By Stefan Kristensen
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January 10, 2022
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What Is an Engine Penalty in Formula 1?

Formula 1 is filled with all sorts of regulations detailing what drivers and teams can do during a race season. Some of the regulations revolve around the engines the cars use; specifically, there are regulations outlining how many engines and engine components teams can use during a season.

If a team goes over the limit of how many engines or engine parts they use, they incur a grid penalty, meaning they have to start further down the grid for the actual race. Teams can incur different grid penalties depending on how many times they've swapped out a certain engine part.

In this article, we're going to take a thorough look at engine penalties in Formula 1 and explain what exactly happens when a driver manages to catch one of these penalties.

Formula 1 Engines Explained

Before we get into how the penalties work, let's talk a little bit about the engines in Formula 1 work. In the context of engine penalties, engines are broken down into six main components: 

  • The engine itself
  • The turbocharger
  • The control electronics (which is basically the engine control unit)
  • The motor generator unit-heat (MGU-H), a device that reclaims thermal energy released through the car's exhaust
  • The motor generator unit-kinetic (MGU-K), a device that reclaims kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost during braking
  • The energy store, which is the battery for the two motor generator units

Currently, each driver is allowed to use a certain number of each part per race season. Drivers are allowed to use three engines, three of each kind of motor generator unit, and three turbochargers. For the control electronics and energy stores, however, drivers can only use two of each per season.

How Do Engine Penalties Work?

Engine penalties have existed for quite some time now, although it's only in recent years that penalties have gotten so restrictive. For example, in the V8 era of Formula 1, which lasted from 2006 to 2013, each driver was allowed to use eight engines during a season.

The penalties became more restrictive with the beginning of the hybrid V6 era. With the introduction of this era, engines were divided into the six components listed above, and drivers were allowed to use five examples of each component per season.

In 2018, however, this was reduced to three examples of the engine, turbo, and motor generator units, and two examples of the control electronics and energy stores. As a result, it's been way more common for racers to incur penalties in recent years.

If a driver uses more parts than they've been allotted for a race season, they have to start further back on the grid than where they originally placed during qualifying. The penalty in terms of grid placement depends on how many times that specific component has already been replaced.

Specifically, drivers take a 10-place penalty the first time they exceed the limit for a certain part, and a 5-place penalty for every subsequent time they need to replace that part. For instance, let's say a driver replaces their turbocharger for the fourth time during a season; if they placed third during qualifying, they will start at the 13th spot for the actual race.

Then in the next race, the driver places fourth in qualifying, but has to replace their turbo again. In this case, the driver would start ninth on the grid, as they would only take a five-place penalty this time.

Penalties can also stack if a driver needs to replace multiple parts at once. If a driver replaces their turbo and one of the motor generator units for the fourth time, they would take a 20-place penalty and have to start all the way at the back of the grid.

In fact, if a driver incurs penalties worth 15 places or more, they have to start at the back regardless of where they actually placed during qualifying.  

These penalties carry over even if the teams change out one of their drivers during a season. For example, if Driver A gets replaced with Driver B but Driver A already swapped out his turbo two times during that season, Driver B can only replace his car's turbo once more before incurring a penalty.

Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why Do Engine Penalties Exist?

At first, it might seem like engine penalties are kind of pointless, or at least an excessive punishment for using too many components. After all, we're talking about Formula 1 cars here; these cars are pushing the limits of what automotive technology can do, and it's only natural that stuff is going to break eventually. So why penalize drivers for it?

Well, as it turns out, there is a very good reason why engine penalties exist, and it's to ensure that all of the teams are competing on a level playing field. It also helps keep the cost of competing in a Formula 1 season down.

Engine penalties were especially important in the days before budget caps were implemented (which has only been a thing for the past year). Previously, the big teams like Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull had seasonal budgets of well over $400 million, compared to the smaller teams like Haas, Racing Point (now rebranded as Aston Martin), and Alfa Romeo, who all had budgets under $200 million.

In those days, the bigger teams had a clear advantage thanks to the fact that they had way more money. A team like Mercedes could drop a bunch of money on spare engines that a team like Haas would never be able to afford. For obvious reasons, it wasn't really feasible from a competition and fairness standpoint to carry on like this.

Implementing a budget cap and placing restrictions on how many engines and engine components each team can use in a season also encourages teams to take more care when designing their powertrain components.

If a team can only swap out a part three times before they start incurring penalties, then there's a good chance they'll be more inclined to design parts that are more reliable to begin with.  

Written by Stefan Kristensen
Passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many stories behind racing that make it so interesting.
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