The media frenzy following qualifying at the Formula One Belgium grand prix in 2022 was immense. Column inches across the world were filled with a debate over the FIA’s penalty system for a team using more than the prescribed limit of three engines per season for each of its cars. Just two weeks later in Italy matters were even more confused following the qualifying session as drivers’ even questioned their media interviewers over where they in fact would start the race.
The FIA took over four hours to publish their provisional starting grid for Sunday’s race and the complex methodology used to calculate the grid drop penalties for drivers’ whose cars had used more than the prescribed annual allowance came under fire from almost all quarters.
F1 grid drop penalty farce
The result of the penalties in Belgium saw Max Verstappen awarded a “back of the grid” penalty for exceeding his engine components allowance yet he actually started the race from P15, due to penalties awarded to others.
An even more bizarre twist of the regulations occurred as Verstappen was slated to start behind Valterri Bottas whose penalty was in fact a “30 place grid drop” under the totting up system for his overused components.
Engine penalties were introduced into Formula One back in 2004 when the teams became restricted to just one engine per weekend. Prior to this the richer teams had been running specific qualifying engines that were designed to complete just a hundred miles or so and were literally thrown away following the Saturday afternoon session.
First F1 engine penalties in 2004
The introduction of the eye wateringly expensive V6 Turbo hybrid power units in 2014 saw the FIA update the restricted allowance on the number of ‘engines’ and associated components that can be used each year before penalties are applied.
This mens that presently to restrict the costs each year, teams are limited to three internal combustion engines, three turbochargers, three MGU-H, three MGU-K, three energy stores, two control electronics and eight exhaust systems a season. If any of these limits is exceeded the driver of the car is awarded a grid drop penalty.
Penalties range between five or 10 place penalties, but if a driver exceeds 15 places in a single round, they are awarded a “back of the grid” start position penalty which is where they start the grand prix unless of course someone else has even more grid place penalties, which is where things get complicated.
F1 teams game the grid drop system
In recent years the teams have wised up to the situation and no longer exceed their allowance of components following a failure, they strategically decide when to add more parts in breach of their allowance into the “pool” of components available to each car.
By choosing locations such as Spa in Belgium or Monza in Italy the teams mitigate their grid drop penalties at circuits where overtaking is easier. Famously Lewis Hamilton revived his flagging 2021 title challenge in Brazil where a new power unit at altitude pays high benefits together with the long back straight before turn 1.
The working group which reviews the FIA’s sporting code is due to meet in January and on the agenda is the matter of grid drop penalties and a range of potential replacements to the current system.
In race time penalties instead
One idea is to award in race time penalties which accumulate in a similar fashion to the current number of grid drops for various components.
Yet it is surely just as confusing when a driver during the grand prix takes a time penalty before the first pit stop or even in a stop and go kind of penalty.
Former Williams design guru and F1 commentator Gary Anderson believes that the team and/or the driver should be penalised by the deduction of championship points.
This would prevent the speculative element of introducing components into the ‘pool’ unnecessarily because unlike a driver overtaking his way through the field after a grid drop, these points are lost forever.
F1 considers financial penalties
Another suggestion is that a team could receive a financial penalty though mere fines would be disregarded as a minor inconvenience unless they were significant and reduced the team’s allowable budget under the cost cap system.
However, the problem with points deduction or financial penalties is that it simply monetarises how a team would view whether breaching the regulations for performances reasons is worth doing or not.
Further for smaller teams who exceed the prescribed allowance for genuine reasons of component failure, their entire seasons points could be wiped out at the stroke of a hat.
Points deduction another option
Deducting constructor championship points alone would inevitably lead to a team with a healthy lead in this title race sacrificing points in order to benefit their driver in his battle in the drivers’ championship.
The topic has exorcised the minds of the finest brains in Formula One and as yet no single solution can be found to prevent the debacle of Spa and Monza in 2022. So many teams mad tactical decisions to breach the allowable components regulation the formation of the final starting grid became a farce.
However, the principle of punishing drivers with grid drops does hurt the front runners more than this towards the back of the grid anyway. Races where the leading cars have to carve their way through the field mixes things up and improves the entertainment.
Is F1 qualifying compromised?
The main concern was whether given the declared number of cars taking penalties in Spa and Monza, qualifying would become a farce as drivers failed to bother trying when they knew a back of the grid penalty was looming.
Yet over the course of those two events only Bottas was guilty of this and of course Verstappen in Belgium mitigated a P20 start to just P15.
It may be the FIA decide that grid penalties are the best solution to prevent the teams gaming the restricted components system, but simplify it.
Instead of awarding 5 or 10 grid place drops for various offences, the penalty for each should be just 10 places for each offence and a back of the grid start for anything more than one component.
Simplify the penalty system may be best solution
Over the season this makes tactical breaches less likely given a driver who claims pole will at best start P11 not P6 and under the current gaming by the teams more likely face a back of the grid penalty.
Further, the FIA currently differentiate between engine and green ox breaches, this should be dropped. The fans don’t have to parse the impossible to work out for what a driver is being penalised.
The back of the grid starters if there is more than one are ordered by their actual qualifying positions which retains the integrity of the Saturday afternoon session.
Whatever the outcome of the FIA working party on the sporting regulations, any revision of the grid drop penalty system if agreed before the end of January could be enforced during the coming season.
— Goodwood Revival (@goodwoodrevival) January 6, 2023