Why F1’s ‘grid penalty farce’ is an exaggeration

2017 F1 season

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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.)

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, Interlagos, 2017
The biggest loser from grid penalties wasn’t a McLaren driver
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

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2018 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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55 comments on “Why F1’s ‘grid penalty farce’ is an exaggeration”

  1. How about ditching the stupid engine rules!!!

    1. Then you’re back to teams using 3-4 engines a weekend. It’s not great, but what we’ve got now is the least bad option anyone has come up with.

      1. @lancer033 I think the fact that the manufacturers have shown they can make high performance engines capable of lasting for multiple Grand Prix to save money on manufacturing costs means that they won’t be going back to the days of having effectively one engine per day, even if they decide to remove grid penalties for engine changes, because it has been proven over the last 10 or 15 years that it was an expensive and largely pointless exercise.

        1. make high performance engines capable of lasting for multiple Grand Prix to save money on manufacturing costs

          I think it was more because the regulation amndated that they did

          it has been proven over the last 10 or 15 years that it was an expensive and largely pointless exercise.


          1. If the engines were allowed to last less time, then they could be either lighter or more powerful since they wouldn’t have to endure the stress of running for as long. That’s a performance advantage. 1 manufacture will do that and when one does it, they either all have to or they won’t be competitive anymore. That’s what happens in every level of racing around the world, when you are allowed to spend money to gain an advantage, someone will and everyone that doesn’t is left behind until the series is dead because no one is willing to pay beyond a point and they don’t want to show up just to lose.

        2. I heard the other day that Mercedes builds about 100 F1 engines and tests them all to pic the best few for their cars. If they already build 100 a year, then how does only using 4 a team save money? Give them enough engines to compete without having to turn them down for reliability. 8-10 engines would make more sense to me. That would still leave 20 engines in “reserve” at the factory. Heck, even Honda could make it all year with 8-10. :)

          1. @twiinzspeed, that’s because the engine manufacturers have agreed to sell the engines at a capped price per unit to their customers. Mercedes could produce as many engines as they want in your example, but the costs would have to be born by themselves because they have agreed not to charge their customers more for those engines – and controlling over the costs charged to the customer teams has been the focus of these discussions, which is why the engine usage restrictions are coming in.

            As an aside, that production figure of 100 per season sounds high – I know that Cosworth have talked about their production figures for the era when engine use was unlimited in the early 2000’s, and they weren’t producing that many engines per season even though they were supplying multiple teams as well. Furthermore, it’s reasonably common for components to be recycled from one engine to another over the course of a season, so I doubt that an engine manufacturer would produce enough components to manufacture that many engines over the course of a season.

            On another note, did you also make an allowance in your suggestion for additional engines for the tests that take place before, during and after the season?

          2. I’ve also read that the costs shift to other field. Once the engine costs are capped, teams expends huge sums in aero. When track testing was banned, teams simply shifted to wind tunnels and CFD, and to simulators. And we have seen teams with the whole year ruined by a wrong built tunnel or low correlation between CFD and track.

        3. As a recent Mercedes engineer revealed.. they build up to more than hundred engines in the factory and select the best three. Not really a way to cut costs..

      2. Agree, engine life is just a function of power output. Any 2017 engines, even the Honda, could last 10 races. They would just have to run at a lower setting, Honda of cause being massively behind to survive….
        Increase the engine allowance and Ferrari and Mercedes could crank them up to 11, Honda would still be left behind…

      3. I was thinking more along the lines of allowing teams to fix and refurbish their engines rather than having to build a bunch of engines they may never use and scrapping perfectly good components because something else in the unit wore out…

        I want to see cars pushing hard for most of the race at every track. Not backing off because they need to make their engine last for a number of races…

    2. Yes, the grid-penalties are only a symptom of the underlying problem, which is the lack of respect for individual races. The ever growing dependencies between race-weekends within the championship, the ever growing importance of the championship over the races, that all just takes away from the fun, the suspense and the enjoyment of watching a race. It takes away meaning from the individual result, which is even more painful when considering surprise results; They just don’t resonate as much anymore as they used to.
      And apart from that, engines and gearboxes having to last several races also means they are coming to the end of their lifespan only every 6-7 weekends, resulting in utterly boring reliability and adding to the predictability of races.

  2. Shaun Robinson (@)
    23rd January 2018, 13:20

    Great analysis. I find it absolutely ridiculous that Sky Sports (not sure about others) have clung to the idea that this is absurd and confusing. Its like they don’t understand the end result themselves. All it takes is a look at the starting grid and its quite obvious someone hasn’t been demoted 60 grid slots… Their alternative suggestions don’t address the underlying problem of costs either. If they stopped blabbing on about it in their headline grabbing way then the casual viewer might actually have the chance to understand the rules!

    Rant over. phew.

    1. @robinsonf1

      I find it absolutely ridiculous that Sky Sports (not sure about others) have clung to the idea that this is absurd and confusing.

      For as much as I love the depth of there coverage, The dozens of extra OnBoard feeds & stuff we have & for as much as I actually like most of there on-air team… I am starting to get irritated with there obvious attempts at driving the narrative & rallying against things they do/don’t like.

      For example you look at the engines. They seem to have taken a decision last year that the engines are rubbish & we need a return to V8’s & they not only spend every race weekend last year pushing that *Brundle especially which I found disappointing) but they also seemed obsessed with having Christian Horner on there coverage several times over a weekend in which they would repeat the same lines about engines each time & leave Christian to push the Red Bull agenda unchallenged with them agreeing with everything he said.

      I like David Croft, I enjoy his commentary for the most part but his obsession with getting behind a cause & then pushing for & constantly moaning about said cause is getting beyond annoying.
      For example his constant moaning about track limits (Even when he actually has a point). Track limits are an issue & it doesn’t need sorting out, But in places like the exit of Ascari Chicane at Monza where he feels the need to point out & moan about every car that runs wide every year even when Anthony Davidson, Di Resta or whatever Ex-driver is alongside him suggest running wide there isn’t a problem gets annoying after a bit.

      1. The Sky Sports commentators are mostly there for me to moan at and correct on all their mistakes as I watch the race or qualifying or whatever. They add something to the show, I feel, in the same way that a villain adds something to an action movie.

    2. Thank you for the rant, saves me the trouble of going off on one myself @robinsonf1! For me it is one of the most annoying parts of the Sky broadcast.

    3. I was typing up a response in the same terms, but you’ve said it better than I was going to @robinsonf1.

  3. I actually think it works out quite neat that the ‘big teams’ at the front suffer the greatest cost of breaking the rules as those are exactly the teams who would quite happily pay a tariff or manipulate any rules which didn’t properly penalize the drivers (e.g. Red Bull, in the recent past both they and Newey have shown a tendency to push things to and often beyond the limit creating additional unreliability through choice in the aggressive pursuit of performance, which is exactly what these rules are meant to deter). Meanwhile McLaren/Honda who had real problems and perhaps had no choice but to keep replacing power unit parts actually suffered relatively little for their problems.

  4. While it is true that McLaren did not lose as many grid positions as they were issued, the fact remains that the upcoming penalty made them treat the qualification as a formality. After all, to progress to Q3 would mean that they had to start at the back of the grid on used tires…
    If there had been anything to gain in qualifying they would have moved up more, and as a consequence would have had more points to lose. They did not so Ricciardo ‘won’ this one.

    The problem with the penalties is mainly that they are too severe, and therefore become ineffective.
    If you have to change 2 components you’ll start at the back; might as well change everything then. And never mind the qualification. Don’t want to start on old tires anyway.

    To mend that 2 things are needed:
    – Reduce the penalty to 2 slots per component (instead of 5) and 4 for the first component of a new tier;
    – When the penalties drop a driver out of the top 10 grid positions they no longer need to use the Q2 tires to start the race, excluding penalties taken after Q2 ended.

    With these in place there is still an incentive to save engines; if the inevitable happens the teams will hold back from replacing the full stack and there will still be reason to give it all in qualifying.

    1. I reckon three places for each component would do the job nicely. Having said that I don’t think it’s a particularly big problem as allowing the teams to replace everything can be beneficial.

      As for the tyre rule, I wish that were scrapped altogether. It’s a terrible gimmick that punishes good performance does little to improve the racing

      1. 3 or 2 would each accomplish the goal.
        I chose 2 because it is an even number; the teams cannot influence the side of the track they start on by taking a penalty. (even so, 3 places will usually more than compensate the benefit so this point is kinda mute).
        They can still take a penalty just to promote the other driver (if close behind) to the clean side of the grid like Ferrari once did with Massa to get Alonso to the good side.

  5. It’s probably also worth mentioning that not every part change penalty was as a result of something failing.

    Lewis Hamilton’s engine change & grid penalty in Brazil for instance was done because he crashed in qualifying (100% his mistake) & was starting last anyway having not set a time so the team decided to change his engine/gearbox as they lost nothing in doing so. It still gets listen in the grid penalty stats but in reality he lost nothing from it.

    1. @stefmeister True, some of it is opportunistic as well.

    2. Also a great point we should not overlook @stefmeister.

      Part of the penalties for all the big cases were certainly higher than they could have been by teams changing everything once they had a penalty that did already put them at the back of the grid.

      1. True but further to that they were soon due to change engines anyway weren’t they? As in, if that engine and gearbox still had 4 more races to run, would they have done what they did with LH in Brazil?

        1. Lennard Mascini (@)
          23rd January 2018, 21:41

          Because it will still allow Mercedes to run the engine a lot harder, and it will still give them a performance boost.

    3. That’s a good point, and something that all teams have always exploited. RBR/Vettel in Abu Dhabi 2012 comes to mind as well.

    4. Also, teams that retired their car(s) got to replace components while avoiding grid penalties.
      Another advantage to being a back marker!

  6. Spot on Keith.

    And I don’t think that many people are really bothered about it, as always it’s just a few that have complained loudly and the FIA has given the ‘issue’ more attention than it deserves

  7. Indeed… the grid penalties were a bit tiresome sometimes, but the seemingly coordinated ‘it’s a farce!!!’ movement that sprung up was far more annoying.

    Monza, for example. The number of penalties there did push the boundaries between sensible and slightly ridiculous, but what annoyed me the most was commentators going on about it. I like the Sky coverage usually, but they actually made a big deal about ’19 of the 20 drivers are not starting where they qualified’ (one penalty could create that outcome), and using it as a clumsy, sounds-worse-than-it-is weapon to use in their moan-off about engine penalties.

    It’s not a ‘farce’, it’s just a mildly silly hangover from a set of rules that were designed to suit a reality slightly different to the one we found ourselves in. Dealing with it’s no great problem…

    1. They weren’t actually moaning about the displacement of all the cars, it was the order they were displaced in.
      The penalties were applied in such a great number but at various points, that some who had greater penalties, were in front of others with lower ones.
      This is what actually irked Brundle and Co.

  8. Great analysis… True enough these penalties have been annoying at time, but I don’t think there is a better way to penalize the team.

    A fine ? Would be insignificant for big teams, meaning effectively no engine limitation for them, and potentially very expensive for small team that are already struggling. Loosing manufactor point ? Dramatic for small teams, much less for others. And at the end of the year, some teams could decide to focus on driver championship and just ditch points for new engine (Mercedes had a big advantage and could have replaced LH engines a few times at the end of the year).

    For me the big issue with that regulation is the limit to 3 (same for 4) engine a year. I very much doubt that limiting from 10 to 5 or 3 makes a big budget difference. It’s maybe even more expensive, since a lot of R&D goes in making these engines more reliable.

    And it has a lot of side effect. Team continue to spend budget on R&D, but they have to wait a long time before bringing updates to the track. Biggest releases, biggest risk of issues. More lead time before you improve performance… Sorry, I don’t see the positive side if this regulation.

    I think F1 lost track of why we needed limitation… At the beginning, limiting the number of engines was a sensitive idea because teams were burning like 3-4 engines per car per GP. They had Quali engine design to last 10 laps… That was crazy, and probably very costly. Forcing engine to last for 2-3 GP, and you’ve done with that craziness… But asking engine to last for 7 GP ? Nonsense, IMHO

  9. @keithcollantine I think you missed the biggest point. Once a driver needs to change engine/drivetrain parts the teams usually change everything they can (they don’t have new options for everything) because the extra grid penalties don’t change anything because the first or second one already drops the team into the last position. So the other parts are essentially penalty-free.

    And in addition to that teams like mclaren were using this rule to specifically change engine parts in the race before a good race. Like before hungary. Mclaren did it consistently but even then they had failures. Like vandoorne in hungary. Other drivers also abused this in similar fashion. Like vettel in malaysia.

    If there is an issue with these rules is that you can change working parts to new parts to bypass the usage limits without penalties once you have trouble and need to change one or two. If these big numbers really bother someone then make a rule that only failed parts can be changed.

    1. Or simply ditch the engine rules and allow each team to have 3 engines that can be fixed. Surely it is cheaper to re-use all the parts that are still fine and fix those that are not? Currently the teams build many more engines than they need (or are allowed) as they might need them and they can’t re-use an old one. That means perfectly good, unused engines get scrapped at the end of the season…

  10. I agree that some sort of penalty system is needed, and what we have is not so bad. But I think management of engine penalties will become more important, and we have to accept some sort of “gaming of the system” or “optimized penalty management” will one day have a significant impact on the championship.

    I think the improvements should be:
    – Increase the severity of driving offenses compare to technical (causing collisions are often smaller grid drops than changing a gearbox) – this could be done either way (already 3 positions per power unit item would help).
    – Apply the penalties in a better order (do they still apply them in order “given” – which can mean two drivers with the same penalty are reversed in qualification to grid order because of the order the new power unit items were reported). This might help a bit restore the incentive during qualifying, even if you have penalties, as the final grid position will bear more relation to the qualification performance relative to other penalty drivers.

  11. Sergey Martyn
    23rd January 2018, 15:43

    The only thing every F1 race is missing – is some pastor or mullah (depending on the venue) who’ll sprink the holy water or whatever onto the cars which got 666 penalty points!

  12. Very nice article. While I knew there was an amount of exaggeration around its farcical nature, this article did point out two things that I didn’t know earlier:
    1. The extent of benefit grid penalties gave some of the back markers
    2. The most affected driver wasn’t a Honda driver, but a Red Bull driver!

  13. I don’t have a problem with grid penalties per se, the problem is that we are seeing so many penalties being handed out in some Grand Prix that it sometimes means the qualifying has little meaning, and why should people bother watching a qualifying show when it has little meaning?

    1. I think as you said it is only some Grand Prix where so many penalties are handed out, and it is not always the top runners that are affected. Overall I think it is still a good show in quali because drivers are still trying to maximize their placing in order to minimize the damage from their grid penalty(s). There’s a point of pride too. We may say from our armchairs ‘ah what’s the point, buddy will just be starting last anyway,’ but I think it is very rare that an attitude like ‘ah what’s the point’ happens in the garages within the team. They just don’t take on a defeatist attitude.

  14. Its obvious but remarkable to see that the driver who qualifies the highest stands to loose the most.

  15. The problem isn’t the grid penalties.
    The problem i that the teams replaced everything because they would be last on the grid anyways. Just enforce the actual 60 place penalty and draw a box 60 places down would solve that immediately.

    1. They won’t do that because then there would have to be starting lights installed for that car…and probably another one that got 35 places penalty, etc… They should just have everybody whose penalty places them beyond row 12 or 13 to start from the pits.

      1. Nah just make the team responsible that they leave after the light has gone green. No more than one bucket of white paint needed for the grid box. and that only once. After that no team will replace parts just because they can again.

  16. They should at least allow cannibalization of the engines. Maybe one of the three will become unusable as a unit, but still containing a number of unharmed parts. Using those to prop-up another of the three engines should not result in a penalty.

    1. +1.

      Recycle. Reuse. F1 wants to be seen as being green.

  17. To a certain extent, cannibalization of parts is already underway. There were mentions of Red Bull and Toro Rosso doing that last year, along with the beef that Renault had run out of useable spares, so they were having to do what us normal folks are already good at.
    There will be a race within a race going to get to the back of the grid first …. My understanding is that the first to endure a massive grid penalty that forces them to start at the back gets to start ahead of another car that takes a similar penalty at a later time. Tried to locate this in the Sporting Regs with no success. Closest was this from Autosport.

    “Rather than the positions of multiple penalised drivers being decided by how many grid places their penalties were ostensibly for, they will be lined up in the order of when they made the component changes.”

    Should be lots of Friday work this season.

  18. Or we could say it as it really is, Honda is the farce,…, nobody had any issues with these rules during the entire V8 era if I remember correctly.

    1. Had to google it and so in fairness the V8’s were simpler and they had tons of experience using them, and for example starting in 09 they could use up to 8 engines a year before getting a ten spot grid penalty. I think therefore there was much less complexity and issues and appearance of over-regulation with the V8s.

  19. Why not let the drivers start where they qualify and score points based on where they naturally finish but add a time penalty (that is based on the offence and the lap time for the track) to their times which are then used to determine the finishing order for the points that the team gets.

    With time penalties, it might even be more interesting than a normal race as the driver’s (if in a competitive car) could make up the penalty in order for their teams to score more points, so they would have to drive at or near 100%of the cars potential!

  20. I don’t know what the solution is necessarily, but to me penalizing drivers for mechanical failure just seems fundamentally misguided.

  21. @keithcollantine


    Are you able to produce a graphic / GIF / animation that shows how grid penalites actually happen. Or are you able to point me in direction of such a graphic?

    There was a race last year (I forget which one it was) where there were quite a few drivers were penalised. I then spent the rest of the afternoon after qualifying trying to work it out, even to the point of cutting out tags with all the drivers names on them. I put them in qualifying order first. I then moved driver A down 5 places for a gear box change, then driver B down 10 places for an engine change etc etc. I could not replicate the final starting grid position.

    I believe that the grid penalty movement is based on the order in which the offences happen.

  22. I wonder how much of this is because some people think the concept of a driver getting a penalty for an engine problem they didn’t cause is a bit absurd? There were people thinking that in 2004 (when the rule of penalties being issued for non-race engine failures started) and I think some still believe that 14 years later…

    For that matter, there will be a lot of people who find this rule confusing. I am sure of this because back in Britain 2009, I had to help people in my terrace to know who was on a new engine and who wasn’t (in that year, those were the only two options), which was a far simpler rule than the present one (which requires keeping track of how many engines have been used, how each of them compares to their maximum potential usage and whether any have been ruled out of use by misadventure, unreliability or regulation quirk).

    Renault and Honda’s actions show grid penalties don’t really work as a disincentive – otherwise they would not have been so keen to change components so often. As soon as championship positions get stratified, there is little incentive for teams in such positions to avoid engine component replacements. Since even one engine component change is apt to ruin the race for someone who isn’t in such a position, there’s also no need to add extra penalty for multiple engine components. If F1 must stick to grid penalties, it might as well go straight back to the 2000s method and simply give an X-place grid penalty to anyone who changes an engine when they shouldn’t.

    Still think starting all such drivers from the pits would make for a better solution.

    Bluefroggle, penalties are issued in the order they are issued, not the order the offences occur or are reported. This is part of why Monza was so confusing – the FIA never revealed when penalties were given out to the public, only (at most) to the media, so (at most) only the media could possibly have had the necessary information to independently verify the Monza result on any route other than guesswork.

  23. Penalties are not confusing. Think of them as points but least is better. Someone qualifies on pole with no penalties that’s 1 point, car qualifies 8th gets 68 place penalty that’s 76 points, car qualifies 10th gets 5 place penalty that’s 15 points and so on. It’s like looking at a football league table. Sky did push their agenda but that’s them, they do it on other things, you can tell when Bundle has been scripted to start a discussion on something.

  24. It would be sufficient to link grid penalties to current Championship position: e.g. if you’re running second you drop 18 positions for changing power unit; if you are running 18th you just drop 2 positions. They should allow Board games designers to write their silly rules to have a balanced sport guaranteed!

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