It was called a “farce” and a “joke” last year and prompted a change in the rules for the 2018 F1 season. But are Formula One’s grid penalties really as ludicrous as has been claimed?
It’s not hard to see why the number of grid penalties being issued in F1 has caused concern. Last year drivers were penalised a total of 861 grid places. This was largely due to teams using too many power unit components:
In 2017 drivers were given 720 grid penalty places for exceeding their quota of power unit parts. But this figure is not only absurd, it’s also unrealistic. It would mean that on average every driver in every race had to move back more than two places on the grid. Obviously this is not happening.
Often drivers have been penalised far more places than there are cars in the race. The most preposterous example occured in Belgium where Stoffel Vandoorne was handed a 60-place grid penalty, three times the number of cars in the race.
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To understand the true effect of grid penalties we need to look at how they actually changed drivers’ starting positions. The graph below shows how many grid penalties each driver received last year and how many places they moved on the grid as a result of them.
The graph reveals two points. First, the effect of these massive grid penalties it much smaller than the headlines make out. That 60-place penalty of Vandoorne’s only translated into a loss of five positions on the grid.
Second, grid penalties have a beneficial effect for some drivers (those who have a negative number of ‘penalty places served’). These drivers gained more positions from rivals’ penalties than they lost from their own.
(Keen-eyed mathematicians will have realised the total of all the ‘penalty places served’ should equal zero, but actually totals -3. This is because Jenson Button was given a three-place grid penalty in Monaco which he has not yet served.)
The graph gives a more realistic view of which drivers lost most due to grid penalties. While the McLaren pair were docked a massive total of 378 grid spots, another driver lost more places on the grid due to penalties. That was Daniel Ricciardo, who lost 33 places from his starting position over the course of the year – more than one-and-a-half places per race on average.
Those who gained the most were the Sauber drivers, who picked up 26 places each over the course of the year. Another Ferrari engine customer, Kevin Magnussen, made up 23.
Although grid penalties for power unit changes are unpopular no one has yet come up with a satisfying alternative, as FIA president Jean Todt explained last year.
A fine would be treated by manufacturers as a tariff for introducing new engine upgrades and would probably lead to the FIA being accused of taxing the teams. Docking constructors’ championships points presents practical problems: A five-point fine would be little deterrent for a front-running team like Mercedes but could cost a back-of-the-grid team like Sauber tens of millions of pounds in prize money.
Instead the sport will persist with grid penalties in 2018, but with a tweak. As of this year, any driver who is docked more than 15 places on the grid will be sent to the rear of the field.
This is a cosmetic tweak. But it may prove a worthwhile solution to problem which is a largely cosmetic. Drivers receiving hundreds of places of grid penalties a year makes for compelling headlines, but it isn’t really happening, and the new rule may make that clearer.
F1 penalty data
Find details of all significant F1 penalties and investigations over the past seven seasons here:
- 2011 penalties index
- 2012 penalties index
- 2013 penalties index
- 2014 penalties index
- 2015 penalties index
- 2016 penalties index
- 2017 penalties index
2018 F1 season
- Honda’s jet division helped F1 engineers solve power unit problem
- McLaren Racing losses rise after Honda split
- Ricciardo: Baku “s***show” was Red Bull’s fault
- “Drive to Survive Episode 1: All to Play For” reviewed
- F1’s television and social media audiences rose last year