Andrew Masson is an IPilogue Writer and 2L JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
F1 racing has become incredibly popular lately, likely aided by Netflix’s “Drive to Survive.” IP, design, development, and engineering are cornerstones of this sport, with teams having to design, build, and race their cars. However, the sport is not governed by the IP laws, and using patented car technology is prohibited in F1 cars, to ensure a “fair playing field”. This means that F1 must regulate itself and balance the avoidance of a monopoly on certain car designs by allowing teams to reverse engineer designs against allowing teams to outright copy or steal rival team designs. F1 is unique in having 2 championships per season, with each team having 2 drivers. One championship is for the driver that scores the most points in that season and the second championship is for the team that scores the most points —“constructors championship.” Last year, Red Bull driver Max Verstappen won the drivers’ championship, but Mercedes won the constructors championship earning their team a $50 million bonus.
With large sums of prize money at stake and teams’ inability to patent the designs on which they spend millions in innovation, F1 is in a difficult position. The events that unfolded in the 2020 season precisely exemplify the importance of imposing sport-friendly IP regulation that aligns with what is legally accepted. In 2020, the Racing Point team bought rear brake duct designs from competitors Mercedes-Benz and drastically improved their car. Legally, this seems like an appropriate action, but this contravened the F1 regulation body FIA(International Automobile Federation)’s rules that require teams to design certain “Listed Parts” for their cars. Racing Point was deducted 15 points towards the constructor’s championship and fined 400,000 euros.
New Name, Same Concerns?
In 2021, Racing Point was rebranded to Aston Martin when Canadian Billionaire Lawrence Stroll (father of Aston Martin racer Lance Stroll) purchased a 16.7% stake in Aston Martin. With the name change, Racing Point also replaced their iconic pink cars with a new set of green Aston Martin cars. At this season’s Spanish Grand Prix, Aston Martin upgraded their car to closely resemble the sidepod, floor and engine cover of the Red Bull car. The designs were so similar that commentators, fans, and teams now refer to it as the “green Red Bull” (article with pictures for comparison). However, the FIA was unable to find any illegal transfers in its investigation of illegal transfers of IP from Red Bull to Aston Martin.
Interestingly, Red Bull had a few individuals transfer to Aston Martin at the end of last season. Red Bull’s team principal (similar to a manager or coach) Christian Horner was concerned because “[i]deas are a team’s lifeblood, it’s what we invest millions of pounds into and you wouldn’t want to see that just turning up in a rival organization.” However, he also stated that he understands this is part of the sport and individuals change teams and “[w]hat individuals take in their head, that’s fair game and is their knowledge.”
Confusingly, Aston Martin would have had to be developing two entirely different cars at the same time because the changes they introduced in Spain would require an entirely different chassis to the first car they deployed this season. Although it’s suspicious that Aston Martin invested in the development of two cars simultaneously and one is “identical” to the Red Bull, this could have been done legally. The individuals that transferred late in development from Red Bull to Aston Martin would be well informed on Red Bull’s proposed car design for this season and F1 rules are intentionally limiting IP protection. The FIA not punishing Aston Martin could be seen as beneficial for the sport as it creates a more competitive field with exciting races. However, this may prompt the teams and F1 to work out a better way to protect and commercialize intellectual property.