The beginner’s guide to… Formula 1 engine and gearbox penalties
Power units and gearboxes often become hot topics as F1 seasons develop, given the set allocations for each driver – and the grid penalties that follow if those limits are breached. Here’s all you need to know about these two vital parts of an F1 car for the 2023 campaign…
Firstly, it’s important to understand the various components that make up F1 power units and gearboxes, and how many can be used across the 23-race calendar without penalty.
How many components are in an F1 power unit?
Current F1 power units feature several elements: the internal combustion engine (ICE), motor generator unit-heat (MGU-H), motor generator unit-kinetic (MGU-K), turbocharger, energy store (ES), control electronics (CE) and exhaust.
Over the course of the 2023 season, a driver may use no more than four ICEs, MGU-Hs, MGU-Ks and turbochargers, two energy stores and control electronics, and eight of each of the four elements that make up a set of exhaust systems (comprising primaries left-hand side, primaries right-hand side, secondary LHS and secondary RHS).
2023 power unit component allocation
|COMPONENT||ALLOCATION FOR 23-RACE SEASON|
|Internal combustion engine (ICE)||4|
|Motor generator units-heat (MGU-H)||4|
|Motor generator units-kinetic (MGU-K)||4|
|Energy store (ES)||2|
|Control electronics (CE)||2|
How are F1 engine penalties applied?
Should a driver use more power unit elements than the numbers set out above, a grid place penalty will be imposed upon them at the first event where each additional element is used.
The first time the allocation of any of the seven elements is exceeded, a 10-place grid penalty will be applied, with the second time this occurs (and so on) resulting in a five-place grid drop – all penalties at the same event applying in a cumulative manner.
If a driver incurs a penalty exceeding 15 grid places, they will be required to start the race at the back. Following some confusion when multiple drivers had multiple penalties at last year’s Italian Grand Prix, the FIA have clarified their process.
Classified drivers who have received 15 or fewer cumulative grid place penalties will be allocated a “temporary” grid position equal to their qualifying classification. So, if a driver qualifies 10th and they have penalties totalling 15 spots, they will be placed in a temporary position of 25th on the grid.
Should two or more drivers share the same temporary position, the driver who finished lower in qualifying will keep that position and the faster driver will be placed immediately ahead.
Once the unpenalised classified drivers have been allocated their positions, those in temporary slots will be shuffled up to close the grid.
Any driver who has a penalty of more than 15 places – or if they have a punishment that pushes them to the back of the grid – will start behind any other classified driver.
A new power unit element is viewed as ‘used’ once the car’s timing transponder shows that it has left the pit lane during an official session. Meanwhile, power unit and gearbox components are sealed to ensure that parts cannot be replaced without the FIA knowing.
If a driver introduces more than one of the same element that is subject to penalties, only the last element fitted may be used at subsequent events without further penalty.
Meanwhile, if a driver is swapped out for another at any time during the season, their replacement will be viewed as the original driver for the purposes of assessing power unit usage.
It is also important to note that when a new power unit element is taken, it becomes part of the driver’s ‘pool’ for the rest of the season – parts that can be swapped around from race to race without penalty.
The above three points also apply to gearboxes.
How many components are in an F1 gearbox?
Drivers are also limited in terms of how many restricted-number components (RNCs) they can use during a season. RNCs are components that make up the gearbox, split between the gearbox case and cassette, and the gearbox driveline, gear change components and auxiliary components.
2023 restricted-number component allocation
|COMPONENT||ALLOCATION FOR 23-RACE SEASON|
|Gearbox case and cassette||4|
|Gearbox driveline, gearchange components and auxiliary components||4|
How are F1 gearbox penalties applied?
As with their power units, drivers have a ‘pool’ of four gearboxes that can be swapped around during the season. Only when a driver exceeds their allocation of either of the above gearbox components do they receive a grid penalty.
The first time the allocation of either of the components is exceeded, a five-place grid penalty will be dished out, with the same number applying for repeat offences. This means a 10-place grid drop will be earned if the allocation of both sets of components are exceeded at once.
In the event of either a power unit or gearbox penalty, drivers and their teams may decide to make an array of changes – incurring multiple penalties – at the same time, taking an initial hit to free up their pool for the remainder of the campaign.
Certain circuits are more popular for these sweeping component changes, such as Monza and Spa-Francorchamps, where the nature of the layout – and particularly their long straights – make it easier for drivers to recover lost ground, while benefitting from fresh units.
But why do the drivers get grid penalties for changing these parts?
Ultimately it is a cost-saving measure. At one time, F1 teams would change out engines between almost every single session the cars ran. This meant they ran through dozens of units for each car every year, at a huge cost.
Forcing them to be more economical – and punishing them with grid drops – ensures the teams work hard to keep their changes to a minimum.
Why have I heard the term ‘engine freeze’?
In 2022, an engine freeze came into force – with an initial set of components locked in from March 1, and another set from September 1 – and is set to run until the end of the 2025 campaign, after which new power unit regulations will take effect.
A manufacturer may apply to the FIA during the course of the so-called ‘homologation’ period to carry out modifications to power unit elements “for the sole purposes of reliability, safety, cost saving” and a range of “minimal incidental changes” such as component positioning.
Applications must be made in writing to the FIA Technical Department with supporting information including clear evidence of any failures. This will be circulated to all power unit manufacturers for comment and, if the FIA is satisfied that these changes are acceptable, they will inform the power unit manufacturer concerned that they may be carried out.
This so-called ‘engine freeze’ was put in place because all-new power units will be introduced in 2026, and the freeze means the manufacturers can spend their time, money and resources developing those, without having to worry about continually improving the current generation of engines.
It is a similar story for gearboxes, which are also homologated, though there is some extra flexibility for 2023, with modifications now permitted “in the case of materials, processes or proprietary parts becoming unavailable”, in addition to resolving “reliability problems” or for “cost saving, at the start of each season”.