Analysis: Complexities of the F1 penalty system

The Austrian Grand Prix featured a raft of engine-related penalties that made figuring out the final grid a confusing affair. Adam Cooper explains how it gets worked out.

The raft of power unit penalties applied at the Austrian Grand Prix left the public with a lopsided grid that featured both McLarens on the back row and the two Red Bulls not far ahead of them.

It didn't sit well with fans, or indeed with Bernie Ecclestone, but no one anticipated that both cars from two major teams would be hit at the same time, especially so early in the season.

But exactly how was that final grid order arrived at? In fact, like practice and qualifying, the grid is technically the responsibility not of the FIA, but of the FOM timekeepers. It's their calculations – taking into account any penalties issues by the FIA stewards – that create the definitive order.

The Japan 2009 example

The problems created by multiple grid penalties arriving at one race came sharply into focus in Japan in 2009, when Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button, Adrian Sutil and Fernando Alonso were penalised for speeding under yellows, Heikki Kovalainen and Tonio Liuzzi had gearbox changes, Sebastien Buemi was penalised for impeding, and Mark Webber had a change of chassis.

It emerged then that the formula for calculating the grid was reasonably straightforward, in that penalties were considered in the order that the offences were committed.

The first penalty was applied, a new grid was formed and everyone shuffled forward to fill any spaces. The second penalty was applied, a new grid formed, and so on, until all the penalties had been taken care of.

In that particular case, four of the penalties related to speeding under the same yellow flag, and even within the FIA/FOM system there was some question over the order in which the cars passed the flag, and thus the order in which those offences were committed.

Indeed, the offence order that was being worked from changed between Saturday night and Sunday morning, after some re-checking of the data, and that changed several positions on the grid.

However, nobody outside the organisation knew because at that stage the FIA did not issue a provisional grid on Saturday afternoon, as it does now.

The big problem with the old system was that those whose penalties were applied first invariably benefited in that, having gone back, they often crept forward a few places. In other words, penalties did not appear to be applied equally.

That 2009 Suzuka event was a classic case – after five-place penalties were added, Barrichello went down only one place from fifth to sixth, while Sutil lost four places dropping from fourth to eighth...

Further examples of some drivers seemingly suffering more than others caused a re-think. Thus for last year, and without any fanfare, FOM changed its system, to make it fairer.

The current system explained

Now when the first penalty is applied, the driver concerned is given a 'nominal' position based on the total penalty. However, the grid is not shuffled up and gaps are not filled until all of those positions have been worked out.

Last weekend in Austria, those nominal positions were as follows:

Daniil Kvyat: 8 + 10 = 18th

Daniel Ricciardo: 14 + 10 = 24th

Fernando Alonso: 15 + 20 (engine) + 5 (gearbox) = 40th

Jenson Button: 17 + 25 = 42nd

Once these numbers were established it was clear that the last three on the grid would be Ricciardo, Alonso and Button, because their positions were lower than 20th.

The question mark came over where Kvyat would end up. In fact, what FOM does is consider him in effect as 18th 'B', since someone else, Kimi Raikkonen, was already in that position.

After all those numbers have been worked out, the empty gaps are filled, and everyone is shuffled forward. If there's a 'B' situation, as with Raikkonen and Kvyat, the driver who earned the position on lap time goes first. So prior to that "shuffling" stage, the order looked something like this:

8th: -
9th: NAS
10th: GRO
11th: MAL
12th: ERI
13th: SAI
14th: -
15th: -
16th: PER
17th: -
18th: RAI + 18th 'B': KVY
19th: MER
20th: STE
24th: RIC
40th: ALO
42nd: BUT

Move everyone forward, and slot Kvyat behind Raikkonen and in front of Robert Merhi, and you get the grid that we had on Sunday. Simple!

Intriguingly, under this method the order in which the offences were committed generally doesn't matter, with some exceptions.

Firstly, if two penalised drivers find themselves with the same position – for example if Alonso had been given a nine-place penalty for some reason, and like Ricciardo found himself in '24th' – then obviously someone would have to have priority.

Secondly, if one driver has two penalties, it can have an impact. That's because only power unit related penalties are carried into the race if they are not taken in full (more of that later).

Getting the right order

So how is the order of offences determined? Well with penalties relating to blocking in qualifying, or ignoring red or yellow flags (as with Sebastian Vettel in Canada), there's a clear time stamp as to when it happened. With power units, the question is a little more complex.

Article 28.4c of the FIA Sporting Regulations reads: "A power unit or any of the six components will be deemed to have been used once the car's timing transponder has shown that it has left the pit lane."

Meanwhile, Article 28.6a says: "A gearbox will be deemed to have been used once the car's timing transponder has shown that it has left the pit lane."

It sounds logical to assume that the offence is committed when the driver physically uses the new element.

However, Article 36.2c of the same regulations says: "Penalties will be applied to the drivers in question in the order the offences were committed. If more than one driver incurs a penalty under Article 28.4(a) [new power units] or Article 28.6(a) [new gearboxes] preference will be given to the driver whose team first informed the technical delegate that an engine or gearbox change will be carried out."

It's a situation that confuses even F1 insiders, as in the same paragraph there's mention of the order being influenced by when the offence was committed, and also by the notification time, which are two completely different things.

In Austria, the FIA made it very clear to us that Red Bull filed its notification of impending V6 changes on the Monday before the race, while McLaren did that only on the Tuesday.

And that early notification created its own problems as both Ricciardo and Kvyat were credited with the same time, as were Button and Alonso, presumably because they were mentioned in the same email from their respective teams to the FIA.

However, sources told me that it was the time that the new item was first used on track that was taken into account in Austria, although in fact the order didn't really matter, as there was no 'tie-break' situation, such as two drivers with the same position.

As noted, the order penalties are taken into account can also have an impact if a driver has engine penalties and penalties for a different offence. The key thing is that only untaken engine change penalties are carried over into the race.

As you probably know by now, untaken engine penalties work on the following scale:

1 to 5 grid places untaken: 5s time penalty
6 to 10 grid places untaken: 10s time penalty
11 to 20 grid places untaken: drivethrough penalty
More than 20 grid places untaken: 10s stop-and-go penalty

The Alonso example

The order did have some relevance when it came to Alonso's double penalty in Austria. He first picked up 20 places for an engine penalty, which was followed by five places for a gearbox change.

From 15th, Alonso initially went back 20 places, but in fact he could theoretically only take five of them, given his qualifying position. So officially that's regarded as 15 places untaken.

He was then given another five places for the change of gearbox. But those five gearbox places are not considered for a race penalty, so in fact overall it was deemed that still only 15 places were untaken – i.e. 15th to 20th (the fact that he gained a place on the grid from someone else's penalty, and actually started 19th, is in effect a bonus). The gearbox change was, in effect, for free.

If the gearbox penalty had been considered first, that alone would have put him 20th. So all 20 of the subsequent engine places would have been untaken. As it happens in this case, 15 or 20 places both equate to a drivethrough. But from other grid positions considering the gearbox penalty first or last could have changed his race penalty.

In contrast, consider Button – he qualified 17th, so the maximum number of places that can be theoretically be considered to have taken was three. Indeed he did actually start 20th, and that gels with him having been officially charged with 22 untaken places, which triggered a 10s stop and go.

Did Ricciardo start in the right place?

The intriguing case was Ricciardo. He qualified 14th so the maximum number of places he could take were six. Like Alonso, he benefited from other penalties, and actually started 18th. But within the system he is deemed to have taken six places, and left four untaken.

Here's where it gets confusing, because there was some ambiguity in the FIA's own paperwork. Steward's Decision "35" in Austria said that in Ricciardo's case "four places of the 10 grid place penalty have been applied," in other words, six were left untaken. But he was given him a time penalty of 5s, which is appropriate for 1-5 places untaken, as opposed to 6-10.

So something on that piece of paper was not right – either the reference to places taken was wrong, or the penalty was wrong.

Sources told Motorsport.com that the penalty was indeed the right one, and thus the earlier wording was at fault.

It should have said six places were taken, despite the fact that he had actually dropped from 14th to 18th on the physical grid, which looks like four. What mattered is that he could have gone from 14th to 20th, and taken six places.

In fact, it would seem that the wording was also suspect in Document "36", which related to Alonso. That said only "four places of the 20 grid place penalty have been applied." But as we've seen, it didn't matter that he had gone from 15th to 19th on the final grid. The key thing was that he could have gone to 20th, and that would be five places taken.

If you still don't believe that it works the way we have outlined, consider Kvyat. He qualified eighth, and started 15th. So if that was regarded as only seven places taken, and three not taken, he should have got a 5s time penalty.

But he didn't, because what mattered was the notional 18th in which he could have started, disregarding penalties for others. Since 18th is less than 20, he could in theory have taken the full 10-place penalty.

You can't criticise the FIA for any slip-up in the wording of their documents – it didn't affect the actual penalties - but it just goes to show how complex the current situation with penalties is.

If F1 insiders struggle to comprehend the details, it's perhaps not surprising that fans are not happy with multiple penalties...

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Article type Analysis