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Red Bull and the No Homers Club: Does “any” mean “all” in the Formula 1 rulebook?

Remember the No Homers Club in The Simpsons? A young Homer Simpson (in a flashback scene) is denied entry to the No Homers Club. He protests that Homer Glumplich is part of the club, before being told by the doorman: “It says ‘No Homers‘ (with the final s stressed). We’re allowed to have one.”

Of course, The Simpsons is a fictional show, but this week, Formula 1 team Red Bull presented an argument on the meaning of “any cars” that is just as ludicrous as that of the No Homers Club.

Before I discuss the meaning of “any”, for the sake of any readers who did not watch the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and do not watch Formula 1, I’ll explain what happened last Sunday in layman’s terms, for the sake of context. You can skip to the subheading “What the rules say” if you watched last Sunday’s race.

In the final laps, Max Verstappen, on new (i.e. faster) tyres was chasing Lewis Hamilton on old (i.e. slower) tyres, but wasn’t catching him quickly enough. Then, Nicholas Latiffi, who was not anywhere near the leaders, crashed into one of the barriers and his car was in a dangerous position. As usually occurs in such a situation, the safety car was deployed.

The safety car is a road car that drives round the circuit at a much lower speed than Formula 1 cars. All the Formula 1 cars must follow behind the safety car (and may not overtake) until the mess from the accident has been cleared up and it is safe for racing to resume.

When the safety car is deployed, any gaps between cars (including between Hamilton and Verstappen) are eliminated, so Verstappen would, in theory, be right behind Hamilton if racing resumed. I say in theory, because there were actually a few drivers between Hamilton and Verstappen that had been lapped (i.e. the race leaders were so far ahead of them that they had completed one lap more than them).

The mess from the crash was finally cleared up during the penultimate lap of the race, leaving the officials with a dilemma on what to do at the end of that lap.

When the safety car is deployed, the rules state that the officials may allow all lapped cars to unlap themselves and drive round the circuit at full race speed before rejoining the back of the pack. The safety car is then withdrawn once they have caught up. The problem in last Sunday’s race, however, was that allowing the lapped cars to unlap themselves would have required an extra lap with the safety car, so the race would have finished while the safety car was still out, resulting in an anti-climax to the final race of the season.

The other option was to restart the race without allowing lapped cars to unlap themselves. But that would have given Hamilton an easy run to the finish, as by the time Verstappen had overtaken the three lapped cars, Hamilton would have been too far away for Verstappen to catch him before the race ended.

The officials initially announced they wouldn’t allow lapped cards to unlap themselves, then changed their mind. Both these options are allowed in the rules. However, in an unprecedented move, they allowed the cars between Verstappen and Hamilton to unlap themselves but told the lapped drivers situated behind Verstappen to stay put. Furthermore, in another unprecedented move the officials withdrew the safety car immediately, rather than waiting an extra lap for the cars that had unlapped themselves to catch up.

The decision gave Verstappen the best of both worlds: an extra lap of racing, but no lapped cars in the way. Verstappen overtook Hamilton and won the race and the 2021 Championship.

What the rules say

Hamilton’s team (Mercedes) are protesting that the rulebook wasn’t followed. Here’s what Article 48.12 of the rules says (my emphasis):

“If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message ‘LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE’ has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the Safety Car.”

Verstappen’s team (Red Bull) are arguing that “any cars” does not mean “all cars”.

It will be interesting to see whether Red Bull stick to this argument if the case goes all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, as it most likely will. In my view, they don’t have a leg to stand on.

Let’s look at some of the other articles in the Sporting Regulations that use the phrase “any car” or “any cars”, and consider whether Red Bull’s interpretation works for those articles.

Article 10.4

Any car used for TCC [Testing of Current Cars], TPC [Testing of Previous Cars] or PE [Promotional Events] must be fitted with the secondary side intrusion panels described in Article 15 of the F1 Technical Regulations and the Appendix to the Technical and Sporting Regulations of the relevant year.

Do Red Bull believe this means that a team may run one car with secondary side intrusion panels and one without? Have Red Bull been doing this, if they believe “any car” does not mean “all cars”?

Article 34.2

All cars must be fitted with a car positioning system which has been manufactured by the FIA designated supplier to a specification determined by the FIA. No other parts which, in the opinion of the FIA are capable of performing a similar function, may be fitted to any car. (Article 21.3)

Do Red Bull believe that teams may use a car positioning system not manufactured by the FIA-designated supplier on one car, if they use an authorized system on the other?

Any car which fails to leave the pit lane during qualifying practice session will be deemed to be in parc fermé at the end of Q1 [the first part of the qualifying session].

Does this mean that if more than one car fails to leave the pitlane at the end of Q1, only one of those cars is deemed to be in parc fermé?

Article 36.1

Any car which does not complete a reconnaissance lap and reach the grid under its own power will not be permitted to start the race from the grid. (Article 36.1)

If both Mercedes failed to complete a reconnaissance lap, would Red Bull be happy for one of the two Mercedes started the race from the grid?

Article 36.2

Any car which is still in the pit lane can start from the end of the pit lane provided it got there under its own power. If more than one car is affected, they must line up in the order in which they qualified. However, any car reaching the end of the pit lane after the five (5) minute signal must start behind any car already at the pit exit.

This is where it gets even more ridiculous if we apply Red Bull’s understanding of “any car”. Do Red Bull believe that if several cars reach the end of the pit lane after the five-minute signal, it would be acceptable for one of those late-arriving cars to push past all but one of the other cars? After all, if that car moves to second in the queue, it would still start behind “any car (i.e. one car) already at the pit exit”? Furthermore, once one car has pushed its way to second in the queue, all the other cars could then move to the front of the queue, since “any car” (i.e. one car) would already be starting behind “any car”.

The list goes on. There are 28 instances of “any car” in the Sporting Regulations I found online (which seem to be an incomplete version, as they only go up to Article 46 and do not include the now famous Article 48). If you apply Red Bull’s new definition of “any car” throughout the regulations, it would basically allow teams to cheat with one car on the grounds that the rules apply to “any car”, not “all cars”.

If Red Bull’s “any doesn’t mean all” argument is presented in court and the arbitrator does not dismiss the argument, Mercedes’ lawyers should mention the ridiculous ramifications that such an interpretation would have on many other rules.

Should the wording be clearer?

In this context, “any” clearly means “all the cars that have been lapped”. It does not allow the officials to select, on a whim, which lapped cars may overtake. But would it have been better if the drafter had used the phrase “all cars that have been lapped”, to make it impossible to argue that the phrase means anything different? I expect Article 48.2 will be adjusted for next year, even though Red Bull’s argument is untenable.

Translating ambiguity

I’ve found various French articles that discuss Sunday’s events and Article 48.2. The articles translated the adjective “lapped” in different ways, but they all translate “any…car” as “toute voiture”.

Here’s how one article in French explains Red Bull’s argument:

1. “Toute” ne signifie pas “tous”. (toute voiture ne signifie pas toutes les voitures)

With this French wording, Red Bull would have even less of a case, as “toute” and “tous” are basically the same word in two different forms.

If the regulations existed in French, would this wording mean that the translator hadn’t translated them correctly? No. As translators, we translate meanings, not words. And the meaning of “any lapped car” is perfectly clear. I don’t even see how it’s possible to explain Red Bull’s argument properly in French without referring to the English words.

If Article 48.2 actually was ambiguous, a translator would have to retain the ambiguity. (Sometimes we can ask the client to change the source text, but that might not be possible on a text like this, which is agreed upon by all Formula 1 teams.) But it’s obvious what “any lapped car” means here, so “toute voiture” is a perfectly valid translation of “any lapped car”. Christian Horner‘s assertion is – no pun intended – a load of bull.


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