How F1’s rules became so over-complicated

2016 F1 season

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Sergio Perez qualified a remarkable second on the grid for Force India in Baku. But instead of taking a well-earned place on the front row he lined up seventh due to a gearbox change penalty.

There were half as many rules to remember in 2007
Kimi Raikkonen surrendered third place to Perez on the final lap. He was never going to keep the place anyway, as he’d been given a five-second time penalty for crossing the wrong line on the circuit.

A poor run in qualifying left Lewis Hamilton needing to fight his way back to the front in the race. But his charge was halted because his team weren’t allowed to tell him how to switch his engine to the correct setting.

After the European Grand Prix you would be forgiven for thinking the regulations were getting in the way of the competition.

There may be a perfectly reasonable justification for every F1 rule in the book. But is the sheer number of them making the sport harder to follow and compromising the action? Last year over 100 driver penalties were issued – a record, and a near-doubling in just three years.

More penalties are being handed down because there are more rules to break. Taken together, the Formula One Sporting and Technical regulations have almost doubled in length during the last decade:

Keep in mind these are just the two most significant documents of F1 governance. The International Sporting Code and assorted technical directives are also used to police a championship where everything is regulated from who is allowed to compete to how many times they can change their helmet design.

How has the sport become so complicated?

Why F1 keeps writing rules

Safety and costs explain Raikkonen and Perez penalties
There are three main reasons new rules are added to the rule book: costs, safety and ‘the show’. Each of which can explain one of the Baku penalties mentioned above.

Gearbox change penalties like Perez’s exist in order to keep costs under control. If teams were allowed to, some would fit a new gearbox at every race in pursuit of a few thousandths of a second, burning through 42 a year. Limiting them to one per six races means they may use as few as eight.

Raikkonen was penalised for cutting the pit lane entry line. This rule was put in place as a safety measure to prevent a Patrese/Berger-style crash at the very high-speed approach to the pit lane entrance.

Hamilton’s penalty comes from the well-worn box marked ‘improving the show’. In response to claims drivers were being given too much assistance driving their cars a wide-ranging clamp-down on radio communications was introduced this year.

Rightly or wrongly, these three reasons explain much of the increase in complexity of F1. And it doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

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Yet more new rules in 2017

Teams could be forced to supply engines
This year F1’s tyre regulations gained a new degree of complexity in the hopes of improving the show. Early signs are encouraging but we may have to wait a few more races before proclaiming them a success.

A complicated new qualifying system was widely considered a failure and dumped after two races. But discussions continue regarding further changes to this section of the rule book for 2017 in the name of ‘improving the show’

Already agreed for 2017 is a huge new section of the sporting regulations which adds around 5,000 words to this document. The bulk of it is accounted for by its attempt to both force an engine manufacturer to supply a team with engines if needed, and to do so at a restricted price – again, for reasons of cost control.

Motorsport is a complicated activity and the particularly intense and expensive nature of F1 competition is always going to amplify that. But the ballooning rule book should give us pause for thought.

Perhaps it’s time to consider if there are more constructive approaches to F1’s problems than constantly writing new rules. And whether the sport could instead be improved by getting rid of some of them.

2016 F1 season

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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63 comments on “How F1’s rules became so over-complicated”

  1. Don’t forget directives that aren’t written published (a prime example being the track-by-track definitions of which methods of cutting a corner are considered “disrespecting track limits” for penalty purposes), which add extra rules and verbiage, without even having the merit of being easily explained to fans.

    1. * – formally published.

    2. Beyond these mysterious and variable “norms” Alianora mentions, there are these unofficial memoranda, e.g., the one issued to require a minimum fuel volume for sampling after a session. (Which later became an actual rule?)

      F1 jurisprudence, so to speak, also leads to the rule books swelling. There is a rejection of past practice as controlling precedent in the rationales for stewards’ decisions, which I suppose is less alarming to people who live in “civilian” legal jurisdictions, but it is a problem, especially in light of the fact that stewards are always new. If you need a rule to cover every possible circumstance, because you are treating every race as the first one ever, the rule books will never stop growing.

      This is a great analysis, BTW. it’s not the kind of thing you are going to find elsewhere in F1 media.

      1. @dmw Thanks very much!

  2. Still waiting to hear the justification for the ban on driver’s entertaining the fans by wearing custom helmet designs. And no, I don’t buy the excuse that it was confusing the fans. These fools just make rules because they can and it justifies their worthless jobs.

    1. Some casual fans were confused, some more serious fans were just plain annoyed. The FIA ruling still doesn’t seem like the right solution to the problem.

      1. I agree! Actually, casual fans might might even know a driver by their helmet!

        The truth is I watch every race (or at least try to if I can ‘find’ them) and don’t know all the helmets, thankfully the onscreen graphics are more than clear. it would be great if dirvers could express some personality through their helmet designs – I’m sure sponsors would like the extra coverage if it’s particularly eye-catching!

        1. It’s mainly meant at the on-track audience instead of TV viewers. But they could surely find something easier to spot, red and yellow camera pillows are a first step in that direction but not visible enough from a distance.

          1. The yellow camera on the #2 car is all you need to tell the difference between cars/drivers. If a casual fan is going to take the time to remember their driver’s helmet, surely they can instead remember if the car they are in has a black or yellow camera above the air intake.

        2. So a casual fan is not capable of recognizing somebody without their helmet? A driver wears a helmet when he is in the car, otherwise you look at his face. I think they would recognize the car colour and number before trying to spot a helmet doing 200mph. Can you point me to a citation of these ‘fans’ that were confused? Or are you just making up nonsense to justify the rules?
          “red and yellow camera pillows are a first step in that direction but not visible enough from a distance”. But a helmet is at a distance? I think these fans should clean their glasses.

          F1 is a joke.

    2. I like to think some prudish FIA busybody got hot under the collar when seeing Seb’s heat-sensitive woman who lost her clothes in the Monaco sun a few years back.

  3. Plastic bags should also be banned trackside. Look at what happened in Baku!

  4. I don’t mind rules (and penalties) like restrictions on number of gearboxes/engines or radio communications. It’s the same for everyone afterall, and everyone will suffer them during each season. It’s a matter of designing the fastest and most reliable engine/gearbox that’s make the difference and having a car that’s easy to operate (something seen in Le Mans since forever) or a driver and team able to solve problems by themselves.

    What I don’t like is F1’s current state on driving behaviour on track, and the investigation/penalties that follow. Every single move, every single touch light or not, every single bit of carbon fibre that falls from a car ends up with an investigation and it’s hard to find races without a penalty of some sort because of blocking/bad overtaking/whatever. I find that excessive. It should be handled on track, they should accept some mistakes because of the eagerness to overtake/defend. Moves like Nasr and Ericsson at Monaco: they should’ve left that alone, tough luck one of them ended up retiring.

    Unless it’s something ridiculously dangerous, penalties should be avoided.

    1. What if you’re a team owner, a different car has just hit one of yours and they now have a puncture, you go from 5th to last. Would you not want the other driver to be penalised if it was his fault?

      1. petebaldwin (@)
        23rd June 2016, 15:39

        Similarly, if you are a team owner and a different car hits one of yours and damaged it’s gearbox in practice or quali, why should you get an additional penalty for fixing your car?

    2. @fer-no65 You make a point as F1 must live in its time and cost, fuel efficiency and other concerns must be addressed. We can agree (or not) with the current rules and the avalanche of penalties which can occur from that but they are probably needed in some extend. Leaving probably a debate on whether teams should be penalised instead of drivers for some offense.

      Anyway I’m pretty sure the size on the rulebook could be decreased with the same result on track and will lead to simpler rule, easier to understand catching more people. Let’s take the tyre rule as an example, why not state that ‘The tyre manufacturer bring 3 compounds per race and teams must run at least 2 different compounds during the race’ (plus exceptions for wet races). This fits in two lines where it takes a full page on the rule book, and I’m sure we can do that with many rules. Plus the advantage to avoid Pirelli of picking twice the same tyre as mandatory for the race (for which I still don’t get the logic).

      1. fuel efficiency has always been important in racing, do you not understand the penalty of carrying more weight during a race and it’s affect on lap times?

        It is in fact the regulations that are responsible for poor fuel consumption with the V8’s. GDI is more fuel efficient than FI, especially if you can control and manage better air pressure input. But guess what, people have been stuck with the same motors in F1 for a while now, everyone has the same crap, and mandating stuff like that causes innovation to go down the *******.

    3. What I don’t like is F1’s current state on driving behaviour on track, and the investigation/penalties that follow… Moves like Nasr and Ericsson at Monaco: they should’ve left that alone, tough luck one of them ended up retiring.

      Actually, I believe the FIA are quite right on this sort of penalty.

      The Nasr/Ericsson move had to be punished. It was downright dangerous, wild, and amateurish. There was no way through, and could have caused serious injury to one of them.

      The same with, for example, Kimi crossing the pit entry line. The rule is there for safety reasons, he knew the rule, and just ignored it to get an advantage. However, had the car in front braked earlier or harder (as drivers tend to do on pit entry), it could have resulted in a serious accident.

      The FIA have been quite good, in my view, this season at leaving racing incidents without penalty. But it’s only right that any serious contact, or any breach of the rules, is investigated to determine whether a penalty is deserved.

      1. The same with, for example, Kimi crossing the pit entry line. The rule is there for safety reasons, he knew the rule, and just ignored it to get an advantage. However, had the car in front braked earlier or harder (as drivers tend to do on pit entry), it could have resulted in a serious accident.

        @dormouse Kimi not ignoring it, he just not realizing Ricciardo was going to enter the pit. It’s pretty clear he not trying to get the slipstream until the last possible moment from a car that entering a pit. Also the way Baku pit lane designed, the pit start line is much further after the lane separated from the track so there’s no reason for a car to suddenly brake hard. While I do agree it should still be punished, but the punishment (penalty points) is too harsh IMO.

  5. How do Gear Box Penalties keep costs under control? someone still has to repair/replace it, and the penalties doesn’t change that.

    1. Because it stops teams slapping a new one in for every race.

    2. @scepter You’re ignoring the not-at-all insignificant cost of each team buying up to 34 more gearboxes per year than they would otherwise require.

      1. That maybe true but gearboxes do fail, and these extreme grid penalties still doesn’t offset the cost of having lost a gearbox.

        1. @scepter No, the penalty doesn’t make the gearbox cheaper in itself, but what it does is forcing teams to try to use 4 gearboxes on the whole season. If there were no rules, teams would just bring as many as they financially can. By the end of the season, the spending is very different with or without this rule, even if they use one or two extra gearboxes for which they take penalties for.

          1. I understand the concept of the rule, but i should be tweaked by not penalizing legitimate gearbox issues.

        2. @scepter

          not penalising legitimate gearbox issues

          That’s far easier said than done.

          And even if it were done successfully, a broken gearbox is still a broken gearbox however it is damaged in the first place. It’s still going to have to be replaced and paid for. So I don’t see how what you’re suggesting would address the problem of costs.

          1. It really wouldn’t address the problem of costs, but be a way of showing the FIA that the gearbox has failed or is about to fail, and as not to penalize teams for legitimate gearbox changes, but as you said easier said than done.

          2. The other point is that, if the team know they need a gearbox to last 6 races, they will design it to last 6 races. If they know that they can just show the FIA that it failed and get a free replacement, they will make them lighter and not as strong, with a designed-in failure mode to ensure they can take a new gearbox every race (probably in a predictable way so they can trigger the failure when they want).

            These are clever people who will exploit any available advantage.

          3. I think a “legitimate” would be one where the gearbox was damaged in a crash, as in Perez’ case in FP3.

            Of course then teams could try to exploit that rule by braking the gearbox themselves.
            But would they start letting their drivers crash on purpose?
            I doubt it.

          4. Everyone seems to be missing the point that without regulation the teams would be making smaller, lighter, more expensive and fragile gearboxes.

          5. Ok, guys solution is so simple I cannot believe you’re not sayin’ a word about it. I think it is utterly unfair to penalize driver for a technical issue. So, my suggestion is to scrap the constructor’s points. For example, Force India changes gearbox prior to Baku race, -10 points in constructor standings and driver stays on the grid where he qualified. Simple as that.

      2. Hi Keith, I agree, however your figures on the number of gearboxes potentially used is probably low. I remember teams using 2-3 engines per race. 1 for practice, another for qualifying (Specially tuned) and another for the race (Ironically, 30% of the engines blew up in a race anyway). They also used to have 3 cars at each race just in case someone crashed. If the spare car was used for whatever reason, then you can assume they used even more engines in a weekend. I don’t know how many gearboxes were used in those days, but I assume it is similar to engines. In any case, a top team may use up to 6 or even 8 engines in one weekend in the pursuit of a few mere milliseconds in performance. That was 15 years ago. If this was allowed now, it could be even more. Maybe we could have engine changes at pit stops! Just joking on that last point, but who knows.

        The problem in my eyes isn’t the rules. We live in a complex world and it gets more complex by the day. My problem is the application of the rules and the understanding of what they do.

        Take the pit entrance at Baku. I think the rule is fine. It is in place for a very good reason. What is wrong is the pit lane entry, not the rule. Hopefully the FIA learn from this year and change the track to suit the rules. Changing the rules would be wrong her in my opinion.

        Take also the driver communication ban. I think this rule is good too. Did it hamper the race, Yes. Is that a problem. Probably not. I note that Manor and Sauber didn’t have problems here. I am sure that is because their systems are not as complex as the ones for the top teams. Everything reaches a limit of what is possible. In this case, it is the limit of what a driver is capable of being able to do while driving a car fast around a circuit. Merc and Ferrari will make their systems simpler in the future. It’s not the rules that are the problem, it is the complexity of the systems that are the problem. Many will disagree with this last point and say it spoiled the race. However, anyone involved in engineering or IT will know that an F1 team can design a car that can go flat out all the time. The computer can control everything from wheelspin at 1/10,000 of a second intervals to the brakes and engine, aerodynamics and suspension and so on. They outlawed computers doing this, so it became the job of an engineer on the radio. Boring. The problem here isn’t that the rules are wrong, it is that the teams were allowed to get away with too much for so long, Now they have to wind that back and they are testing the limits of what a driver is capable of. The limits were on display last weekend. I am OK with that. There will always be limits. In this case, it is the driver so we see it on the TV. However no-one complains when a driver reaches the limits of adhesion on the road and ends up crashing.

        Is it complex? Yes. Can we do anything about that? No, No and No. Otherwise we would have 30 second laps around Spa and a death everytime someone went off track.

  6. We should only have one rule:
    “What would Berny do?”
    All competitors must do the opposite.

  7. Do we know what the penalty would have been for Lewis/Mercedes if they’d told him what switches to operate? Is it even detailed at that level, or is it up to the stewards discretion?

    One wonders why they didn’t just chance it, complete the race (assuming the penalty would be applied after the race rather than as a time penalty or stop/go during the race) then contest anything handed down?

    The internet would have been in uproar, F1 would have been all over the media, etc etc. It would have been a dream scenario for Bernie :)

    1. Good Question JC – I was wondering what the penalty was if they did just tell him.

    2. Do we know what the penalty would have been for Lewis/Mercedes if they’d told him what switches to operate? Is it even detailed at that level, or is it up to the stewards discretion?

      The new restrictions haven’t been broken yet (as far as we know) so there’s no specific precedent. It’s being enforced through a stricter interpretation of article 27.1 of the Sporting Regulations which states “The driver must drive the car alone and unaided”, and a breach of the Sporting Regulations can be punished with one of the following penalties which we’re familiar with:

      a) A five second time penalty.
      b) A ten second time penalty.
      c) A drive-through penalty.
      d) A ten second stop-and-go time penalty.
      e) A time penalty.
      f) A reprimand.
      g) A drop of any number of grid positions at the driver’s next event.
      h) Exclusion from the results.
      i) Suspension from the driver’s next event.

      Looking at the most lenient of these, you have to wonder if Mercedes had expected to get just a five-second penalty and reckoned Hamilton would have lost more than that because of the problem, perhaps they might have considered it worthwhile giving him some help and living with the penalty?

      1. It’s probably worth noting also that the five-second penalty has been the most commonly-issued in-race sanction by the stewards over the last two years:

      2. However, they could not count on that. The stewards may have chosen to make an example of them, to stop other teams doing the same. A grid drop or drive through would certainly not have been worth it…

    3. I believe the reason is simple. Mercedes have the best engine, arguably the best chassis and driver. They have won several WCC & WDC and are easily leading the current season. They had a driver in the lead and was going to win comfortably. Had they disobeyed the rule they would have been guilty of cheating for the sake of a few extra WC points. Not the image they want to portray. They need to win and lose with dignity which they currently do. I applaud the team on this occasion. Had it been a team that is yet to score a point, I would understand them giving it a go and see what happens.
      IMO, if it had happened to any other driver we wouldn’t see more than a few lines dedicated to it. Imagine, “Rio Haryanto retires on lap 38 because team were not allowed to advise how to select reverse gear”. Big deal.

    4. More to the point, Mercedes better call MotoGP and ask them where to buy a Pit-board so they can tell their drivers what setting they should be in.

      1. @hohum Unfortunately the radio ban also extends to pit board. Remember how Ferrari was investigated for using color codes in their pit board?

        1. @sonicslv, thanks, I must have missed it but I should have known they would go from one extreme to the other.

  8. Tiago Vilhena
    23rd June 2016, 14:52

    Considering that they would be willfully breaking the rule I would assume a heavier penalty would be applied.

  9. I wonder why, if the engineers were certain they knew the problem, Mercedes didn’t call Hamilton into the pits. They could have had an engineer waiting ready to change to the correct setting in an instant. This would surely have lost less time than having half a dozen under powered laps.

    1. @accidental-mick The pit lane time loss at Baku was 23.4s and Mercedes said it was costing Hamilton 0.2s per lap, so he’d’ve needed 117 laps to make it back, more than twice the race distance!

      Though now you mention I realise my suggestion that he might have reclaimed enough to make a five-second penalty worthwhile was a bit wide of the mark. He had the problem for 15 laps, it would have taken 25 laps to make up the lost time.

      Assuming, of course, that Mercedes’ 0.2s/lap time loss is accurate. His 40th to 42nd laps show a much greater time gain, which is curious.

      1. I think the 0.2s per lap Toto was talking about was literally just the performance loss from the PU, but in reality it was worse because Lewis was preoccupied on the problem / chatting / and generally frustrated.

      2. My sense was that the team – already having shown great sensitivity to the fans’ frustration with their hobbling of Hamilton – played down the impact of the issue. 0.2s would barely be noticeable to the driver. Hamilton’s complaining and the deltas tend to suggest it was a bigger issue.

      3. @keithcollantine I think it’s safe to assume he lost much more than just 0.2s per lap. Rosberg was like a second per lap faster than anyone else in the race, so then Hamilton should still have been able to lap 0.8s per lap faster than anyone else, but he didn’t. During the race Mercedes of course didn’t know if and when Hamilton would have solved the problem, so there were too many unknowns to make a good decision. Still I think it was better to take the risk.

      4. @keithcollantine The simplest observation is Hamilton have no problem following Perez’s Force India and he can go faster in clean air as he demonstrated at lap 42 after the problem fixed itself. Therefore the total loss of time by the problem is at least the gap between him and Perez at lap 41.

  10. the rules are not complicated, this is an obfuscation about what is really going on. but that is the norm.

    The rules are written to benefit the engine manufactures at the expense of the poorer teams and teams like RBR. That is really what is going on. The radio ban had nothing to do with Lewis sorting out his crew’s mistake, and it certainly didn’t keep Rosberg from going back on the mistake he himself made during the race. The problems being completely different, despite what Toto, Lauda and the corporate line would like you to believe.

    Nothing wrong with the rules if you want teams like Ferrari and Mercedes to have more advantage. The FIA screwed RBR, and a lot of other teams with the new ‘formula’. The fact that people won’t say anything about the way the rules are being gamed says quite a lot imo. Next year when there is more drag on the cars, and the tires are dragging down the drive train, the fuel efficiency/limitations will be even worse for the poor teams. It’s a real sad fact that people keep repeating what they are told and won’t acknowledge how the system is being gamed to screw the poor teams/RBR. But hey, maybe that’s life, and we should all just tow the party line, and hope we get by.

    You want real change, Ban stupidity, and ditch the fuel capacity limit, limit turbo boost and keep the 100kg/hr fuel flow rate. More fuel is the cheapest way for poorer teams to get faster with real talent.

    1. You keep saying that the FIA wants to screw RB, when in fact the planned increase in down force for next year plays in RB hand. I don’t follow your logic there @xsavior .

  11. Why does F1 have so many rules? Because writing rules is what rule makers do. If they closed the book and said ‘right that’s the ticket, we’ve nailed it’ they’d make themselves redundant. So in order to keep being relevant they keep writing new rules.

    F1 is a prototype series, ever evolving so ever in need of new rules as new issues present themselves. But the way they keep trying to solve problems that either aren’t there or that they have no business solving needs pulling in line. Spicing up the racing isn’t the business of a bureaucrat, leave that to the teams to find a way to fight each other.

    Who rules the rule makers?

    1. Bernie and the Jets!

      (The Jets are the teams on Bernie’s preferred Technical Committee – or were preferred until they were on the committee)

  12. Too many rules kill the rules. Sporting rules annoy me a bit less than the technical ones, which are killing the sport by making it over-complicated.

    Sometimes, I wonder how many people really watch the full F1 season per year, instead of the 400-million figure that’s been said in the press for years.

    PS: Great article Keith!

  13. Tommy Scragend
    23rd June 2016, 18:14

    The rules have to be so complicated nowadays to stop teams trying to exploit loopholes. At one time people might have competed to the spirit of the rules rather than necessarily to the letter (although even then not always), but they certainly don’t now.

    And with the money at stake who can blame them…

    1. The thing is are the spirit of the rules in keeping with the spirit of the sport?

      Pinnacle of motor racing, that’s what it’s branded as. So why are flexible aero devices prohibited? The way Red Bull designed it’s wings to pass deflection tests but still permit flex to optimise aero is to me in keeping with the spirit of innovation. But complex rules have been bolstered to prevent it.

      The spirit of the rules has created an environment whereby one team has stolen a huge performance march, and the rules are so restrictive that other teams can barely gain on them as fast as they make further progress.

      I’ve been watching F1 so long now that a new rule is fairly easy to digest (though the tyre thing took a while) but sitting a new fan down and trying to tell them how it works from scratch is just insane. Someone asked me recently why Mercedes are so much better, and it would have taken a race weekend to fully brief them on the details of it.

      1. I’ve been watching F1 so long now that a new rule is fairly easy to digest (though the tyre thing took a while) but sitting a new fan down and trying to tell them how it works from scratch is just insane. Someone asked me recently why Mercedes are so much better, and it would have taken a race weekend to fully brief them on the details of it.

        @philipgb I disagree. Explaining why Mercedes is so much better is no harder than explaining why McLaren MP4/4 is so much better, or FW14, or F2004, or RB15 for that matter. It’s all goes down to a simple thing: They did better job than anyone else. Now if you want to break down the details, it also going to take race weekend to tell them the details of Honda turbo, active suspension, etc.

  14. I’m really not a fan of the granny state rules
    Particularly on track penalties. Causing a collision, leaving another driver space, movement under braking. Yes some rules are needed in these areas but I think it has gone too far

  15. Maybe the goal is to make F1 the new cricket.

  16. Why not allow automatic transmission systems? It seems to me that having the rule that says a driver has to have a manual gear change is unnecessary, if it was the best option, then that is what teams would use, and if it wasn’t the best option, then teams would use some sort of automatic transmission, and if it made no difference then you’d find some teams use one, others would use the other. I recalled seeing a car, I think it was a Renault quite a few years ago, and they had lights on the dash board telling the driver when to change up or down, which made you wonder what the point of the rule was.

    1. While at it, they could have an automatic driver.

      I have lights on my dashboard that come on when the revs get to certain points. However, I decide whether to change gear – just like F1 drivers. Its just a dumbed down rev counter. So are you ok with having a rev counter or is that ‘telling the driver to change up or down’ as well?

  17. I have a solution to the problem Hamilton faced in the Baku race and the rule book.
    Simply ban all modes etc. Let the car have one way of operating and that is it! No engine mode 4,5,6,7,8,9 and all that. This will force them to remove a lot of the buttons on the steering wheel as well and help the driver focus on actually driving more. Also the electronics will become simpler if the manufactures where forced to have only one single operational mode and strange electronic failures and issues may become more rare.

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