Can Formula One separate the car from the driver?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By , Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Let this fact sink in: McLaren-Honda has taken 115 grid place penalties so far this season.

    With only nine rounds of 20 completed, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne have together taken a 12.8-place grid hit per race.

    That’s perversely impressive, but a frustrating loss to the sport considering the former is perhaps the generation’s foremost talent and the latter is one of this year’s most highly rated rookies.

    Convenient, then, that the potential to exempt drivers from mechanical penalties was a hot topic at the Red Bull Ring – where title contender Lewis Hamilton dropped five grid places for a gearbox change. Former Formula One driver and 2015 World Endurance Championship titleholder Mark Webber triggered the discussion.

    “I don’t want any penalties for a driver that’s had nothing to do with it,” Webber told the FIA Sport conference last week. “[For example] if a mechanic has put a brake disc in the wrong way, and a driver is at the back of the grid.

    “It’s hard enough to get the quality at the front of the grid as it is, let alone having guys diluted down the back through no reason of their own.”

    It’s a difficult call to answer.

    Though poor design or faulty componentry can cause a mechanical problem, so too can a driver’s style unduly wear the engine, gearbox, brakes et cetera – or so used to be the case.

    When asked by this writer what the driver could do to influence a car’s longevity, Alonso’s response was unequivocal.

    “Here in Formula One, these days, nothing,” he said.

    “In the past years you had a little bit … the choice when to shift lower RPM, short shift, or avoiding certain things.

    “Now there is nothing really you can do. You are not using all the revs because you have to change in the range they are telling you to change, because higher than that is a problem and lower is a problem.

    “You just switch off and switch on the car – that is the maximum thing you can do.”

    Alonso may have more motivation than most to avoid mechanical-related penalties, but when his fellow Formula One drivers agree that their power to manage wear is limited, what alternatives are there?

    A financial penalty served by the team is a flawed option. Not only would a fine system benefit only the larger teams, which would be able to replace parts with impunity knowing costs would be easily absorbed, but it would also undermine the reason limited parts are regulated in the first place: to cut costs and incentivise reliability.

    Fernando Alonso turns a corner in his McLaren-Honda Formula One car at the Austrian Grand Prix.

    (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    Docking a team championship points is a solution grounded in the sporting sphere, but obstacles block even this path. For example, how would McLaren-Honda’s 115 grid-place penalties meaningfully translate into a points deduction when the team has accrued just two points to begin with?

    A team cannot have a negative number of points, rendering effectively free any changes that would cost the team more than the number of points it has already earnt.

    Moreover, any team – for example, Ferrari this season, ailing in the constructors standings thanks to Kimi Räikkönen’s underperformance – could take a deliberate hit in the team standings in order to furnish its lead driver with new parts every other weekend to benefit his individual title tilt.

    As a third option, the regulations applying to gearboxes – a gearbox must last for six consecutive events, but failing to finish a race allows a driver a new gearbox for free – could be extended to power units.

    This season each driver is allowed four power units. Under this rule change, if an engine failure prevents a driver from finishing a race, that engine could be replaced for free without incurring a penalty for using more than the allocated four power units to avoid ‘double penalising’ a driver.

    However, this, too, is problematic because power unit failures in free practice would be impossible to regulate without mandating the use of practice engines. That would contradict the cost-cutting motivation of limiting engine parts in the first place.

    Despite apparent furious agreement among drivers that they ought not be punished for mechanical failures, no obvious solution from them or anywhere else has been forthcoming. It isn’t for lack of trying, however. Rather it is because there can be no solution.

    Formula One is a team sport, and the team comprises the driver as much as it comprises any other member of staff. When the car fails by no fault of the driver the driver may feel aggrieved, but so too does the team feel hard done by when the driver crashes the car. There are no calls to give back to the team its lost championship points or grid spots.

    Ultimately the only agency a driver has in this situation is to leave a team he feels is so unreliable that it is hindering his ability to perform. Instructive, perhaps, for Alonso and Vandoorne, along with their 115 grid place penalties.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.