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By: Nimisha Mishra* |

Reverse engineering refers to working backwards from the finished product or desired outcome to establish the exact pathway to success. In short, reverse engineering is a replica of the initial object by capturing, disassembling and analyzing its 3D replica. It is a popular concept which exists in almost every area of life including pharmaceuticals, the beauty industry, breakfast cereals, confectionery, dishwashing, etc.

An instance of reverse engineering is when, one company purchases another company’s product in order to assess, evaluate, dissect and identify the quality and inputs of the product so as to remain updated in the competitive market. There is no contention if the product is commercially available and there is no contravention of patent law. Acquiring information through reverse engineering on commercially available products will not be considered as “improper means” of acquiring it.

However with regards to motorsports and especially in Formula 1, the concept of reverse engineering is generally not encouraged. Dissecting cars of other companies is not allowed since the prototype products are not available commercially. The design and product created by a company is its intellectual property which cannot be copied or staled by rival teams. Therefore, in Formula 1 companies cannot access the design details including the paper products, computer discs, or performance data of their competitors. The uniqueness in Formula 1 is that every team constructs its own design and hence they are responsible for their own intellectual property. The regulations governing the cars are unique to the championship and specify that cars must be constructed by the racing teams themselves, though the design and manufacture can be outsourced.

The concept of reverse engineering has come into the limelight because of “Pink Mercedes” controversy. Reverse engineering components designed by other teams is a common practice seen in various sports.

Shortcoming of reverse engineering in F1

Often, a portion of a car falls off during a race which is picked up by a rival and every minute of it are scanned and copied within a short span of time. This information can be used to make design for their own team, which is the direct copying of someone else’s intellect and hard work.

Photograph of the same product of a car is taken from different angles during the course of the race, these photographs are later accumulated. When these photos are accumulated they only provide “best guess” designs and the final product of the team would be the result of several modifications of the initial design. Developing designs this way is considered as the intellectual property of one’s own team. The parts designed through photographs are only to get a basic idea of the design and is not an exact copy of it.

The correct way of developing a car design is to not steal anyone’s intellectual product or design. By using photographs the idea of design can be gathered this way developing a design will not be considered reverse engineering.

The controversy of Reverse Engineering

Recently in the 2020 Formula 1 season, Renault and Ferrari filed an appeal against Racing Point’s controversial brake ducts, which was deemed illegal for how closely they resembled the ones with last year’s Mercedes, on the basis that the governing body would revise the rules to stop such a situation repeating itself.

It was submitted by Racing Point that it had copied the overall aerodynamic concept of the last year’s Mercedes W10 from photographs, a practice that was not addressed in the rules that govern the listed parts that teams have to design individually without copying other team’s design.

However. FIA banned both the tactic cooperation between teams that have legitimately share other technology through business relationship as well as direct stealing of designs of the rivals. Therefore Racing Point was penalized with a 15-point constructors’ championship and fined 400,000 Euro, after it was discovered that they had used 3D images to reverse engineer brake duct from 2019 Mercedes winning design after rolling out an extremely similar design. A penalty was considered over the banning of usage of the brake duct since the court recognised it to be unrealistic to expect the teams to “unlearn” what they already know.

New rule for the 2021 Formula 1 season

The issue of reverse engineering has huge potential to impact the intellectual hard work of individual teams, considering the same; the World Motor Sports Council (WMSC) has issued 2021 Technical Regulation that outlaw the “extensive use of reverse engineering” of a rival’s design.

The main aim of the new rules formulated by FIA for the 2021 Formula 1 season is to prevent teams ‘reverse engineering’ another team's design. According to the new rulethe use of the three-dimensional cameras for reverse engineering software to create design data through photographs and images, surface scanning of parts and photogrammetry along with software that converts generated data into 3D models were all banned.”

To achieve this, changes have been made to the “Listed Team Components” (LCTs) in the 2021 technical regulations. LCTs lay down those components which are owned and controlled exclusively by the individual team. These are that the team must retain the exclusive right to use those parts while it is in F1, and the company or companies that design and/or manufacture the parts cannot be a rival team or what is defined as an ‘associate’ of a rival team.

The rule will prevent teams from using ‘reverse engineering’ in order to design LTCs. It will further restrict the sources of information a team may refer to design their cars. Reverse engineering for this purpose in Formula 1 is defined as:

  1. 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.

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

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

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

As per the new rule though it is allowed be observe the concepts and designs of a rival team’s car however direct stealing or copying their design is not permissible. Only standard photographs, observations and videos are allowed rather than teams being able to strike details to access another competitor’s LTCs.

Ban on 3D scanning and printing for reverse engineering

It is a common practice in Formula 1 to use advanced scanners such as Artect’s 3D scanner for prototypes to reverse engineer or analyse data by creating 3D models for quality control. 3D scanners are an indispensable tool used in reverse engineering. The use of 3D scanning for reverse engineering is becoming more popular than ever before, due to the precise results achievable and the ease of use.

A statement was issued by the FIA stating that “approved changes to the 2021 Technical Regulations that will prevent the extensive use of reverse engineering of rival designs for the design of a car’s aerodynamic surfaces.” It was further observed by the FIA that teams were using various software in order to convert images or photographs to design data using three-dimensional cameras. The use of 3D cameras and reverse engineering software to copy the data and recreate the design from the images and photographs and produce 3D models from generated data is banned.

If any similarity occurs between the listed components on the cars of different teams, then the FIA has the right to investigate the matter and the teams will have to prove the originality of their products. It will be determined by the FIA whether the resemblance is the result of legitimate independent work or a result of reverse engineering.

End of a long dispute in the paddock

For a very long-time, paddock was divided on the reverse engineering issue. Teams including Ferrari, Mclaren, Williams and Renault were vehemently against the banning of reverse engineering. On the other hand teams like Red Bull and Racing point did not explicitly oppose the rule; however they intended to appeal against the decision.

The objective of the new rule is to make the sport of Formula 1 more entertaining, transparent as well as sustainable from the commercial perspective and to gain the faith of Formula 1 fans globally. Formal approval was also given to the new 2021 Concorde Governance Agreement, of which FIA is a signatory along with 10 participating teams. The aim of this agreement is to secure a strong future for motor-sports with an improved governance structure, combined with the introduction of Financial Regulations while changing the Sporting and Technical Regulations to create sustainable competition.


Over the seventy years, the history of Formula 1 sports has witnessed several technological developments and advancements in newer techniques in order to improve the performances. However along with various improvements, many unfair practices in order to win the race were also observed. To minimize and control the same, regulations were passed which obliges all the teams to satisfy the FIA technical aspects and ensures that their Formula 1 car comply all the rules in its entirety during the competition. Other than safety features, all the designs, components and systems of the car must be demonstrated as per the regulation through physical inspection of hardware or materials. The 2021 Technical Regulation has shut down the possibility for teams to reverse-engineering the design and components of the rival team.


* The author is a student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.


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