting sense, there are strict rules which prohibit teams from having intellectual property from rivals in their possession.
There are also now rules around reverse engineering the design from other cars, ironically rules introduced after Racing Point (now Aston Martin) all but copied the 2019 Mercedes in producing its 2020 car.
It is those issues that the FIA looked into, clearing the Silverstone squad of anything untoward.
And while Red Bull has accepted that finding to a point, it remains concerned that its systems have been breached – likely from within.
The theft of intellectual property is both serious and criminal, and in the United Kingdom can carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in gaol.
For the moment, we do not know if there was indeed such a theft from Red Bull, and presumably nor do they, hence the internal investigation the team has launched.
That may or may not turn up a problem, but even if it does, it does not necessarily mean Aston Martin has broken the rules.
The burden of proof is on Red Bull.
Should it identify a data breach it will then have to provide that information to the FIA to a degree that it believes there is a chance the rules have been broken.
There is then also the prospect of criminal action outside of any sporting considerations.
While suspicions are those people have moved from Milton Keynes to Silverstone, there is no guarantee. There are eight other teams that could have received the data.
A critical point is the simple fact a rival team only need be in possession of the data – it doesn’t need to have used it.
In 2007, McLaren was found in possession of a number of documents from Ferrari, and though it had done nothing with them, it was fined USD 100 million and thrown out of the constructors’ championship.
There were some key differences in that instance, but the fundamental premise is the same – Team A had designs from Team B it shouldn’t have.
At Aston Martin, chief technical officer Andy Green has gone to great pains to detail the design timeline and process his team adopted.
He claimed designers reached a fork in development in 2021, with one solution that which the team launched with, and the other that which found its way onto the car in Spain.
Green says the launch variant of the car initially appeared to offer greater potential, and was thus chosen to be explored.
It only then became apparent that was indeed the wrong path and so, as far back as February, the team was working on producing the B-spec versions with RB18-esque sidepods.
The explanation goes that, to accommodate such a large change to the sidepods, the team had to consider the two different variants from very early on, and could therefore not have been engineered the B-spec solution in the weeks since March when the RB18 debuted in pre-season testing.
Essentially, Green’s explanation is that his team came up with two viable solutions for 2022 and has reverted to a concept it initially abandoned.
And that makes sense.
Repackaging the cooling on a modern Formula 1 car is not the work of a moment – not to mention the cost implications in an era of financial regulations and cost caps.
It seems therefore credible that Aston Martin did indeed abandon what has now become the B-spec concept early on.
It’s also not beyond the realms of possibility that data from Red Bull was stolen, though that is very different to saying it was received or used by Aston Martin.
In reality, the most likely outcome is that former Red Bull staff arrived at their new employers with a number of design concepts in mind.
With Aston Martin working on its B-spec car, those new staff noticed the similarity in concept between with the RB18, and provided some input late in the piece.
If the concepts were along the same lines to begin with, add in a bit of Red Bull knowledge – but not intellectual property – and one can understand how two teams end up with solutions that look near identical.
And to an extent, design similarity is an inevitability under the current regulations, which are far more prescriptive than they’ve ever been.
Red Bull has every right to be concerned, and it is taking reasonable steps to protect its business, but that is a long way short of proof Aston Martin or any individual has done anything wrong.