Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Circuit of the Americas, 2021

Power unit penalties: Tactical battleground or unwelcome factor in the title fight?

2021 F1 Season

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Formula 1’s championship contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have already been forced to take grid place penalties for exceeding their quota of power unit elements this year. Further penalties could yet decide the destiny of this year’s world championship.

Their Mercedes and Red Bull team mates have also taken power unit grid penalties, as have many other drivers. Each car is allowed to use three examples each of their internal combustion engines, MGU-H, MGU-K and turbochargers, plus two each of their batteries and control electronics units. In addition, from 2021 a rule was introduced to limit the number of exhaust systems used per year to eight per car, after which grid penalties would apply as with the other components.

Of the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, Bottas has used six new internal combustion engines, twice the number permitted per season, and has taken grid drops in three of the last four races as a result. Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton have only used four.

If a driver exceeds the limit with more than one element, they get a stiffer penalty. So while some drivers have had to start at the back of the grid for changing multiple parts in one weekend, Hamilton took a single, 10-place grid drop in Turkey because Mercedes decided to only go beyond his allocation on one component: the internal combustion engine. The team have been chasing a reliability problem on this area of the car, which is why Bottas has got through so much hardware.

Power unit components used so far

No. Car Engine Driver ICE TC MGU-H MGU-K ES CE EX
77 Mercedes Mercedes Valtteri Bottas 6 5 5 4 2 3 6
33 Red Bull Honda Max Verstappen 4 4 4 4 3 3 7
11 Red Bull Honda Sergio Perez 4 4 4 4 4 4 6
44 Mercedes Mercedes Lewis Hamilton 4 3 3 3 2 2 4

But at a time when the fight between the contenders is nail-bitingly close, power unit penalties which send one of them to the back of the grid can be an unwelcome distraction from the competition.

As Formula 1’s race director Michael Masi points out, the teams have to work within the framework of the regulations in this respect as in all others.

Start crash, Hungaroring, 2021
Hungaroring crash led to power unit penalties for Red Bull
“They all know from the start of the year how many power units, how many gearboxes, how many various elements – exhausts, et cetera they’re going to have,” said Masi. “So everyone’s on the same level of understanding of what they need to do.

“Any team – particularly in the championship fight, but anyone – you’re always going to try and get as much of a competitive advantage you need, be it power unit updates, aerodynamic updates, gearbox, whatever it might be.”

Whatever rules framework is put in place, teams will inevitably try to work it to their maximum advantage, such as by tactically taking penalties at circuits where overtaking is easier than others.

“We’ve seen that it depends on each team’s strategy, reliability, what they’re playing with, what they’re doing,” said Masi. “So I know that’s a choice that they all make.”

Kevin Magnussen, McLaren, Yas Marina, 2014
F1’s penalty system was much tougher seven years ago
Formula 1 has relaxed its penalties system since its V6 hybrid turbo power units were introduced in 2014. Previously drivers were given larger grid drops and, if they could not serve them all in a race, they were converted into time penalties in the race potentially as serious as a race-ruining 10-second stop-and-go. A similar system is still used in Formula E.

Another undesirable feature of F1’s penalty system is that teams can blamelessly incur grid drops. Verstappen and Perez both lost power units to crash damage (Verstappen at Silverstone and Perez in Hungary) during collisions with, respectively, Hamilton and Bottas.

The impact of these penalties can vary from track to track. Perez recovered to eighth place from a back of grid start in Zandvoort, after taking a full replacement Honda power unit. Verstappen went from last to second in Sochi.

Similarly Bottas started at the back in Monza but finished third, whereas he could only rise from ninth to sixth last time out. Hamilton started 11th and finished fifth in Turkey.

The power unit penalties system exists to discourage teams from plugging fresh hardware into their cars every race at gigantic costs. F1 power units are therefore designed to perform for thousands of kilometres instead of a few hundred.

While the potential implications for the title fight are undesirable, the system is an effective deterrent to sky-rocketing engine expenditure according to Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.

“The penalty system on power units is pretty robust because what we need to avoid is that we are building power units in a way that they perform at peak performance for only a few races,” he said.

“If you change the regulations and you say, okay, there is no grid penalty for the driver, but just constructors’ points, it will still mean that if you’re in a fight for a driver’s championship, you will just throw engines at the car.”

But if another idea could be devised Wolff believes “it’s definitely worth looking at it” as the current system is potentially confusing to new fans.

A 2016 power unit failure dealt a blow to Hamilton’s title hopes
“Why, out of the driver’s responsibility, an engine penalty puts him at the back of the grid or ten or five places away? That’s clearly not great, but I haven’t got the solution.”

For all drivers who have received penalties so far, further sanctions will be less damaging from here on in. As was the case for Bottas in Austin, changing a single part for these drivers may only mean a five-place grid penalty.

However all will be anxious to avoid the double whammy of an in-race reliability failure, as happened to Hamilton in the latter stages of the 2016 championship fight. Not only would that hit their points total in that race, but fitting replacement parts for the following round would mean a further penalty.

But championships have been won and lost due to reliability problems in the past. F1’s power unit penalty structure is an extension of that, and no one has yet conjured up a superior alternative which would allow the series to keep a lid on development costs without potentially affecting the championship fight. In that respect, the penalties are a necessary evil.

Quotes: RJ O’Connell

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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35 comments on “Power unit penalties: Tactical battleground or unwelcome factor in the title fight?”

  1. As Rosberg once said on Sky, it makes no sense to not have these penalties, because it will just lead to teams inserting a new power unit every race and then just use the advantage of a fresh one. This can even lead to stacking of new components just like what Hamilton did in Belgium 2016, but this exploit has already been regulated. What we do not know, because a lot of data is theorical, how much does a new ICE give over one that has for example done 1200 laps. What about a new CE or say MGU-K or MGU-H.

  2. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
    1st November 2021, 8:48

    Why not stipulate a minimum mileage per PU component?

    Have an allocation as currently, but once the minimum mileage is completed a new component can be added for free.

    Reward achievement rather than penalise failure. Much more positive.

    1. I like the carrot and (rather than) stick approach.

      Maybe focus more on PU manufacturers rather than single cars.
      Each PU manufacturer has 3 PU’s per entered car for the season. PU’s are allocated at random to cars for each race.
      If a PU manufacturer runs low on PU (components) they can bring a new one to their pool but will have to pay for the other PU-manufacturers to do the same (of course 1 component for Renault is 2 for Honda, 3 for Ferrari, etc).

    2. Which brings problems as in Silverstone Max engine was only 1 race old before they had to replace it. As bad it is current system has some good points for it.

      1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
        1st November 2021, 16:10

        With my suggested system the same would apply as with the current system. If they could use a new/different engine within the current allocation then fine no penalty. So no worse off.

        My suggestion is if a PU gets to high mileage it can be replaced free from penalty.

        I’d suggest each car starts the season with a main PU component and a backup, which can be freely interchanged. When each of these components hits the mileage target they can be replaced without penalty. This also means if the season is extended more components will automatically be available.

        If a component fails or is damaged before it hits its mileage target it cannot be replaced freely but a the backup could be used. However if the backup fails before its mileage target, its replacement would incur a penalty.

        I believe this means any penalties will be more evenly spread and not tend to occurs so much at the end of the season when the championship is decided.

        1. If the backup is damaged in a accident it should then also replaced for free but will the engines come from the budget (at this moment it’s not) or will they be seperate from the €145 m bugdet?

          1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
            2nd November 2021, 14:20

            I hear what you say but I think the problem is its not always easy to attribute damage to specific accidents.

            Did the crack in the unit happen in the big shunt or when the driver when over a sausage kerb 3 laps before or is the engine getting too hot and causing the crack or is it badly fabricated?

            Very difficult to say…

    3. Reward achievement rather than penalise failure. Much more positive.

      What do you define as “achievement”? For example, driving in a manner that shortens the engine life could easily earn more points, but isn’t the aim of the rules to preserve engine life for 7 to 8 Grands prix? It seems to me the penalty for putting in a new engine might be slightly on the light side, but then there’s no differentiation as to whether that engine change was forced on the team because of an accident or because of the driver’s driving technique.

      1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
        1st November 2021, 23:40

        Achievement of minimum mileage

  3. Surely now we have a cost cap we can rid ourselves of these penalties for overuse of components?

    1. @ahxshades Power unit development costs aren’t included in the budget cap. It is being discussed, and of course they have agreed to freeze development from next year.

      1. @keithcollantine development isn’t included under the cap but surely the cost of PU’s is or are all costs for PU’s not included?

        If the cost of a PU and its components IS included, then it’s a valid argument that the limit could be removed – give teams the option of using (say) 10 PU’s which would cost around 70% of their budget if that’s what the believe will give them the best advantage.

        1. RandomMallard (@)
          1st November 2021, 17:36

          @dbradcock My understanding is that buying a PU is not included under the cost cap, but is itself capped at $15 million per season. AKA Ferrari can’t charge more than $15 million per season to supply Alfa with PUs.

          1. The power units aren’t bought, they’re leased (or rented or whatever you want to call it) and returned to the manufacturer after use. The teams using leased units have no control over them and are unable to work on them; the engine supplier provides an engine crew to work on the engine.

      2. Should have read comments. Keith does indeed know.

  4. As long as the title is won by less than 25 points, we are going to be blaming the outcome on something other than the competition itself. Thank the tyre blowout or the shunt at Silverstone, your choice. So make peace with the idea while you can.

    1. Trying every day ;-) power units determining the destiny of this year’s world championship? Silverstone, Hungary.

    2. The tyre blowout didn’t damaged Max engine the one in Silverstone double was that was a brand new one.

  5. Component limits were introduced as a measure to reduce costs, I believe. They’ve been nothing if not a source of controversy ever since. Given we now have a cost cap, maybe it’s time for a rethink? Why couldn’t one team decide it’s better for performance to run, say 8 engines a year, while another prioritises reliability and spends the cost savings on aero development?

    (Possible answer: perhaps there is some funky accountancy associated with, e.g. Mercedes powertrain division not being under the same cost cap rules as Mercedes the F1 team. I don’t know, does anyone else?)

  6. Go creative, force the team to donate 5 mil. to charity every time they change an engine (after they go over the limit) and God bless them, may they change their engines for every session if that pleases them.

    1. Maybe after 3 engines the FIA should reduce the maximum fuel flow rate allowed on a car by 2% for each subsequent engine. So say a team has a choice between an old engine that has 20 hp less than when brand new, or a new engine that has 16 hp less than what the first 3 engines could produce when new, then maybe that new engine can wait a few more races.

  7. I think the penalties aren’t working as intended.

    The point of the penalties was to get the engine makes to create longer lasting engines. The engines of today are much longer lived than in the past, but we are at a point where no team can make it through the season on what is allocated, so they start the season with a plan to take penalties.

    This isn’t racing…
    I don’t have a solution to the problem, I just think the current system is a farce. F1 needs to figure this out.

  8. Reliability has always been a factor that has played into the championship & many times in the past a title contender suffering unreliability has played into the championship loss.

    I obviously get the reason why the engine limit was introduced & do agree with it to an extent & do also agree that the grid drop system is probably the best solution. However I do sort of miss the days when teams could use fresh engines every day & where it was all about really pushing the boundaries with engine development looking for pure performance & how that would often lead to failures which would create that bit of extra unpredictability & mixing things up we just don’t really see today.

    1. I miss the days of Grand Prix. Now you fart on one side of the calendar and finish up cleaning by the end of the season.

  9. You know its one thing to say engines should be robust, and so there’s a penalty if you go through too many, but then the organisers add those peskyy sprint races to the mix expecting the engines to still last as long.

    I also wonder if the new engines isn’t also because subtle changes are being introduced to the engines. Eg they’re not simply breaking or wearing out, but they are being upgraded too.

    1. but then the organisers add those peskyy sprint races to the mix expecting the engines to still last as long.
      You conveniently forgot that the original season had 23 races :P

  10. Penalties are a side effects of the regs. The change to a 5 place penalty is bewildering, as it makes tactical penalties viable.
    Remember when only Webber had gearbox penalties, and how Bottas is stacking Ice’s on a nonsensical way.
    Don’t worry about the championship.

  11. Seeing how thing are going Honda has the most relilible engine this year. Mercedes never operated his engine on this high level and has some wear problems.
    I think Lewis has to replace at least one part more before the season is over.

  12. The penalties can’t interfere with the championship as they are part of the championship.

  13. Both, but a failure this late in the season would be a shame, especially if that proved decisive.

    1. What makes an engine penalty late in the season different from an engine penalty early in the season?
      It’s the same penalty, the same amount of points lost. There is only a difference between circuits: some allow to recover to second or even first, some don’t.

      1. @ChrisVB and is exactly why some weekends should not be worth more points than others.

  14. I was surprised this year the teams were not allocated 4 engines given the # of races + the sprints. That said when the teams think something isn’t right they speak freely and we haven’t heard much noise about engines. Thus I’m going to go with it doesn’t seem broken so what do we need to fix.

    1. Hard to argue with such a level-headed description of the situation.

  15. If there really is a budget cap then why have this dumb penalty at all. Need a new engine? Great there is 2 million from your cap. Need another? Great there’s another 2 mil…

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