Formula 1 cars are always running on the limit. Mechanics and drivers try to squeeze every little bit of performance out of the car in order to get the best possible result at every race. But one of the prices F1 teams have to pay for this comes in the form of engine penalties.
An engine penalty in F1 is a grid penalty drivers face if they use more than their permitted number of engine components. F1 drivers are limited to using 3 engines per season. If a driver uses more than 3 engines, they get a grid penalty for the next race and must start further back on the grid.
The rules surrounding F1 engines can seem a little bit complex. Below, we’ll discuss what an F1 engine penalty is and why there are engine limits, and we’ll mention the different ways teams can use engine penalties strategically.
How Many Engines Can F1 Teams Use Per Season?
F1 teams can use three engines per car in one season. If a driver uses more than 3 engines in a season they will face a grid penalty. Formula 1 engines are built for high performance and can only complete a certain number of miles before they show excessive wear and lose performance.
The massive power output and high revs put a lot of strain on a Formula 1 car’s power unit. The engine needs to be hot in order to work properly, and the hotter it gets, the more strain the parts inside the engine are under. When the engine heats up, the moving parts inside of it begin to change shape and size slightly, which reduces its overall performance and reliability in the long term.
Since Formula 1 teams are limited to using only three engines throughout the course of the season, one engine needs to essentially last at least eight race weekends (in a 23-race season). This is almost impossible in the world of modern Formula 1 considering how hard these power units work.
Why Are F1 Teams Limited To 3 Engines?
F1 teams are limited to three engines for the season to prevent them from using as many as they like. Essentially, richer teams could afford to use more engines in a season than the smaller teams, and limiting this somewhat levels the playing field. It also keeps the overall costs of F1 down.
The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) has been limiting the number of engines that teams can use for years. However, in the past, it was not as strict. Teams had been allowed to use eight engines over the course of 20 races, which was more achievable. Going further back, teams would be able to use even more engines than that.
However, as the focus of the sport shifted, and the FIA aimed to bring the overall costs of the sport down to accommodate smaller teams, they began to implement stricter rules regulating the number of engines a team could use throughout the season. This made races more fair and added another strategic layer to the sport (more on that soon).
Have F1 Teams Always Been Limited With Engines?
F1 Engine Limits Before 2004
Before 2004 F1 teams would often use different engines for qualifying and the race. From the 2004 season, F1 teams had to use the same engine throughout one race weekend, so there was no more changing of engines between qualifying and the race.
F1 Engine Limits From 2005
In 2005, a rule was implemented that each engine must last at least two race weekends. This would cut the engine changes in half, and it also halved the amount of money that was being spent on new engines by the bigger teams. Once again, this levelled the playing field for smaller teams.
F1 Engine Limits From 2009
In 2009, the FIA began to clamp down on engine changes with a set rule on how many engines were allowed to be used in a season. Each driver was allowed to use up to eight engines throughout the season, but the teams were still able to comfortably get by with this rule.
F1 Engine Limits From 2014
The FIA really became strict in 2014, with the major engine overhaul as each driver was only allowed to use five power units throughout the season. This is when drivers began to struggle with the rules and found themselves taking engine penalties towards the end of the season. In 2018 the three-engine rule was implemented which still stands today.
However, the limit on engine changes in F1 changed its meaning in 2014 when the hybrid V6 engines were introduced. The engine became known as a ‘power unit’ as it contained more than just an internal combustion engine (ICE). This made engine penalties in F1 a little more complicated.
How Do F1 Engine Penalties Work?
F1 engine penalties work by giving a driver 10-place grid penalty for the race in which they first run their first additional engine component. The driver will receive an additional 5-place grid penalty for each additional engine component that is above the season’s limit for that component.
The engine penalty rule can be slightly confusing in Formula 1. That’s because Formula 1 cars use something known as “power units” which are made up of 6 different elements. A Formula 1 power unit is made up of the internal combustion engine, the MGU-H and MGU-K, control electronics, energy store, and a turbocharger.
Each of these elements can be replaced separately. For example, a driver can keep their ICE and hybrid system, but replace their turbocharger. The FIA keeps track of all these elements, of which only three can be used during a 20+ race season (except the energy store and control electronics, as both are limited to two per season). Drivers are also limited to 8 exhaust systems per season.
If a driver uses a fourth power unit element for the season, they will be given a 10-place grid penalty. For every other power unit element that is changed in the same race weekend, the driver is given an extra five-place grid penalty.
The Back Of The Grid
If a driver incurs more than a 15-place grid penalty due to power unit changes in one weekend (i.e. 3 different components over the limit), they must start from the back of the grid. In practical terms, a driver can change only one power unit component to receive a 10-place grid penalty.
If they opt to change their engine and turbocharger, for example, they will be given a 15-place grid penalty. However, if they also change their MGU-K, they will start from the back of the grid. This variability in terms of component limits creates a strategic element for the teams during a long season when engine replacements are inevitable.
How F1 Teams Use Engine Penalties Strategically
Most teams who are pushing their cars to the limit know they will have to take an engine penalty at some point during the season. When they push their engines incredibly hard, it’s inevitable that they won’t last all the way until the last race and will need to be replaced. This becomes even more likely during long seasons with 23 races.
A team would lose ground to their rivals if they used an overworked engine, as it could lose performance or fail completely. And there’s also the risk of reliability issues creeping in during a race. Teams who are fighting for points can’t afford an engine blowout to ruin their chances of a good result, so it’s best to take the engine penalty and fight back during the race than risking a DNF.
However, there is an element of strategy involved. In 2021 we saw Red Bull and Mercedes use their engine penalties strategically. Both teams took their engine penalties when they were at circuits where there was a better chance for them to overtake. Max took his penalty in Russia, and went from the back of the grid to second place. Lewis took a lesser penalty in Brazil and managed to win the race.
Should There Be Engine Limits In F1?
Having an engine limit in F1 prevents the bigger teams from outspending the smaller teams. This gives smaller teams a chance to compete with the bigger teams and allows them to focus their resources on other areas, such as developing upgrades on other parts.
When it comes to Formula 1 engines, the focus is on performance rather than durability. While the teams know they need to make their engines last long enough to avoid too many penalties, it’s still difficult to find the perfect balance between having a fast engine and one that can last long enough into the season to remain competitive.
With the $140 million budget cap in place for 2022, the sport is moving towards becoming more budget-friendly and less out of reach for smaller teams (and newer teams). At the end of the day, if the engine used is not restricted, it makes the sport more difficult for the smaller teams to keep up with the billion-dollar teams at the front.
Bigger teams such as Ferrari and Mercedes might be able to afford using a brand-new engine every race, meaning they could push it to its limits and not have to worry about its lifespan. However, the smaller teams couldn’t afford to bring a brand-new engine to each race, resulting in them having to conserve the performance of their engine to make it last longer, limiting their performance further.
Will The Engine Limit Remain In F1?
The engine limit is likely to remain in place in F1 in the future. As the sport moves towards further reducing the overall costs, it’s highly unlikely they will increase the engine limit in the future.
The FIA also can’t reduce the limit because teams are already struggling to stick with three engines for the season. Teams would need to focus massively on improving their engine reliability or using them very conservatively throughout the season if the engine limit were to be reduced even further to cut costs.
Formula 1 is a competitive sport, and we would like to see all teams pushing their cars to the limit rather than turning their engines down to make them last longer. The engine regulations are currently frozen until 2026, so no major changes can be made until then.
How Does The FIA Keep Track Of Engines Used?
Each driver is allocated their three engines before the season starts. An FIA official is then sent to check the engines and ensure that everything that has been built on the engine is legal. The engines are “sealed,” which means that nothing inside of the engine can be altered.
Each engine has a serial number and a seal number which the FIA official notes down. The FIA checks each engine at scrutineering every Grand Prix weekend and checks whether the seal has been broken and whether the serial numbers on the engine match up. If the seal is broken or the serial numbers don’t match, then the team has altered the engine without informing the FIA – which is not good!
Can An F1 Team Swap Engines Each Race?
With the current rules in place, teams are allowed to swap their engines from race to race. The rules state that if no more than three different engines are used throughout the season, the team can alternate engines as they please. This allows teams to choose a different engine for each race.
This means that a team can complete the first half of the season using two engines and save a fresh engine for the power circuits, such as Spa and Monza, which are usually in the middle of the calendar and are some of the fastest and most demanding on the engine. Teams can then go into these races with unused engines at peak performance.
However, if a team pushes their engines too far, they run the risk of an engine failure. If a team loses one engine, it means that they only have two engines remaining for the rest of the season and will most likely have to take an extra engine, and therefore a penalty at some point during the season.
How Do Teams Control Their Engine Wear?
Formula 1 engines are high-performance machines, and they often work extremely hard during a race. Formula 1 teams don’t get any extra engines for practice or qualifying either, which means that they need to be extra careful with their engine usage.
Managing their car’s engine is critical, so most teams will turn the engine power down during practice sessions. This puts much less strain on the engine and prevents it from wearing out any faster just for a practice session. There is a balance between running the car at top performance and holding back to prolong the engine’s life.
If teams have a massive technical fault on their car that will drastically affect its performance for the rest of the race, teams may also opt to retire their car from the race early in order to save their engine and prevent putting any further strain on it.
A challenge teams have faced recently is they are not allowed to switch engine modes during the race. In the past, teams could control how hard their engines worked, so if they were comfortably leading the race, they could turn the power down and prevent putting further strain on the engine. However, now teams need to use the same engine mode in the race as they used in qualifying.
What Are Grid Penalties In F1?
Grid penalties are used in Formula 1 as a form of punishment for teams or drivers if they have broken the rules or caused a serious incident during a race. The stewards can decide to give them a grid penalty for the next race, which means they will be starting further back than where they qualified.
Grid penalties can be three places, five places, ten places, and even 15 places. If a driver receives a five-place grid penalty, it means they will move five places back on the starting grid. If they manage to qualify in pole position, they will start from sixth place on the grid. If they qualified 18th, they would start from the back of the grid.
What Can You Get Grid Penalties For?
There is a wide range of infringements drivers can receive grid penalties for. Ultimately, it’s up to F1’s stewards to decide whether to award a driver a grid penalty for the next race, or to give them a time penalty at the current race instead. Grid penalties are fairly common.
Drivers can be given grid penalties for the next race if they have broken the rules. This can range from forcing another driver off track to going off track to gain an advantage, or even blocking another driver while they are on a flying lap in qualifying.
Aside from sporting infringements, such as causing collisions or cutting corners, drivers can receive grid penalties for mechanical infringements as well. The most common grid penalty is for changing a gearbox too early, in which case the driver would receive a five-place grid penalty. Drivers can receive grid penalties for taking an extra element on their power unit as well, as discussed above.
Is A Grid Penalty A Serious Disadvantage?
A grid penalty will always be a disadvantage for any driver. Drivers work hard in qualifying to get their cars as high up the grid as they possibly can, and a grid penalty will ruin this effort. The higher up you qualify, the fewer cars you need to overtake in the race.
However, for most drivers, a grid penalty is not the end of the world. The main factor to consider is whether the circuit they are taking the penalty on is good for overtaking and whether they have a fast enough car to be able to overtake.
In most cases, the front-running teams will make their way back to the front of the grid over the course of a race. With the help of drag reduction systems and significantly faster cars, these drivers can easily get past the few cars that stand in their way of the podium spot.
What Are Penalty Points In F1?
Penalty points in F1 are points drivers receive on their Super Licence when they break the rules or behave in an unsportsmanlike way. This can range from pushing another driver off the track to causing a collision. Drivers can get a race ban if they receive more than 12 penalty points in a year.
All Formula 1 drivers are closely monitored. At the pinnacle of motorsport, you can only afford to make so many mistakes before you start to pay the price. If a driver is found guilty of an incident, the stewards may decide to give them “penalty points” as well.
The severity of the incident will determine how many penalty points are added to the driver’s Super Licence. In some cases, drivers may only receive one point. However, there have been instances where drivers have received as many as three penalty points for one severe incident.
If a driver reaches 12 penalty points in a 12-month period, they will be given a one-race ban. The driver is not allowed to enter the next Grand Prix and the team will have to call up their reserve driver to replace them. Since the rule was introduced in 2014, no driver has been banned for reaching the penalty points threshold. The closest any driver has come is nine penalty points.
Do Engine Penalties Count As Penalty Points?
Replacing power unit elements and gearboxes do not count towards an F1 driver’s penalty points. This is because these are more relevant to the technical regulations, which are more related to the car itself rather than the driver. Engine penalties affect the team, not just the driver.
Penalty points are specifically added to the driver’s Super Licence. This means that they are based on sporting regulations. In order words, a driver would need to break the rules in order to have penalty points added to their name.
This can often include serious violations of the rules such as speeding in the pit lane, causing a collision, or not adhering to stop and go penalties. Essentially anything where the driver is clearly at fault and has overstepped the rules would mean that they are awarded a penalty and penalty points.
Engine penalties in F1 are related to the limits on components used on the car. F1 drivers are limited to 3 engines for the season. If they use more than 3, they get a 10-place grid penalty for the next race. It’s very hard for teams to complete a season without taking at least one engine penalty.