Sunday , 24 September 2017
McLaren Media Centre
McLaren Media Centre

Formula 1’s engine penalty problem

Wet qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix was somehow a dramatic, exciting farce. Lewis Hamilton took the outright record for most pole positions of all time. This, regardless of any given person’s opinion of the driver in or out of the car, should be celebrated. Yet, Formula 1’s engine penalty problem was the talking point in the run-up to the race, not Hamilton’s incredible achievement.

However, a raft of engine and gearbox penalties for no fewer than nine of the 20 drivers (two of which were only applied hours before the race begun) left people annoyed, frustrated and confused. Nobody knew what the grid was like in the run-up to the race.

All bar one of the Renault-powered cars, and both of the Honda-powered cars suffered power unit-related penalties. The one Renault-powered machine which did not, had done so at the previous event. A Mercedes-powered and a Ferrari-powered car also took gearbox penalties prior to the race.

This left us with a completely barmy situation where the two Sauber cars – both well over three seconds off the pace in free practice and six seconds off in qualifying, started on the fringes of the top 10. Both were elevated by seven spots. Kevin Magnussen was knocked out in Q1 yet started inside the top 10.

It took over three hours for the result of qualifying to be determined and the outcome counted for very little. The session was very exciting (although clearing the water on the start and finish straight took considerably longer than it should have) and we witnessed some shock results, penalties or not. However, it all felt like a complete waste of time in the grand scheme of things. The drivers may as well have thrown darts at a board and decided pole position on the highest score.

Engine penalties are not a new thing. In fact, they are a dozen years old. The reasoning behind its existence is perfectly legitimate also. Without these penalties, the richest teams would be getting through 100 power units a year as opposed to single digits. The current units cost astronomical amounts of money as it is, so there is a very good reason why F1 wants to keep the amount of engines being used as small as possible. So allowing freedom on this simply isn’t feasible.

But with so many cars out of position at the last round, F1 has made itself look very silly. It seems tricky to find anybody who actually likes the idea of grid penalties, even if it does occasionally shake up a race by sticking a very quick car (in the case at Monza – the two Red Bulls) at the back of the grid. However what it can deny is a fight at the front as a consequence.

The popular so-called solution within the media (televised and social) seems to be taking constructors’ championship points away from the team instead of grid penalties. The driver isn’t at fault, so it seems fair enough, right?

This idea is severely flawed. Firstly, it is the fault of the manufacturer of the power unit and not the team for poor reliability. Secondly, deducting (as an example) 10 points from Mercedes is not going to be a problem to that particular team. Deducting that from Toro Rosso at the time of writing would knock it down from sixth to eighth in the world constructors’ championship. That is a huge financial consequence for what is in effect Renault’s problem.

Thirdly, deciding that using a percentage of points is simply unfair. The penalty would become drastically more severe as the season progresses, and it would encourage stockpiling of power units earlier in the season. It would simply not be effective.

To make things even tougher for the manufacturers of these overly complex powerplants, three units are permitted for 2018 across the 21 rounds. Back in 2005 (19 races), engines were required to complete two successive grand prix weekends. So in effect, 10 engines were to last the year (although the farcical six-car United States Grand Prix quashed that).

This is a short-term issue which needs resolving quickly, along with bringing down the costs as much as possible. Sorting out the 2021 engines is also a priority, but making the immediate future in what will continue to be this hybridised turbocharged V6 era as painless for teams as possible is also critical to the sport.

In reality, only one of the four manufacturers has done a sufficient job since 2014. Mercedes has produced both unbelievable speed while keeping relatively reliable (although there was a myriad of issues on Hamilton’s car last season) during each year of the current generation of power units.

The equipment produced by Honda and Renault simply has been embarrassing. Both produced units which were slow and unreliable in their respective first season in this era, and both are still producing units which remain slow and unreliable. For the likes of Red Bull and McLaren, being forced to trundle around with these power units seems as if it is a chore more than a privilege.

The scrapping of the token system, which was in place at the start of this generation of engine, arguably has not helped matters either. There seems to be a new specification of engine at every other race available now, and this continues to push costs out of control despite manufacturers agreeing to try to cut costs. Tokens or not, reliability has not appeared to change.

It would be completely unfair on Mercedes and Ferrari, who have done nothing wrong except build powerplants better than the other two manufacturers in the sport, to have their performances capped to allow the rest to catch up. It should be down to Renault and Honda to get their acts together.

There has to be a solution to this reliability problem which does restricts compromise to the driver and to the team more than needed. If no solution can be found, then F1 realistically has to stick with the current penalties.

Firstly, the three power unit rule for 2018 should be shelved immediately. It’s quite clear that there’s next to no chance of half of the manufacturers meeting this target next year. It could be embarrassingly early in the season for the first engine penalties to arrive. If anything, it should be risen to at least five units.

Some sort of complicated fine might be the answer. However, this fine would be handed to the manufacturer of the powerplant, and not to the team. It should be a hefty financial fine, and the money from that fine should go towards something which would be good for the sport. It could go to teams with less funding, it could go to improving the sport for the fans, or it could go to something completely different.

This should be done with caution, otherwise every team will just use five units every weekend and send the bill to the supplier of the power unit. This, obviously, would not be fair on the manufacturer. Therefore, it has to be policed in a way such that stockpiling units every weekend is impossible.

It’s a sticky situation. What is there at the moment clearly is not working. Scrapping penalties altogether or docking constructors’ points would also not work. This is something which should be raising alarm bells with F1 and with the FIA. Honda has accumulated on average 20 places worth of grid penalties every race this season. Monza’s grid looked as if it was going to produce a stunner before the Red Bulls got moved to the back, and who knows? Maybe we would not have quite had such a demonstration from Mercedes on race day. Change is needed, and soon.

About Craig Woollard

Craig Woollard is an avid motor racing fan and freelance journalist and writer. A mathematics graduate from the University of Essex in 2013, Woollard has ambitions to work within motor racing. He is a member of Autosport's academy programme. In his spare time, he listens to music, sim races, wears hats and drinks cranberry juice.

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