Covert operations in Grand Prix racing…

Back in the 1990s the motor racing industry in Britain was studied for the first time by academics, notably by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), an independent charity which aims to use research to contribute to public understanding of political, social and economic issues. The research was carried out by Dr Beverly Aston, a lecturer at Royal Holloway & Bedford College of the University of London and Mark Williams, a fellow in economics at Exeter College, Oxford. This examined how and why the industry developed in a cluster to the north of London, tracing the success of the industry back to 1945 when car enthusiasts began building their own racing machinery in order to get around purchase taxes and generate adrenaline which they had got to used to during the war years. They had a vast number of old airfields as their playground and very quickly commercial opportunities arose for those who built the fastest cars. Everyone was busy copying everyone else and looking for an edge to get an advantage. Espionage, if that is the word that one wants to use, had been part of racing from the very beginning, particularly in the early days of the industry when competition was fierce as hundreds of small automobile companies fell over one another to survive.

The Charlatans: Jules Goux, Georges Boillot and Paul Zuccarelli.

There are stories of legend, notably the disgraceful (but very effective) “Charlatans” who were employed by Peugeot and lured several engineers away from Hispano Suiza in 1911 with all the secrets of a planned Hispano-Suiza Grand Prix car. There was legal action between the two companies but by the time that had happened the Peugeot L76 had won the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France in the hands of George Boillot. Amusingly, there is little honour among thieves and two years later when one of the Peugeots was sent on a promotional tour in England in the care of driver Dario Resta, he stopped off for dinner with Sunbeam’s racing boss Louis Coatalen and while the two men were dining Sunbeam engineers looked after the Peugeot, taking it to pieces, sketching every detail and subsequently building a car that was really rather similar and quite competitive. Both the Peugeot and the Sunbeam were beaten in 1914 by the Mercedes but when the German car was on a promotional tour in London, war broke out and the car ended up with Rolls Royce in Derby… which produced some very good aero-engines based on the design. Meanwhile in the United States Harry Miller and his assistant Fred Offenhauser got their hands on a Peugeot engine, which gave them “inspiration” for the future. And so it has gone on…

At the end of World War II, a British intelligence officer called Cameron Earl even managed to get government help to nick some good ideas for racing cars when he convinced the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee to let him go to Germany in 1945 to go through the files of the competition departments at Mercedes and Auto-Union. He produced a report called “An Investigation into the Development of German Grand Prix Cars 1932-1939” which was published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office. This included full details of the technical specifications of the cars, including the revolutionary mid-engined AutoUnions.

The arrival of the rear-engined racing car came some years later from… England.

The point in all of this is that right now everyone is frantically getting their hands on photographs and information about their rivals, analysing the new ideas and they will soon be trying things out in wind tunnels. Last year it was not long before most teams were using F-ducts and blown diffusers…

Where does one draw the line? That is a tough question because we have seen various different interpretations in recent years in F1, although it must be said that some of the rulings seemed to be more to do with politics than with controlling such activities.

Most F1 engineers are pretty sanguine about this, arguing that if people are copying what they do, then they are always going to be behind… It is original thinking (or perhaps better use of a good idea) that wins races.

24 thoughts on “Covert operations in Grand Prix racing…

  1. Slightly off topic, but related, this is a fairly topical question at the moment. There is a special report in the editorial page of the FT online today, which looks at the extent to which industrial espionage and especially cyber attacks have grown hugely over the last few years. Industrial espionage has been going on for years, but recently has become a veyr large issue, especially as it seems in China and to some extent russia, it is a state-sponsored activity.

    here is the link to the FT, for any interested, if Joe doesn’t mind:

    In sport of course it is a more difficult question, as there is the issue of cheating coming into play. Also the questions of trying to protect innovations, etc, are hugely important. This is made all the more complicated in F1 when there is such a regular movement of personnel from one team to another, really it is quite a small, dare I use the word incestuous, or maybe cannibalistic would be more appropriate, world. I am not sure where I stand. I think innovation is good, but he use of aero innovation in everyday life is fairly minimal. the aero effects on F1 cars are now so much more complex than any used in even most aerospace situations, it is a little ridiculous. Surely that money and intelligence should be spent going towards relevant technology?

  2. Joe,

    Fantastic article, I would love to see you turn this into your next book. That would be a great read. I just bought your “World Atlas of Motor Racing” off of an amazon used book dealer. Would love to see an updated version of that also. Thansk for the great writing Joe.

  3. It happens in any and all industries. I used to work in the door mat business and as dull as that sounds (it’s a perfect conversation stopper when required) we would go to great lengths to find out how our competitors did what they did.

    Nice piece Joe, thanks.

  4. I’m surprised that F1 teams do not include non-compete clauses in their contracts, so that engineers and aerodynamicists cannot just jump from one team to another taking specs and ideas valuable to the competition with them.

    Limit the clause to, say, six months and then any secrets which the moving party has will be more or less obsolete anyway.

    My girlfriend works in advertising and has a clause in her contract which says exactly this, in order to prevent her from poaching all her clients for her new employer if she moves. It is apparently quite common practice.

  5. Reading this brought back the memory when a very pretty young lady with a bunch of cameras strutted into the McLaren garage at a GP. Of course all the “lads” were falling over each other “helping” her get her pictures of the cars. I seem to remember a few days latter it came out the pretty young lady was Jean Todt’s niece!!!

    I’d love to hear if anybody can lend more information about this bit of F1 espionage!!

  6. Great article Joe.

    It would be easy to believe that no-one had ever looked at anyone else’s car until the last decade.

  7. It is not original thinking that wins races, it is the best implementation of the understanding of that thinking (often not by the people that originally thought of the idea).

    1. Idea
    2. Understanding the implications of the idea
    3. Implementation.

    All 3 parts need to happen to succeed. Just having the idea is not enough.

    The above applies to business of all types at all levels.

  8. Hi Joe, you know an article is extremely well written if it stimulates people’s thinking and questions the status quo. Here’s to a revolutionary thought.

    What do you know about copyright in the realm of Formula 1? Perhaps the technologies and innovations designed should be copyrighted, any team that wishes to implement that technology has to pay a license fee from the original owner. This really will drive innovation, especially with smaller teams having the hope of creating a necessary innovation in F1. I think perhaps this already happens in F1 but to a smaller degree and to controlled devices (like the maclaren ECU). Something like the F-duct should have been licensed to the teams from McLaren if they wanted that innovation, and any version appearing on a different car would be deemed illegal without the license fee. This could be brought in for any technical innovation that is outside the scope of current thinking. Once licensed nothing stops a group from improving on it, and if they have an innovation on the technology yet again that could even be licensed.

    What do we think, would such a concept work and would it reduce the amount of covert operations going on? Would it drive further technical innovation by the teams or end up costing the teams money just to keep up (I would argue it would save money on R&D time for a team trying to copy it).

    Would love to hear peoe’s and most importantly Joe’s thoughts.

  9. Fascinating piece, Joe. Many thanks. As has already been suggested, a book on the subject would be most welcome!

    Your article resurrected many memories for me, for during my formative years, I spent time with my father, at Davidstow, when he and friends and colleagues were testing- doubtless you recall the non-title GP’s held there in the fifties. I remember the small manufacturing concerns operating there in outbuildings, them busy working on assorted automotive projects, including some of the many ‘specials’ of the day, much as was the case you talk about in your article, albeit on a much smaller scale.

    In addition to the study of F1 you mention, there was not so long ago, the time when the medical profession studied closely the workings of F1 pit crews, so that medical teams might work as closely and as speedily. Indeed, there was I believe, close co-operation between certain F1 teams and medics. Lessons learned there, have since been applied in A&E and surgery departments in the UK.

  10. Thanks for this, Joe.

    Like you, I find the development of our motorsport industry fascinating, and the tales of early espionage enthralling – that paper you found by Cameron Earl must make great reading! More recently than “Playing to Win”, Martin Beck-Burridge and Jeremy Walton wrote “Britain’s Winning Formula” which, while derivative, offers some interesting insights.

    You ask where one should draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable practice. There’s always been a lot of churn – staff moving between companies – and that strikes me as inevitable and reasonable. But when those staff take memory sticks with them, or enclose designs with their CVs, that’s beyond the pale.

    Of course, when technology allows for acoustic analysis of engines, compositional determination of spent rubber marbles and high speed video and detailed photography of aero devices and flexing bodywork, it’s hard to keep innovations secret for long. So perhaps patents are worth considering? As you say, the world moves on quickly and technology has a short shelf life. Allied to which, patents require full disclosure on the behalf of the creator (and therefore valuable indications of development direction), and offer little protection in a sport where it won’t be obvious if a competitor decides to abuse it.

    I know of a couple of patents that have been filed – one for “cubane” if anybody is interested. But if it was my intellectual property, I’d aim to protect it through secrecy, segmentation and by trying to retain the team that understood it.

  11. @WilliBetz,

    An interesting idea, that of those in F1 perhaps patenting some of their developments that they at present do not. However, not knowing much about the process, I find myself wondering about the length of it, how speedy it is.

    Asssuming it is fairly swift, there is the fact that, assuming it is granted, said patent would probably reveal far too much information for comfort.

    As a possible theroretical example, let’s suppose a team developed a front wing design, where said wing flexed sufficiently to be of benefit, where no flexing ought, according to the regulations, to do so, whether the patent data might perhaps actually incriminate the team, they having to demonstrate the workings of that design? It’s a thought.

  12. Copying and engineering go hand in hand, always have, always will.

    As engineer if you see a good idea, implement it, and improve it, and make what ever you are designing better than the previous guy. In turn others will copy your idea and improve what you’ve done. At the end of the days everyone wins as knowledge is being developed, and innovation is happening.

  13. I would like to add another story. In the 1929 Ettore Bugatti buy two Miller 91 cars (actually it was Packard Cable Specials) from Leon Duray and copied the engine’s twin cam top (which was actually the copy of Henry’s Peugeot). Bugatti used it on his later legendary cars like Types 51, 54 or 59.

  14. Interesting, in Australia both Holden and Ford send each of their road cars to the other manufacturer once launched to save either the effort of going out and purchasing examples to pull apart.

  15. @RichT

    To claim patent pending requires full disclosure and provides no protection beyond the possibility of future litigation. As you suggest, it’s another good reason to rely on secrecy instead – especially if your innovation relies on a controversial interpretation of the regulations!

    It’s perhaps interesting to consider that most successful innovations in F1 are either copied in short order (raising the cost-base for all competitors and affording only short-lived advantage for the innovator) or banned before they see the track (disadvantaging the innovator for their sunk direct and indirect costs)… F1 may be a fierce competition, but it’s one that relies on broad parity amongst the competitors for its appeal.

    1. By looking on Google I found that Bonham’s sold one recently for £75.00. That means they are probably worth £50

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