Two weeks ago, Monza played host to the Great Grid-Place Penalty Farce – or the ‘Italian Grand Prix’, as you may have heard some people call it.
While everything is going a lot more swimmingly this weekend in Singapore, Formula One should not so quickly move on from such an ugly manifestation of a key competitive problem in the sport.
Bless those poor Italian race stewards. What an ungodly hour they must have gone to bed that Saturday night, after rearranging the qualifying order to fit around the 150 grid-slot demotions they had dished out.
Phrased like that, it sounds almost as if this chaos was wrought solely by the F1 authorities, but the teams are equally culpable.
— Matt Bishop (@TheBishF1) September 3, 2017
Close followers of the sport will have noticed some time ago how rules concerning grid-place penalties were being gamed by the teams. But Monza was one of the most flagrant mass-undercuts of the system we’ve seen since the dawn of the hybrid-turbo era in 2014.
The problem with engines and grid penalties is getting worse, and Formula One shows little sign of coming up with a better solution. Suppliers are struggling to provide reliability in the fourth season of running the hybrid-turbos. Meanwhile, the sport continues to tighten the number of engines allowed per season: five in 2014, ’15 and ’16; four in 2017; three in 2018.
We didn’t just arrive at this point of nonsense without warning. Formula One has been making a complete balls-up of its new-era engine regulation from the beginning.
Rewind to 2014. Hybrid-turbo power units were introduced to Formula One for the start of that season. The new rules stipulated that if you changed to an entirely new power unit (after your allotted five for the season were spent) you had to start from the pit lane. Replacing any one component in the power unit resulted in a 10-place grid penalty, with five places added on for each further component replaced at the same round.
The rules also stated that power-unit-related grid penalties would carry over to the next round if a driver already found themselves at the back of the grid before taking all the places specified in their punishment. So there was a disincentive to trying to get a discount on your component penalties by taking them all at once. And there was a disincentive to replacing the entire engine just to bypass those component penalties.
The Maldonado precedent
Case in point: Lotus driver Pastor Maldonado at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. He got a 10-place grid penalty for exceeding the quota for one of his power-unit components – but he only qualified 17th. So, Maldonado duly lined up 22nd and last in Sunday’s race, then took the other five places in penalties at the next round, in Russia.
But in Russia, Maldonado qualified 20th of 21 cars (Marussia ran only one car after Jules Bianchi’s ultimately fatal crash at the previous round). Drivers weren’t liable to carry over a penalty through to a second race, so the Venezuelan took just one of those five extra grid-slot penalties and lined up 21st and last. Four grid-slots-worth of penalty went missing.
What’s more, Maldonado then took the opportunity to change his gearbox – incurring a five-place grid penalty. Already starting last, and with gearbox penalties not subject to carry-over, Maldonado essentially took a free gearbox change.
These 2014 rules clearly didn’t entirely prevent drivers and teams from stacking up penalties, to see them essentially written off.
Other drivers with penalties ‘written off’
Romain Grosjean, Lotus (2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix)
At the final round in 2014, Romain Grosjean took a 20-place grid penalty for various power-unit component changes. With the excluded Red Bulls occupying the back row of the 20-strong field, that meant Grosjean was relegated all the way from his qualifying spot of 16th to 18th on Sunday’s grid.
Grosjean would normally have carried 18 places-worth of grid penalty forwards to the next round – but it was the last race of the year, so there was no carry-over at all. Good for Romain, eh?
Carry-over rules were then scrapped altogether for the 2015 season. Instead, it was decided that excess grid penalty slots would translate to a time penalty in the race that same weekend. One grid slot equalled one second; so in Grosjean’s case, he would have faced an 18-second addition to his race time in Abu Dhabi under the new rules.
Jenson Button, McLaren (2015 Canadian Grand Prix)
The move to carry over excess grid-place demotions as time penalties in the race was tested by Honda’s calamitous re-entry to Formula One.
By only round seven, in Canada, Jenson Button’s McLaren-Honda was in bits, unable to run at all during Saturday qualifying. He received permission from the stewards to race, having failed to set a time within 107 per cent of pole, but needed to replace two power-unit components to make his car race-worthy.
Button did this by taking a 15-place grid penalty. But he was already starting 20th and last; so he would have to take a 15-second time penalty during the race, right?
Nope. Formula One, in its infinite fluid wisdom gave Button a drive-through penalty, to be taken within the first three laps of the race.
Though the grid penalty was written off and didn’t carry over, a drive-through penalty was arguably worse for Button than a race-time penalty – both in terms of sheer time and in terms of track position.
Carlos Sainz Jr, Toro Rosso (2015 Russian Grand Prix)
Not long after the Button debacle in Canada, F1 scrapped its clumsy and ineffective carry-over system. Good? Not really.
Instead, there was now no excess punishment at all. Once a grid penalty took a driver to the back of the grid, that was the end of the punishment. This is the move that would lead to the free-for-all of the next two seasons, where teams and drivers shot for the moon with their stacks and stacks of engine-related grid penalties.
The first man to benefit was Carlos Sainz Jr in Russia in 2015. He crashed heavily in the third practice session, ruling him out of Saturday qualifying but not the race on Sunday. Permitted to race by the stewards, Sainz was pegged to start last. He then took a 20-place grid penalty… and nothing happened.
Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari (2015 Mexican Grand Prix)
This penalty-dodging has thus far been the preserve of the tail-enders, and maybe it’s hard to hold it against them. It’s tough to compete in F1, after all.
It’s a little more difficult to sympathise, though, with 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen and the sporting powerhouse of Ferrari. His car received four new power-unit components beyond his season’s allowance all at once, as well as a gearbox change, for a total 35-place grid penalty.
A very slow run in Q1 saw him limp into Q2, where he toured round as the slowest driver on track, nearly a full second adrift of the next slowest car.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (2016 Belgian Grand Prix)
At Spa in 2016, the Sky Sports F1 channel did a ‘funny’ bit where they sent the much put-upon Ted Kravitz way beyond the end of the starting grid to a point on the circuit where Lewis Hamilton would actually have started if he was forced to take his full 60-place grid penalty in sheer metres.
Ha-ha, glorious television on the exit of Blanchimont corner – but this would hardly be any more ridiculous than the system actually in place.
Hamilton had stockpiled his engine penalties to take all at once, after early season reliability issues had seen him burn through his engines faster than most other drivers. Hamilton went out in Q1 on Saturday and did one slow lap. He was duly eliminated and was confirmed in the 22nd place to which he was always going to be condemned with such a huge penalty.
Oh wait – no he wasn’t. He was beaten to it by Fernando Alonso, who also faced a 60-place grid penalty and who didn’t even set a time at all in Saturday qualifying.
So Hamilton started 21st. He finished 3rd. What punishment! Hamilton took all his engine penalties on a track that suited his car and provided ample overtaking opportunities to come through from the back.
The Vettel precedent
Back to 2014, Maldonado wasn’t the only one to get tangled up in the engine-penalty rules, and set another unpleasant precedent.
Sebastian Vettel, in his last season with Red Bull, was forced to start from the pit lane at the United States Grand Prix after his team replaced his entire power unit – his sixth of the season.
Here it is useful to look at one passage from an Autosport news article ahead of that race:
Vettel has known since his problems in Singapore GP practice last month that he would have to exceed the allocation of five Renault power units for the year and consequently start from the back for a race.
Red Bull was able to use up mileage on older components and choose when to take the sixth engine and penalty, with this weekend’s Austin race set to be its choice.
“As far as I know, the plan is to use the opportunity to change, to have a sixth component of all the various components,” said Vettel.
Red Bull were able to exercise some choice, then, in when they took their penalty. The rules also didn’t dissuade the team from making changes to the whole engine when not all components necessarily required replacing.
Despite this softening of the blow, Vettel complained about the rule: “When you have to start form the pitlane, no matter what you do in qualifying, it doesn’t change anything. It’s a rule that is the same for everyone. But for the people come to watch the cars, to watch qualifying, it’s a very bad rule.”
Quite so, as it turned out – Vettel’s only participation in qualifying was to set a slow time in Q1 that would be within 107 per cent of whatever pole time was set in Q3, then bow out and save the car and his tyre stock from any pointless wastage.
This was clearly far from a perfect situation for F1. But as the sport tried to refine its rules, things would only get worse.
Other drivers not bothering with qualifying
Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso (2014 Brazilian Grand Prix)
Having carried over seven places-worth of grid penalties from the United States Grand Prix to the Brazilian Grand Prix, Daniil Kvyat set a time in Q1 that would be within the 107 per cent of pole and that actually put him through to Q2.
However, in his slow-to-middling car, Kvyat didn’t bother going out at all in Q2, knowing he would be unable to push far enough up the grid to prevent him starting last after his penalty was taken. He started second-last (17th) after Sergio Perez, who went out in Q1, also had to take a seven-place grid penalty for a racing infringement at the previous round.
Jenson Button (again), McLaren (2015 Mexican Grand Prix)
Confinement to the pit lane for Sunday’s race start was the punishment for a full power-unit change in 2014. But that rule was scrapped at the end of the season.
Jenson Button’s Mexican Grand Prix is a terrific example of the consequences of this change. Vettel thought the former rule was bad because it encouraged the penalised driver not to participate in qualifying. Well, when Button totted up a 70-grid-place penalty in Mexico due to multiple refits both in the power unit and the gearbox, he… didn’t participate in qualifying.
Absolutely nothing had changed.
Romain Grosjean, who ducked those penalties at the end of 2014, was at it again this year in Italy, taking a five-place grid-drop for changing his gearbox after qualifying in last spot, outside 107 per cent of pole. He served no penalty at all.
Sergio Perez, similarly marked down five spots for a gearbox swap, actually ended up starting above the position he qualified in, because so many other drivers incurred more severe penalties. The last vestiges of common sense are only just about discernible still at this point, we can all agree.
150 grid places were lost at the #ItalianGP due to engine and gearbox penalties.
— F1 Anorak (@f1anorakblog) September 4, 2017
But – would you believe it – this has all happened before!
In 2015, at the very same Monza circuit, McLaren drivers Button and Alonso took five- and 10-place grid drops respectively for replacing power-unit components. They qualified 16th and 17th, but actually started 15th and 16th because of harsher penalties to other drivers.
Toro Rosso drivers Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr took 30- and 35-place grid penalties respectively. Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat likewise took a 35-place grid-drop, while his teammate Daniel Ricciardo accumulated 50 places-worth of grid penalties.
What a mess
In a way, we almost come full circle; if everyone has an impossible number of grid-places to drop, at least the one with the highest impossible number will start the furthest down the order. But it rather makes qualifying a pointless exercise, whether the cars go out on track or not. And that is what the rule progression these past few years is supposed to have been trying to avoid.
At the root of all this, of course, is that the power units are not good enough. It seems loony to proceed with narrowing engine limits – down from four to three per driver in 2018 – when so few suppliers have reached an acceptable level of performance.
In 2016, Formula One race director Charlie Whiting described Hamilton and Mercedes‘ engine failures as an “aberration”. But if problems could beset the best hybrid-turbo unit in F1, surely we can’t be surprised as Renault and Honda continue to flounder in 2017.
Whiting added that he was “confident” in F1’s engine limitations, “because the power unit manufacturers are confident and they’ve agreed to these figures”. Such confidence – that of Whiting and that of the suppliers – has been misplaced.
A New Hope
Teams will continue to make merry with the current, flawed grid penalty system. And why not. The worst culprits are those with p***-poor power units and this serves as a somewhat cack-handed method of restoring some competitive balance until all the suppliers get their acts together.
F1 is making better progress with other regulations to help engine manufacturers catch up. Instituting minimum size and weight limits for power unit components in 2017 has aided performance convergence. Last winter’s removal of the ‘tokens’ system that was intended to keep engine development in check, but actually hindered the stragglers’ attempts to catch up to Mercedes, also represents progress.
Discussions about the next raft of engine regulations, due to come in from 2021, have begun well down a similar path. Long-absent Porsche have already indicated their interest in joining the party under the prospective new system. At a time when Formula E is attracting so many of the big car manufacturers, this is a vital positive for F1.
All the grid penalty shenanigans would melt away if the sport’s engine suppliers could keep up with the tightening regulations, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. For now we will have to tolerate the diminished spectacle, and hope that Formula One’s stock is not damaged too greatly in the long-term.
And who knows, maybe by next year’s Italian Grand Prix we’ll have come full circle: all 20 drivers will have 60-place grid penalties, and the order decided by Saturday qualifying will have retrieved some meaningfulness.
Featured image credit: Andy Mitchell (Creative Commons)