Why Grid Penalties Are The Only Option For Punishing Mechanical Failures

Why Grid Penalties Are The Only Option For Punishing Mechanical Failures

They can be incredibly frustrating, but would any alternative solutions really be any better?

We’re now well into the part of the season where McLaren-Honda has used up its entire allocation of engine components and grid penalties are pretty much going to be a fixture for the team for the rest of the season.

Ahh, grid penalties, everyone’s favourite! After all, what’s funnier than someone being told to drop 30 places on a grid that only has 20 cars? I mean it opens the door to all sorts of jokes like ‘Fernando Alonso has a bajillion-place grid drop for the Austrian GP and will have to start the race from Tracy Island’. Great!

Except it’s not that great. It’s actually kinda silly, and for some fans it could be seen as confusing. Why are drivers being punished for mechanical failures they have nothing to do with? How can a driver lose 10 places when they’ve only qualified 18th? Can’t they find another way to penalise them?

Jenson Button got dropped a ridiculous 70-places on the grid for the 2015 Mexican GP
Jenson Button got dropped a ridiculous 70-places on the grid for the 2015 Mexican GP

The big sticking point over grid penalties is that they punish the driver for something they have no control over. But as the saying goes, ‘win as a team, lose as a team’.

Think of it the other way around - whenever a driver gets hit with a drive-through for causing an accident or something, it doesn’t just cost the driver, it costs the team as well. Should we be looking at ways to replace penalties for driving errors in a way that doesn’t cost the team for something they have no control over? No. So why the one-way concern over protecting the drivers from things that aren’t their fault? I know the focus is primarily on the individual in F1 but that doesn’t stop it from being a sport where the team is a huge element of competition.

So how do you find a fairer penalty for teams that use too many engines or gearboxes? That’s the thing for me…you can’t. There isn’t really another penalty that can be applied that makes any more sense than what we currently have.

This wasn't Mercedes' fault, and the team probably would have won without this crash, so let's give them 43 points and the winning trophy!
This wasn't Mercedes' fault, and the team probably would have won without this crash, so let's give them 43 points and the winning trophy!

The most frequent call to replace grid drops for mechanical failures is to punish teams by docking them points in the Constructors’ Championship instead. And that’s fine for a team like Mercedes or Ferrari - losing five points probably won’t affect them at all. They may lose a place in the championship standings and whilst that’s not brilliant, it isn’t exactly the end of the world.

But if a small team like Sauber lost five points in the championship? That could literally be the end of their world. Those two points Felipe Nasr scored in Brazil last year pretty much saved the team from collapse. If those had been lost because of an unscheduled gearbox change or something it would have killed the team. How would that be a fairer solution than dropping a driver down a few places from their qualifying position?

Docking points in the Constructors' Championship would be grossly unfair to smaller teams
Docking points in the Constructors' Championship would be grossly unfair to smaller teams

I get that it’s frustrating when a driver does a cracking lap in qualifying and ends up starting at the back because they needed a new MGU-H or something but frankly, that’s racing. If each and every driver was justly rewarded based on their own individual performance then it wouldn’t be a very exciting sport, would it? That unpredictability is part of what makes F1 - and all motor racing - so intoxicating. That it doesn’t quite fit into this one aspect of the sport is a pill we just have to swallow.

I know that grid penalties aren’t the ideal solution to the problem. If someone who’s going to qualify last anyway gets docked 20 places than it isn’t really a penalty at all, but if one of the front-runners get them then it can have a huge effect on their entire weekend. But I’m really struggling to come up with a fairer alternative.

Monetary fines would either be too small to matter, or too big that they’d only really be a punishment for the most cash-strapped of teams. Any outright adjustments to the rules over components would have to be incredibly well thought out, because teams will readily exploit any loopholes in the regulations, and pretty much any alternative would only further separate the rich teams from the not-so-rich teams.

Any other form of penalty would likely be too small a deterrent for the top teams
Any other form of penalty would likely be too small a deterrent for the top teams

I’m sure there is a better solution to the issue, but I suspect it lies somewhere at the very root of F1’s engine rules, which in itself goes against the nature of the sport as a prototype formula. I mean, the teams are being asked to constantly develop and push their technology whilst simultaneously making sure they operate to an extremely high level of reliability. That must require an extraordinary amount of testing and development work, which can’t be cheap. And isn’t cutting costs the whole reason we have these rules in the first place?

Maybe an option would be to just end the limit on parts and let teams use as many engines and gearboxes as they want throughout a season. It’d cost money too, but it’d also rid us of the need to have a contrived penalty system for when things break. That’s a highly unlikely scenario though, so whilst there is a limit, I think grid penalties are the only viable deterrent against transgressions.

What do you think? Do you have a genius idea to solve the issue or do you (like me) accept that grid penalties are a necessary evil? Let us know in the comments!