Does F1’s engine penalty system need a rethink?

Formula 1’s approach to handling engine penalties was at the forefront of the discussions surrounding the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend.

Current World Champion and title hopeful Lewis Hamilton earned a mammoth 55-place grid penalty for exceeding the number of legally allowed power components that each driver is allowed to use per season. Likewise, McLaren-Honda’s Fernando Alonso found himself starting at the back of the grid after incurring a 60-place grid penalty for the same reason.

The idea of a driver being penalised more than 50 grid places in a sport that only has 22 grid slots available is nonsensical, to say the least, with the likes of Alonso articulating their bemusement at the current system used by the sport. In light of the general sense of discontent that surrounds F1’s engine penalty system at present, a rethink of how the sport polices engine usage may be in order…

How does the current engine penalty system work?

Formula 1’s current hybrid power units are comprised of six different components, namely the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), the MGU-K, the MGU-H, Control Electronics, a Turbo and an Energy Store. Each driver is allowed to use a maximum of five units of each of the six components per season.

These components may be used in any combination during the course of the season. If, however, a driver uses a sixth unit of any of the above components, they incur a 10-place grid penalty for the race weekend during which the sixth component is used. Using a sixth unit of any of the remaining components earns the driver a 5-place grid penalty. The process is then repeated for the seventh round of units, i.e. a 10-place penalty the first time a seventh component is used, and a 5-place penalty for any subsequent seventh units that are used. As mentioned above, the grid only has 22 slots to begin with, so these engine penalties represent a major blow to a driver’s bid for glory on a weekend during which they incur a penalty.

How did Alonso and Hamilton earn so many penalty places?

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Lewis Hamilton found his Mercedes W07 beset by reliability problems during the early part of the season, with the Briton often unable to challenge team-mate Nico Rosberg as a result. In effect, Hamilton’s reliability problems meant that the Briton had run out of engine components by last weekend’s race. Mercedes chose to equip and re-equip two new units of both the turbo and the MGU-H to the world champion’s car, thus earning him a 30-place grid penalty.

Since additional grid penalties are no longer carried over to the following grand prix as they were last season, the German team opted to make use of additional units of the ICE, MGU-K, MGU-H and turbo, which pushed the total to 55 places.

Concerning Alonso, his McLaren team had equipped a sixth component of all units to his car for Spa, earning the Spaniard a 35-place grid penalty. However, this power unit developed a water leak, leading to the team replacing several of the components, which in turn added a further 25-place grid penalty to Alonso’s total. Just like in Hamilton’s case, however, he was already destined to start from the last row of the grid, so the additional penalty points made no real difference to his race weekend.

Why does the sport have a penalty system for engine usage? And why is it so complicated?

Formula 1’s effort to limit the number of power unit components that the drivers use per season comes as result of a need to stop costs from spiralling out of control. About a decade ago, the teams were allowed to make use of as many engines as they wished. As a result, the larger teams, who enjoyed considerably more financial clout than their smaller rivals, could afford to make use of a far larger supply of engines over the course of the season, which in effect “locked in” a certain performance advantage.

In order to address this disparity, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, began to limit the number of engines that each driver could use per season. By 2013, which represented the end of the “old” V8 engines, each driver had an allocation of eight engines for the entire season, with grid penalties applied for exceeding that amount.

The sport’s engine penalty system is so complicated because the V6 hybrid power units that power the current generation of cars are, by definition, complex as a result of their being comprised of so many different components. As a result, the FIA was forced to develop an extensive set of regulations to police how these components are used in order to make provision for all possible scenarios.

How can the engine penalty system be changed?

While they may keep costs under control, some have argued that such regulations are damaging the sport, and that they should be scrapped. However, doing so will simply lead to the bigger teams gaining an even greater advantage over the smaller teams. In other words, it will further disadvantage competitors who are already on the back foot due to a lack of financial resources relative to their rivals.

Formula 1 is an expensive sport by definition, and this fact cannot be wished away, but that does not mean that the gulf between the front-runners and the backmarkers should simply be allowed to grow ever-larger.

However, it does seem unfair to punish a driver with a hefty grid penalty for something that they cannot significantly control. Decades ago, the drivers had to make a conscious effort to limit the strain that they put their gearboxes and engines through. Of course, today’s version of Formula 1 also makes it necessary for the drivers to look after their cars, but increased reliability has reduced the need for such management techniques.

Furthermore, the drivers often have little to no warning that their engines are about to fail; one moment they are charging along at full speed, the next there is a puff of blue smoke from the rear of the car and it crawls to a halt. In short, the drivers are being punished for something that they cannot significantly avoid or prevent.

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It may be an option to impose a fine on the teams if one of their drivers is forced to exceed the legally-allowed number of power units per season. However, this solution again disadvantages the smaller teams as a fine of a given size represents a larger slice of their budgets than it does for the larger teams. Instead, the team could lose a share of its points in the Constructor’s Championship, while the Driver’s Championship remains unaffected.

If this idea seems foreign, it is worth remembering that in 2007 the FIA chose to strip McLaren of all its Constructor’s Championship points as a result of the infamous Spy-gate scandal. However, the drivers were allowed to keep their points on an individual basis. A similar rule could apply with engine penalties. However, the penalty would have to be a proportion of the team’s points rather than a fixed amount, as a 20-point penalty, for example, is far more devastating to Force India than it is to Ferrari.

The finer details of such a system would have to be carefully thought out; the battle in the Constructor’s Championship is fierce amongst the mid-field and backmarker teams and a single, hefty penalty could effectively scupper their entire seasons. In theory, however, the idea of the team losing points rather than the driver creates a substantial penalty while allowing the driver to do their job without being punished for something they cannot control.

Overall, the debate on how engine penalties are applied shares similarities with Formula 1’s recent attempt at banning certain radio communications. When the radio ban was in effect, the line between what the driver was supposed to be able to do unaided while in the car and what their team was allowed to help them with became blurred.

Questions were raised about how drivers were supposed to understand and operate the myriad of software settings that modern F1 cars possess, especially when understanding these systems was always the domain of the highly-skilled engineers on the pit wall. Similarly, the punishment for mechanical failures should be shifted to the team as opposed to the driver, whose job should be simple: to drive as fast as possible

Adriaan Slabbert

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