Ever since Formula 1 started trying to halt the ever-inflating costs of the sport, they have placed limits on the number of parts teams can use in a season. Be it a gearbox or individual components of the power unit, an unscheduled change has come with a grid penalty. However, with Honda and now Renault components failing with regularity we have to ask if the grid penalty system is really working.
The punishment for unreliability used to be that you didn't finish the race. It was a fairly simple and pretty fair outcome. Karma at its finest. Something goes bang on Sunday? So does your race, but that is all. One car in smoke, one race ruined, but back to normal next week.
Now? Well now things work that way to start the season, but if you quickly get through your component quota you find yourself in an endless cycle of grid penalties, with one weekend's DNF bringing a punishment that gets carried over into the next race.
You only have to look at Toro Rosso's endless MGU issues to see how a team is being punished over and over. Brendon Hartley retired from the Mexican Grand Prix with a plume of smoke coming out of his car, and then received a ten-place penalty for replacing components so he could race in Brazil, where he then had to retire before the parts imploded so he won't get a penalty in Abu Dhabi.
How is that fair?
So, use parts beyond your quota and you get punished. Except, not always.
On Saturday Lewis Hamilton slid out on a cold track and smashed into the barrier in Q1 before setting a time. As a result, he would be starting at the back. So what did Mercedes do while rebuilding the broken suspension and aerodynamics? They fitted a brand new power unit AND gearbox. What was the punishment? Starting from the pit lane. And yet, if you are starting from the back anyway then being in the pit lane is hardly any punishment at all.
In fact, for a leading car, starting in the pit lane might be preferable to being in P20 because you avoid the risks of first corner incidents. The kind of incidents that, in Brazil, put Stoffel Vandoorne out of the race and knocked Daniel Ricciardo to the back of the field.
Had Lewis been on the grid he could easily have become tangled up in these incidents, but instead he avoided all of the chaos and had zero mileage on all of his key components with which to fly through the field.
This loophole has been readily exploited many times by many teams and I do not mean to single Hamilton out, it's just he was the most recent example.
We all enjoyed his charge thought the field, but his relative lack of punishment for using new parts when several of those he used in qualifying were safe to use in the race, especially compared to that of Hartley and the Toro Rosso's who couldn't have used their previous components even if they wanted to, seems like an extreme injustice.
It is in F1's blood for teams to find loopholes in the rules and regulations, but usually it is on minute details for the manufacture of parts or the positioning of aerodynamic pieces, not in something as blatantly perverse as fitting fresh parts when already resigned to the back of the grid because the punishment in effect is just on the balance sheet, not the race track.
I'm not sure there is truly a fix for this loophole. Perhaps a time penalty when a grid penalty cannot be applied, but even that can be exploited, because what is a ten second penalty to a team like Sauber that is already going to be lucky to finish off the foot of the time sheet compared to a team in fight for a championship?
Should a change that has to be made due to prior failure go unpunished while a preventative one receives some punishment and a performance-based change like Hamilton's get a bigger one? Maybe, but that would require a large burden of proof over the viability of components and suddenly you get into murky water.
Maybe the FIA and Liberty Media need to come together and appoint an independent committee that can decide on each case, or maybe they just need to lift the punishments altogether for failures that result in a smoking, clunking car pulling up on the side of the track. A return to the days of complete engine changes between qualifying and the race would see the gap between manufacturing teams and customer teams grow rapidly, which is not what anyone wants, but there has to be a better balance out there between a new engine every session and free changes for some but not for others.
What do you make of F1's current penalty system? Is there a fairer way of applying penalties to the drivers and teams? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!