The resurfacing of claims that Lotus Racing benefited from technical secrets belonging to the Force India team has cast the F1 spotlight back onto an area forgotten since the infamous 'spygate' row rocked the sport back in 2007.
The English High Court has set a date for the two teams to meet in London next January, as Force India seeks redress against four opponents for what it believes was a breach of its intellectual property rights during 2009. The 1Malaysia Racing Team, 1Malaysia Racing Team (UK) Ltd, head of engineering Mike Gascoyne and R&D facility Aerolab Srl are all in the team's sights after it claimed that design secrets from its VJM03 car had been passed to those working on the Lotus T127 which debuted last year.
Court proceedings are already underway in Italy and will now be echoed in the UK following confirmation of next January's legal slot [see story here
], but should we be surprised at just how few such cases emerge when every team is striving to find the development that propels it to the front of the grid? Tim Lowles, an associate with leading motorsport law firm Collyer Bristow doesn't think so.
“Every year, we see new innovations hit the F1 test circuit,” he comments, “For example, this year, the big news has been the adjustable rear wing, but we've also seen work on air intakes and the shrinking of gearboxes, and, in the past, we've been introduced to the double diffuser and the F-duct – both now banned for the 2011 season.
"With all of these innovations, one would expect more legal action being taken to patent and protect intellectual property and design prowess, so it's a real testament to the motorsport industry's culture of continuous improvement that there is very rarely any direct copying of technical developments between teams. Instead, each team develops their own take on the innovations which make a tangible difference to performance.
“The question is whether, if the process of protecting intellectual property was sped up, would we then see more in the way of legal action within the F1 arena?”
While a lot of F1 development is done 'in house'. there are inevitably external suppliers whose contributions could make or break a season. Some, however, such as Pirelli, will be common to the entire grid, and success or failure should
be distributed evenly, but, with a raft of complaints about the tyres with which it is returning to the grand prix scene, should the Italian company be concerned about damaging its reputation
“Concerns have already been raised as regards excessive punctures in the first WRC rally in Sweden following Ford and Citroen's change in tyre supplier to Michelin after a five year absence from the sport for the tyre manufacturer and, likewise, Bridgestone's departure from F1 sees Pirelli return as sole supplier for the first time in a decade – with concerns already being raised that the tyres are lacking development,” Lowles opines.
“Obviously, there will need to be some time for these partners to bed in and ensure their offering meets the requirements of the sport. However, the interesting area to explore is how much the commercial decision-making affects technical advances.
“Suppliers enter and exit motorsport based on the commercial benefits that it will bring to their brand. Extensive legal contracts are drafted which include clauses about performance – something which is just as important for the reputation of the supplier as to the results achieved by teams and drivers. However, while performance and reputation is important, there is no hiding the fact that technical innovation is an expensive business – and partnering with high profile motorsport is as much a marketing tool for these suppliers as an area for technical performance development.”
Thanks to our colleagues at Collyer Bristow. For more information, click on the following link: Motorsport Law