We Explain F1’s Baffling Grid Penalties

If you were watching the Italian Grand Prix last weekend, you’ll probably have noticed that almost no-one started the race where they qualified. Nine of the 20 drivers earned grid place penalties, resulting in a rather shaken-up grid.

In recent years F1 has introduced grid penalties for teams using too many greasy bits. This is both to tout its environmental credentials and to cut costs, to help out smaller teams.

It’s a rather complicated set-up, but in essence each engine has six main parts and the rules allow teams to use up to four of each part in the season. The first time a car uses a fifth of any bit, it gets a 10-place grid penalty, with another five-place penalty for any others. A sixth new bit gets another 10-place penalty, and so on. There’s a similar rule for gearboxes, except the car must use a gearbox for six races in a row.

That has lead to some penalties over the course of the year that sound ridiculous, usually for McLaren. Stoffel Vandoorne had a 65-place penalty at the Belgian Grand Prix, for example.

So, how exactly do the F1 powers that be calculate where drivers start? Well, it’s actually deceptively simple.

At the Italian Grand Prix last weekend, nine drivers had grid penalties for gearbox and engine component changes. The worst hit was of course Fernando Alonso, with a 35-place penalty. Others ranged from five to 25 places.

However, the drivers first had to qualify. The qualification results were as follows:

This gives the drivers their grid position. The FIA then applies the penalties to the qualifying position to give a sub-total. It re-orders the drivers by sub-total to give them a rank from 1-20. Where two drivers have the same sub-total, the FIA gives priority to the driver who took their penalty first:

This new ranking determines the driver’s place on the grid. Alonso’s sub-total of 48 is the 19th best, so he would start 19th — ahead of only Grosjean who failed to qualify.

This system applies regardless of when the driver incurred the penalty. Should any further drivers take a penalty before the race starts, the order according to the sub-totals is recalculated.

As you’ll see from the new rankings however, it’s not a perfect system. Sergio Perez qualified his Force India 11th, took a five-place grid penalty and started from 10th! Without the penalty he would have started 8th, so he effectively took a free gearbox.

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