Formula One’s Confusing Engine Penalties: Explained

Five Mercedes Formula 1 engines on display

The current Formula 1 engines are comprised of six constituent component parts.
Photo: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team

Of all the global racing series, Formula 1 can sometimes be the most confusing, boastingmore than 200 pages of regulations covering what can and can’t be done or designed during a racing season. And for any breach of these rules, there’s an equally confusing set of penalties.


One area we often hear about during the course of an F1 season is penalties for drivers changing their engines. But in a period when the cars are using the most complex F1 power units to date, why are they handing these reprimands out, and what even constitutes an engine change?

Well, as this weekend will see Lewis Hamilton take yet another penalty for changing his engine, I thought now would be a good time to get to the bottom of this.

So, I’ve trawled the aforementioned 235 pages of F1’s sporting and technical regulations to find out exactly what is going on when a driver is handed one of these penalties.

Alpha Tauri driver Yuki Tsunoda in an F1 garage

Yuki Tsunoda was penalized in Mexico for changing his power unit
Photo: Peter Fox / Stringer (Getty Images)

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First up, what is an F1 engine?

Well, the hybrid power units that drive the current generation of F1 cars are comprised of six constituent components. These include the internal combustion engine, turbocharger, energy store, control electronics and two motor generator units – the motor generator unit-heat (MGU-H) and the motor generator unit-kinetic (MGU-K).


Over the course of a season, there are limits on how many of each of these components a driver is able to use without incurring a penalty.

Each driver is allowed to use three internal combustion engines, MGU-Hs, MGU-Ks and turbochargers. They can also use two energy stores and control electronics systems over the course of the season.


Interestingly, the regs say that if a driver is replaced during a season (I’m looking at you, Red Bull) their replacement will be “deemed to be the original driver for the purposes of assessing power unit usage”.

Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi in Brazil

Antonio Giovinazzi is one of four drivers who have not taken engine penalties.
Photo: Buda Mendes / Staff (Getty Images)


Great, but where do all the penalties come from?

So that’s the allowances each driver has in order to keep their motor running. But, what happens if you exceed these allowances? Well, that’s where the penalties come in.


Reprimands that can be imposed start at a five-place grid drop and can rise to ridiculous figures. So far this season, we’ve seen drivers like Lando Norris take a five-place grid drop, and Alpha Tauri driver Yuki Tsunoda started at the back of the pack in Mexico due to his engine changes.

Over the course of the 2021 season, everyone on the grid except the Alfa Romeo pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, and Haas racers Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher have taken penalties due to engine changes.


But why does changing an engine warrant so many different penalties?

Well, according to the rules, the first time an additional element of the power unit is fitted to a car, the driver incurs a 10-place grid drop. The next time “an additional element of the same type is used”, the driver will drop five places. That’s why Hamilton’s penalty was a 10-place drop in Turkey and just five places in Brazil.


If additional components of the power unit are changed during the same weekend, the combined penalty for each alteration is added up. So if a driver is fitting their first new MGU-H but second turbocharger, they will drop a total of 15 places.

The beginning of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi

Any engine penalties are applied before the start of an F1 race
Photo: Alexander Nemenov / Contributor (Getty Images)


Here, the rules have even more to say. If any driver incurs penalties worth more than 15 places due to new engine components, they will need to start the race from the back of the grid regardless of where they qualify.

So there you have it, everything you need to know about F1 engine penalties.

Do you have any other questions about the quirky world of motorsport? Let us know in the comments section and we’ll see if we can answer them.

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