Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
The 2022 Belgian Grand Prix weekend saw Formula One finally return to action after its customary four-week summer break. While it was set to be an exciting weekend of racing, it also witnessed nine drivers take grid penalties for the race, due to taking fresh Power Unit (PU) components. It was a rare occasion to see so many drivers do so over a single race weekend. It included the likes of Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris, Zhou Guanyu, and Mick Schumacher starting at the rear of the field for Sunday’s race. Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly started from the pit lane after taking a fresh PU.
With a number of drivers set to be taking grid penalties for the Italian Grand Prix as well, it brings us to an important question.
Now, how do these grid penalties work? And how can drivers take grid penalties for a particular race weekend? It will be explained in the following article.
Why are grid penalties taken by drivers?
A grid penalty can either be taken by a driver or might be incurred as a result of an infraction committed by the driver during the race weekend. He also can end up incurring a penalty for causing a collision in the preceding race weekend. This was the case when Williams driver Alex Albon collided with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll in the closing stages of this year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. It was also the case when Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton had a major crash at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix, with Verstappen being given a three-place grid drop for the next race at Sochi, Russia. In these cases, a driver incurs a grid penalty as he did not finish the race, and could not be given a time penalty during the race.
However, the other more common instance of a driver facing a grid penalty would be for taking Power Unit (PU) components outside of his allocated pool of components for the season. This can be the case when an engine blows out during a race, or when any other component of the PU fails. Both Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz took grid penalties for the Canadian and French Grand Prix respectively, after experiencing engine blowouts at the preceding races. In another case, an engine that is reaching the end of its mileage will usually be substituted for another engine within the pool of components. Newer components tend to be taken to evenly spread out the wear on all the engines. In this case, a driver may opt to take components outside his allocation of PU components for the season, usually at a track that facilitates overtaking.
Sometimes, a team may take newer components as a precautionary measure, to cover the risk of a component failure causing a driver to retire from a race. In the event of a driver taking any additional PU components, he is given a ten-place grid drop for the first such component taken, and five-place grid drops for more such new components taken. In the event of taking a grid penalty of 15 places or more, a driver is relegated to the back of the grid for the main race.
What are the different components of a power unit, and how many are allocated to a driver for a single season?
The power unit is the most important component of an F1 car. Quite literally, it is the powerhouse of an F1 car. The PU of an F1 car isn’t just an engine, it comprises several other components - the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), Motor Generator Unit - Heat (MGU-H), Energy Stores, Control Electronics, and so on. A lowdown on each of these components, and their allocation for a season, is given below:
Internal Combustion Engine (ICE): Simply put, it is the main component of the PU. The ICE is the heart of the PU. It is a 1.6-litre V6 engine, producing upwards of 900 horsepower. The engines are pushed hardest during qualifying, as drivers try to extract the maximum amount of power from the ICE for better straight-line speed. A driver is allowed three ICE components for a 22-race season. In the event of a driver taking his fourth ICE for the season, he will incur penalties.
Motor Generator Unit - Heat (MGU-H): The MGU-H is a development that came about during the turbo-hybrid era. One of the elements used is a turbine which is present in the exhaust of a Formula 1 car. Thermal energy is lost by the car through its exhaust, during the combustion process. The MGU-H uses these gases lost by the exhaust to feed power to the energy store, which is then used to power the turbocharger’s compressor. A driver is allowed three MGU-H components per season.
Motor Generator Unit - Kinetic (MGU-K): The MGU-K makes up the other half of the energy store on an F1 car. It is a component that harnesses kinetic energy from the braking system of an F1 car. In the event of engine braking, kinetic energy is lost as it is converted to thermal energy in the brakes. A hybrid system in the brakes helps recover the lost energy and transfers it back to the car’s energy store for later use, in the form of electrical energy. Like the MGU-H, a driver is allowed three MGU-K components per season.
Energy Store: One of the most important parts of the PU, the energy store supplies energy to the MGU-H and the MGU-K, to help provide a boost of power to the car. The energy store consists of a lithium-ion battery, which helps harvest energy as well. The energy store also contains the control electronics. However, there are restrictions to how much electrical energy can be stored and deployed. The battery can deploy four MJ (MegaJoules) of energy to the MGU-K, which provides up to 160 hp of extra power to the engine for 33 seconds. Although only two MJ can be harvested by the MGU-K over a lap, there is no limit to the amount of energy that can be harvested by the MGU-H. A driver is allowed only two energy store components per season.
Control Electronics: This is a component that is part of the energy store. Also called the Electronic Control Unit (ECU), it is the main element of the electronics system. It plays an important role in managing the delivery of the power and torque in an F1 car. The ECU also controls important parts of an F1 car: Engine, Drag Reduction System (DRS), differentials, brakes, throttle, and clutch among them. This component also manages the delivery of energy from the brakes of an F1 car. The control electronics also relay telemetry back to the pit wall and race control. Likewise, a driver is allowed two control electronics components per year.
The system of grid penalties has been simplified over the past few seasons. There have been instances of drivers taking fresh PU components, and incurring unbelievably large grid penalties, such as the McLaren drivers being hit with a combined 105-place grid penalty at the 2015 Belgian Grand Prix. Furthermore, in the event of the grid penalties exceeding the number of spots on the grid, further time penalties could be handed to the drivers during the race, for the same. As we can see, this made for a very complicated system that didn’t make as much sense. Nowadays, a driver can take a grid penalty for multiple fresh components at once, and start from the back of the grid for only one particular race. The penalties don’t carry on for the next race, and no time penalties are handed to the drivers for doing so. Teams and drivers must make strategic decisions regarding taking grid penalties at a particular round.