Can Formula One separate the car from the driver?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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17 Have your say

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (17)

    • July 11th 2017 @ 6:47am
      marfu said | July 11th 2017 @ 6:47am | ! Report

      It is not an easy one to solve but they have to try something. I was more commenting to say that I heard your race preview and it was good to put a voice to the name. I was very jelly to be there as it is such a picturesque setting. Shame the race didn’t provide more but with no rain and tyres that are too hard, it was just another one stopper.

      • Columnist

        July 13th 2017 @ 2:45am
        Michael Lamonato said | July 13th 2017 @ 2:45am | ! Report

        It was wonderfully picturesque, by far the most attractive setting for a racetrack I’ve been to. At least the last five laps delivered!

    • Roar Rookie

      July 11th 2017 @ 1:29pm
      mattatooski said | July 11th 2017 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

      If a team has to replace a engine or gearbox, then maybe they should be exempt from accumulating any constructors points for that weekend. That way the team is punished and not the driver. Its probably been mentioned before but it seems like a pretty obvious solution.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 11th 2017 @ 7:47pm
        Chancho said | July 11th 2017 @ 7:47pm | ! Report

        Let’s say a driver has a narrow lead in the drivers’ championship and we’re coming into the last race of the season. Suppose further that they are coming into this last race with a component that is near the end of it’s life. If there are no grid penalties for replacing the component, just constructor point deductions what will the team do in this scenario… my money is on change the part to a new one and give the driver the best chance of winning the title. What if the driver who is second in the drivers championship has been judicious all season and managed the car well, or the team had manufactured components for longevity not out-and-out performance, why should they be at a disadvantage for abiding by the rules?

        • Columnist

          July 13th 2017 @ 2:56am
          Michael Lamonato said | July 13th 2017 @ 2:56am | ! Report

          Yep, nailed it, I think. Consider Ferrari’s season — the team’s unlikely to win the constructors title due to Kimi Raikkonen’s poor form, so if Sebastian Vettel took the title down to the wire, management would have no issue taking points deductions to bolster his chances.

      • July 12th 2017 @ 12:29am
        Frank said | July 12th 2017 @ 12:29am | ! Report

        Spot on

    • Roar Guru

      July 11th 2017 @ 4:21pm
      Bayden Westerweller said | July 11th 2017 @ 4:21pm | ! Report

      Very pertinent issue you’ve raised, one which few have bothered to consider.

      There are simply too many gimmicks in the sport for there to be any defined ‘just’ penalty, though the loss of track time correspondent to a failure is a setback in itself which affects the entire team and its resources. Having to contemplate a grid drop for the driver in question seems objective, yet it again has a collective impact on the outfit in the constructors and/or strategic stakes, thus they’re inextricably tied.

      • Roar Rookie

        July 12th 2017 @ 6:41am
        Chancho said | July 12th 2017 @ 6:41am | ! Report

        This is a good point; there are equally convincing arguments on the pros and cons of any penalty be it financial/points/grid position. That’s why I’m cool with the current situation… the ‘stick’ is sufficient enough deterent for teams to not brak the rules, yes the driver is affected if it’s not thier fault, but it’s a team sport and the drivers do benefit when teams put out components that are skewed towards performance over durability.

        The McLaren situation looks bad when you put it in black and white terms like Michael has here, but really, this is a fault with Honda or whichever contractor is or has been failing and that’s why they need to make sure they are getting adequatly reimbursed from whoever it is.

        • Columnist

          July 13th 2017 @ 3:03am
          Michael Lamonato said | July 13th 2017 @ 3:03am | ! Report

          Yeah, I tend to agree that we’re in more or less in an ideal situation with penalties given there can be no perfect outcome.

          What we could really go further to say is that the only reason we talk about things like penalties or the difficulties the sport is having with the current power units is Honda. Honda’s inability to come anywhere near mastering the regulations is leading to all these conversations when otherwise we wouldn’t need to consider them. That, too, I think underlines that the regulations are working fine — they just never could have envisaged how bad Honda would be.

    • Roar Rookie

      July 11th 2017 @ 8:08pm
      Chancho said | July 11th 2017 @ 8:08pm | ! Report

      I don’t think the grid penalty issue is a problem at all. I think it’s a good thing to see these guys getting through the field.

      The rules are in place for a reason and they are they are pretty clear – if the FIA are keen to promote cost reduction then the penalty needs to be severe and on the track, otherwise the bigger budgeted teams will overlook the rules and this leads to a bigger gulf to the smaller teams. The teams know exactly what they are doing and getting themselves in for.

      As for the case of McLaren, this is something they need to bring up with Honda, or whomever the component provider is. Surely this is a failure of whatever KPI’s they have and there should be be liquidated damages. If these aren’t sized correctly then that’s the fault of a poor negotiation.

      • Columnist

        July 13th 2017 @ 3:05am
        Michael Lamonato said | July 13th 2017 @ 3:05am | ! Report

        Yep, nailed it. Honda’s underperformance is really the root of this discussion; the regulations are functioning as they should — and, as you say, there’s the benefit for the fan of seeing drivers in faster cars cutting through the pack.

    • July 12th 2017 @ 3:25pm
      Brad said | July 12th 2017 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

      With the current system could they just give new engine manufactures (at the moment Honda) a grace period or more before penalty like they do in MotoGP where they say you are starting out you get some extra help. Once they get over X points in a season or win a race or two it stops as at the end of the day I think there are only 4 engines on the grid

      • Roar Guru

        July 12th 2017 @ 4:18pm
        Bayden Westerweller said | July 12th 2017 @ 4:18pm | ! Report

        Ross Brawn has mentioned incentives for incoming manufacturers following the new regulations likely from 2020, though it shouldn’t represent a free pass to success, simply enough to ensure reliability and a competent operation.

      • Columnist

        July 13th 2017 @ 3:11am
        Michael Lamonato said | July 13th 2017 @ 3:11am | ! Report

        That would make a great deal of sense and is perhaps something the FIA and commercial rights holder can consider for the new generation of power units to entice more manufacturers. Certainly it’d help manufacturers that don’t enter in the first year to catch up.

    • July 12th 2017 @ 7:50pm
      Simoc said | July 12th 2017 @ 7:50pm | ! Report

      Unfortunately the folks in F1 are experts at stretching every rule to the max and needing to get a ruling. The system works. They all cheat if they can get away with it. Remember Scumachers Bennetton and the (speculated) traction control. On the other hand Shumacher was way ahead on strategies, pit stop etc and changed them forever. These parts rules are made with the knowledge of what has gone on before and the rules can be modified if inadequate.

      • Columnist

        July 13th 2017 @ 3:14am
        Michael Lamonato said | July 13th 2017 @ 3:14am | ! Report

        Yep, I think that’s exactly right. At least now the rule is uniform and able to be applied to everyone, whereas most of the tweaks that have been raised would create opportunities for exploitation by the big teams.

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