In June last year the Racing Point Formula One team stood at a crossroads. Thanks to new billionaire owner Lawrence Stroll, it finally had the financial backing to let its engineers off the leash, but with just one season left of the current regulations it was not clear which path it should take.
Stroll's money had cleared the team's debt and was being focused on much-needed investment at its Silverstone base, but those investments are only likely to yield results once the next cycle of regulations is underway in 2021. In the meantime, there was still a full season of racing to get on with and the team's new owner had made clear that a repeat of 2019's seventh-place finish was not going to cut it.
For years, the team previously known as Force India had punched above its weight -- which was part of the appeal for Stroll and his consortium of investors -- but in recent seasons the likes of Renault and McLaren have started to realise their true potential. If Racing Point wanted to bridge the gap to its new beginning in 2021 with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, it needed to do something different.
The result is one of the most controversial cars on the grid this year: the Racing Point RP20 -- also known as "The Pink Mercedes".
Is the RP20 just a pink Mercedes?
It's no secret that F1's midfield teams look to the front of the grid for inspiration. Pit lane design trends tend to converge on ideas that work, and if a team comes up with a successful concept it doesn't take long for it to appear elsewhere.
Even though it has not won a championship since 2013, Red Bull has set F1's aerodynamic trend for the past decade. A common trait of all Red Bull cars of the past ten years is an aggressive "rake", which refers to the angle at which the car sits when viewed from the side. Look at the rear of a recent Red Bull F1 car and you will notice it sits higher than almost any other in the pit lane, while the front of the floor often sparks on the straights due to the overall stance of the car.
The benefits are potentially huge as the speed of the air rushing under the car is increased by the rake angle, creating low pressure that sucks the car to the track. But successfully sealing the floor and stopping the air leaking from the sides is the key and also tends to dictate how much rake a team can get away with.
Despite the difficulties, most teams have attempted to mimic the Red Bull design in recent years -- not least Racing Point, which was committed to a high-rake design from 2014 to 2019. The only problem was that Racing Point's engine deal with Mercedes meant it shared a gearbox and outboard suspension components with the world champions and those components had been designed around a low-rake philosophy. Funnily enough, Mercedes is the only team that has followed a low-rake design in recent years -- an approach that may be at odds with the rest of the paddock but one that has been vindicated with successive championship success.
Last year, Racing Point was getting increasingly frustrated in its attempts to reverse engineer a Red Bull concept around a Mercedes gearbox and, with its extra funding in place, it had the option to make a clean break and pursue the Mercedes philosophy in 2020. But with limited time to hand and no experience of low-rake racing cars, Racing Point needed a starting point and it picked last year's Mercedes as its inspiration.
As long as no aero data or intellectual property regarding the bodywork of the W10 changed hands, there is no regulation stopping Racing Point copying its rival. Using detailed photos and the components it is allowed to buy from Mercedes -- in this case the engine, hydraulics, a 2019-spec gearbox and 2019-spec outboard suspension components -- the result is a car that closely mimics the championship-winning Mercedes.
"We decided to take a risk and that risk was effectively to tear up what we've done in the past few years and start again from scratch based on what we could see MGP [Mercedes Grand Prix] had been doing," Racing Point technical director Andrew Green said. "We have the same view of Mercedes everyone else has got, and there is nothing special in the information we have got -- all we have got is what we see and that's what we've started from and developed from.
"It's a completely clean sheet of paper and it's a big risk, and I still don't know if it is going to pay off. But I don't think what we have done is particularly new, in so far as taking a team's concept and doing it ourselves. I think that has been prolific in Formula One since the early days."
It might not seem like a big "risk" to copy a winning car, but copying it is one thing and understanding it is quite another. The early signs are that Racing Point has a good grasp of both, but it meant throwing away years of understanding about the high-rake concept and starting from scratch.
"It is incredibly complicated," Green added. "The cars are incredibly complicated and you build up a knowledge base from a direction that you take in terms of development and every team has got a different route they are using, with different tools, different software and different people to make decisions.
"It's difficult once you set off on a route, and we set off on this route many years ago along with a few other people who reverted from a lower rake to a much higher Red Bull-style rake, and you build up years of information about what's good and what's bad and where to go. But eventually for us the gains were starting to peter out and it was a question of should we carry on or stop and try something new?
"It is a case of throwing almost everything you know out the window and it is as close to a clean sheet of paper as you can get. We are trying to develop around a different philosophy and we don't know where that will take us and what direction to go in. Then it's for us to do the learning and understanding, and hopefully we have done some of that now and we do have an understanding of what makes a lower rake car work."
The development of Racing Point's new low-rake concept is likely to be helped by its decision last May to switch its wind tunnel work to Mercedes' facility in Brackley. Previously it had been using Toyota's wind tunnel in Cologne (originally built for Toyota's F1 project but since used by its WEC team as well as a host of other F1 teams) but it is now using a wind tunnel that has been collaborated to make a low-rake car go fast.
"It reinforced our opinion [to go with a low-rake design]," Green says. "We changed tunnels [to the Mercedes tunnel] and we wanted to see if the data we were getting from last year's car was any different in a different tunnel and if we were missing anything by testing at TMG [Toyota].
"The answer came out as no and we were getting the same sort of results, the same sort of trends, not exactly, but the same trends and the way the thing was playing out was we were fighting to develop a car around the high rake concept. The switch in wind tunnel didn't really play into the change in concept, but it just added more weight to the decision."
Inevitably, the similarities between this year's Racing Point and the 2019 Mercedes have led to a few raised eyebrows among rivals.
Of course, Racing Point is not the first team to emerge with a car that looks similar to one of the top three. Haas' technical partnership with Ferrari has resulted in a number of similarities between the two cars and Alpha Tauri shares components with Red Bull that has led to matching design trends.
The relationship between supplier and customer is different in each case, but a few years ago Racing Point (then named Force India) was very critical of Haas when it arrived on the F1 scene with a car that looked almost identical to Ferrari's. Now that Racing Point appears to be following a similar strategy, Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has been quick to point out the hypocrisy.
"Sometimes you have to think before you talk," he said. "I would say that because maybe one day it is your turn and then you cannot go against it because we all know they complained quite heavily a few years ago and now it is going full-circle."
Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer hit back, claiming his team's new car has been a result of significant investment in its design office and not due to its relationship with Mercedes.
"We copied the Red Bull concept in the past too, but we copy it within the rules," Szafnauer said. "So we see what they are doing, we take pictures, we try to understand it, we run it in the tunnel and we do it ourselves. I think it is different. We are adding people to our team -- we are soon going to be at 500. The people that we are adding is all about design, development and manufacturing so we can develop our own car.
"So although everyone says we copied a Mercedes, it is our own. It is our own design and it is our own development. It is our own wind tunnel model. It is our own concept. Yes, we look to see what is fast and we thought: that's fast, can we do the same.
"It's no different than what we did with the Red Bull when we ran a high-rake concept. But the development is our own. We will add another 100 people so we can continue our own development. It is a little bit different than what they [Haas] do."
A team that can question Racing Point's latest car with more conviction is McLaren. The Woking-based team is an engine customer of Renault but still constructs its own gearbox and suspension and has ruled out a partnership similar to Haas/Ferrari or Racing Point/Mercedes.
Yet team principal Andreas Seidl's main concern is not with the RP20 but that tight relationships between suppliers and customers are broken up once F1's new regulations come into force in 2021.
"There are clear regulations in place for this year, and I assume that everything that is happening there is legal and run by the regulations, so there's no point to complain about it," Seidl said. "What is a lot more important for us as McLaren is that looking into 2021 and beyond there are two topics which are very important for us in order to be competitive in the future and have a level playing field between the teams.
"We need to make sure that the cooperation between two teams, you do not go around the rules and, for example, increase your resources by that by personnel rotating between two teams, transferring IP by these kinds of personnel movements and so on. Because that would clearly be against the regulations, and I am confident that the FIA and Formula One are aware about that.
"That is important for us because what the budget limitation is coming in we need to make sure is actually a limitation in the same limitation for everyone. It doesn't matter if you have cooperation with other teams, which is okay and also allowed by the regulations on certain topics, but when it comes down to things like the monocoque, aerodynamics and so on where you're clearly not allowed to work together, this is what is important for me -- that this is properly policed from 21 onwards."
Will Racing Point's approach work?
The early signs from testing are that Racing Point have a very quick car straight out of the box. Testing lap times can be misleading, but the RP20 appears to be at the front of the midfield after the first week and surprisingly close to Ferrari and Red Bull.
If that is still the case when racing gets underway, the attention surrounding the Racing Point is only likely to intensify. But Green is not concerned.
"My question would really be, why hasn't anyone done this before?" Green said. "When you look at it, you think 'crikey, this is something maybe we should have done earlier'. But unfortunately we didn't have the resources earlier or the people or the funding to do this before.
"Now we have and we have decided to do it for one year before it all gets thrown away anyway at the end of this year before new regulations in 2021. So the risk of having to go back again [to our old concept] was zero because it all changes in 2021."
What's more, Racing Point is hoping the big gains it has found with its concept change can be banked early so that it doesn't have to focus on upgrades during the year. In doing that, it will free up time for its design office to focus on the new challenge of 2021.
"One of the things we were hoping for was that we could take a reasonable step forward [at the start of 2020] and not have to continue to develop the car during the season," Green added. "The car will get an upgrade in Melbourne, but will anything else happen to it beyond that, I don't know.
"But the chances are, from now, we are going to have to focus our attention on 2021, so if we can have a car that is quick out of the box and we can set it off for this championship without too many upgrades, then that's great. And that's what we are planning to do."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the RP20 is that Racing Point was willing to swallow its pride and unashamedly copy a rival. But when asked if he was proud of the car, Green's answer was clear.
"I'm proud of everything we put into this car to get to where we started from, six months ago, to here and what we are doing now is a tremendous effort," he said. "From the outside it probably looks like we have just copied a Mercedes, but it is nothing like that.
"To copy something means nothing if you don't understand what you are doing -- otherwise it doesn't work. And unless you understand the philosophy behind every single component and what it's doing you will never get it to work, and that's why it's such a big risk.
"It was about putting our faith in the aerodynamics team to go and understand what was happening and whether we can replicate it and know whether it is better than what we are currently doing.
"We will find out, but I am very proud of what the team is doing."