Racing Point’s Mercedes Clone and the wider debate of customer cars in Formula 1

One of the key talking points to come out of 2020 Formula 1 preseason testing was Racing Point’s RP20 which drew very heavy inspiration from the 2019 Mercedes W10. It has led to some referring to the RP20 as a ‘Mercedes Clone’ or a ‘Pink Mercedes’ and the team as ‘Tracing Point’.

The debate over the RP20 has once again put the focus back on ‘alliances’ that a majority of midfield teams have with the current top three in the sport. A look at the grid shows there are a few such alliances present with Alfa Romeo and Haas having close links with Scuderia Ferrari, there is of course Racing Point’s ties with Mercedes and not to forget that AlphaTauri and Red Bull are under the same ownership.

A particular critic of the RP20 has been Haas who have raised the fact that Racing Point, under its Force India ownership, had complained about the 2018 Haas car and how that season’s car had benefited greatly from the links the American team has with Scuderia Ferrari.

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All of this adds into the bigger debate over what are effectively termed ‘customer cars’ and how close or far away Formula 1 should be to teams running such cars. Part of the RP20 debate has its roots from there being a lot of resistance to the idea of fully fledged customer teams who are able to buy an entire car from a competitor, with many pointing to the fact that the sport has a Constructors’ Championship and therefore a team with a customer car should not be included. This is something that Haas have notably come close to, having taken advantage of and maximised Formula 1’s listed parts rules in order to go racing.

The added issue to this is that the current prize money given to teams is based on their finishing position in the Constructors’ Championship and therefore some feel cheated or threatened by the prospect of a fully fledged customer team.

This is a slightly narrow viewpoint as the sport has in the past allowed entrants to buy a chassis from another entrant, taking Rob Walker Racing Team as an example who throughout the 1950s and 1960s bought chassis from other entrants such as Team Lotus and Brabham, although admittedly there were independent engine suppliers such as Ford and Coventry Climax which meant a team wasn’t fully reliant on a sole team/manufacturer in order to go racing.

Perhaps an interesting case study in recent seasons within the sport is that of AlphaTauri and Red Bull with the AlphaTauri team being in existent in part to help Red Bull develop young drivers in the sport so that they can potentially be promoted to the ‘senior’ Red Bull team. However the working partnership between the two has expanded in recent seasons with AlphaTauri taking elements of the previous season’s Red Bull, allowing the Italian based team to focus their resources elsewhere and also helped the team improve its reliability. This was especially beneficial to the ‘junior’ Red Bull team in 2019 where it claimed one of the biggest points haul in its history and achieved two podium finishes.

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One of the easiest ways to accommodate teams that run customer cars would be to create a Teams’ Championship alongside the current Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships which would replicate what is done in other series such as MotoGP. It would however require Formula 1 to rework how it distributes any prize money and whether participants get paid solely from the Teams’ Championship or whether there is extra prize money given to those competing in the Constructors’ Championship.

It is worth looking at the MotoGP example a little more as the series has factory and ‘satellite’ teams where often the satellite teams will have received a bike from a factory team. It is quite open as to what version of a factory bike a satellite team will run which can either be a one or two year old model. Although it is possible for a satellite team to be given a current version, examples of this include Jack Miller running a current Ducati for the Pramac Racing satellite team and Cal Crutchlow riding a current Honda for the LCR team.

Something similar to this has happened in the past in Formula 1 where the Super Aguri team, which competed in the sport from 2006 to 2008, designed their 2007 car on the 2006 Honda F1 RA106 and their 2008 car was based heavily on the 2007 Honda F1 RA107.

In MotoGP, even if a rider in a satellite team has a current spec bike it may not be exactly the same as a fully fledged factory bike as a factory team may provide updates to its main riders before a couple of races later providing those same updates to the satellite teams.

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The factory/satellite system in MotoGP works well as it allows smaller teams to compete with the main bike manufacturers without having to incur the huge expense of designing and building their own bike. Yet it also doesn’t mean that satellite teams instantly outperform manufacturers.

The system in MotoGP however doesn’t mean that the championship is divided into manufacturers fighting at the front while satellite teams scrap over remaining points positions. A good example has been the main satellite Yamaha team where Johann Zarco was able to outperform factory 2017 spec Yamahas on a 2016 spec bike during his debut premier class season in 2017, Fabio Quartararo being able to impress in 2019 on a not quite current spec Yamaha and Jack Miller having won and achieved podium finishes in MotoGP with satellite teams. This has the added benefit of putting emphasis on team’s, whether factory or satellite, in understanding the machinery and being able to set it up correctly which in turn can put the deciding factor of the result more in the hands of the rider.

The emphasis on teams being able to understand the machinery they have and being able to set it up correctly opens up for the possibility of there being ‘upsets’ like those achieved by Miller, Zarco and Quartararo, all having been able to fight at the front on satellite run bikes. It is worth noting this is a similar scenario that Formula 1 hopes its 2021 regulation overhaul will help create.

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The debate over Racing Point’s RP20 will undoubtedly rage on throughout the 2020 season and will be influenced by how competitive the team are during the coming season. However it shows that there are still areas of the sport that the FIA and Liberty Media need to hold extensive debate with the teams about in order to resolve the issue surrounding alliances/customer teams in the sport in the same way it recently discussed and researched the 2021 regulation changes.

In the RP20 Formula 1 has an opportunity to discuss, change and to a certain extent finally resolve on what support smaller teams can get from bigger teams. Amidst all the comments about Tracing Points and Pink Mercedes’ lies an opportunity that Formula 1 would do well not to miss.



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