Over the first 13 races drivers have been handed gearbox change penalties on 16 separate occasions – as many as there was throughout the whole of the 2010 season.
The standard penalty for a gearbox change is a five-place grid drop. But should drivers be punished in this way for failures which are outside of their control?
Gearbox changes in 2012
Under the current rules each driver has to use the same gearbox for five races in a row before changing it:
Each driver may use no more than one gearbox for five consecutive events in which his team competes. Should a driver use a replacement gearbox he will drop five places on the starting grid at that event and an additional five places each time a further gearbox is used.
FIA 2012 Formula One Sporting Regulations article 28.6 (a)
Requiring teams to use the same gearbox for consecutive races forces them to build more durable units to reduce costs.
So far this year 16 gearbox change penalties have been issued – an average of more than one per race. Pastor Maldonado has the most with three and Sergio Perez, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg have had two each.
The table on the right shows the number of gearbox penalties handed down over the last three seasons so far, and for comparison the corresponding figures for engine change penalties.
Five-place grid drop
Is a five-place grid drop a suitable penalty for an unauthorised gearbox change? It’s not hard to see why there have been objections (such as here and here) to punishing a driver for a fault that is not their responsibility.
Grid drops are more appropriately used as punishments for driving infringements such as impeding other drivers or causing collisions.
Another shortcoming of using grid drops in this way is it allows teams to make ‘tactical’ gearbox changes if their driver has qualified poorly, offering an undue benefit as rewards for a poor performance.
Alternatives to the grid drop
What sort of penalty would work better than a grid drop for an unauthorised gearbox change?
Ideally it would be one that gave teams a strong incentive to design gearboxes that are less likely to fail, but did not compromise a driver for a fault that is out of their hands.
One idea might be to dock a team points for each unauthorised gearbox change. This would be a tangible disincentive, as it could compromise their position in the constructors’ championship and the financial reward that comes with it.
But the problem here is how many points to dock? Such a penalty would affect teams to differing degrees based on how competitive they are.
For example, a one-point penalty would make little difference to Red Bull’s championship lead at the moment, but it would drop Caterham from tenth to last – a swing which could have serious implications for their bank balance.
Taking the idea a step further, why not exclude the car’s finishing position from counting towards the constructors’ championship? This would satisfy all the requirements: it would be a severe enough punishment to encourage teams to avoid it, it would not penalise a driver for a problem they could not have avoided and it would affect all teams equally when applied.
There is precedent for such a penalty. It was applied to both McLarens in the 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix, and to Michael Schumacher’s Benetton and David Coulthard’s Williams in the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Over to you
Should drivers get five-place grid penalties for unauthorised gearbox changes? Cast your vote below, and have your say on what kind of penalty you think would be appropriate in the comments.
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