Charles Leclerc joins Max Verstappen as FIA clarify back of the grid start

Thomas Maher
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc's car in pieces in the garage. Spa-Francorchamps, August 2022.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc's car in pieces in the garage. Spa-Francorchamps, August 2022.

After some initial confusion, the FIA have clarified Charles Leclerc is required to start the Belgian GP from the back of the grid.

Charles Leclerc has joined the list of drivers, which includes championship leader Max Verstappen, who are required to start the Belgian Grand Prix from the back of the grid.

Ferrari appeared to have pulled a strategic coup after introducing new power unit components for Leclerc on Friday. This was after the Scuderia staggered the introduction of Leclerc’s components.

Verstappen, McLaren’s Lando Norris, and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon were all given automatic back-of-the-grid penalties for incurring engine grid penalties that exceeded 15 places. According to the Sporting Regulations, a 15+ grid penalty triggers an automatic requirement to start from the back, with the order of those drivers determined by the timing of the changes being logged with the FIA.

However, Ferrari fitted Leclerc’s F1-75 with a third Energy Store and fifth MGU-K for FP1, incurring a 10-place and five-place penalty respectively. For FP2, Ferrari then fitted him with a fourth Control Electronics, triggering another five-place penalty.

As explained on Friday, while this adds up to a 20-place penalty, the fact that it wasn’t a ‘single penalty’, unlike the one incurred by Verstappen (for example), Leclerc was not triggering the automatic requirement to ‘start from the back’.

However, after overnight deliberation over the unique situation, the governing body have determined Ferrari’s clever move isn’t permitted.

What’s the FIA’s reasoning?

During third practice at Spa-Francorchamps, the FIA clarified their position.

“As [Leclerc] has accumulated 20 grid place penalties (Documents 14 and 31) for this competition, this is in excess of the 15 permitted under the Regulation and therefore the car will be required to start the race from the back of the starting grid, which will be handled in accordance with Article 42,” said the document.

“The Stewards consider this to be the logical conclusion reading Article 28.3. However, it is possible to interpret it differently. The third paragraph of Article 28.3 states that ‘If a driver incurs a penalty exceeding fifteen (15) grid places he will be required to start the race from the back of the starting grid’.

“The Stewards published a decision (Document 14) which imposed a 15-place grid penalty. The competitor subsequently changed the Control Electronics and the Stewards published a separate decision (Document 31) imposing a five-place grid penalty.

Charles Leclerc in the garage. Belgium August 2022.

“This exact situation has not happened since this rule was put in place in 2018. The wording of the sentence is singular ‘a penalty’ and neither document imposed more than 15 grid places. So it could be interpreted that this does not trigger a ‘back of grid’ penalty.

“However, the first paragraph of the regulation states that ‘Penalties will be applied according to the following table and will be cumulative’ [in each Competition]. The Stewards further note that in fact, Document 14 combines two separate penalties (a 10-place and a five-place) and is therefore two separate penalties in a single document.

“So, logically, regardless of how many documents the penalties are published in, all decisions accumulate over the Competition, and anything over the 15-place grid limit triggers the back of the grid penalty.

“Finally, there are other instances in the regulations where penalties accumulate over time (such as penalty points) which accumulate until they trigger a separate decision provided for in the regulations. This is similar.

“It is important to note that the ‘start the race from the back of the starting grid’ penalty is fully embedded in Article 28 (Power Unit Usage), was specifically introduced in response to nonsensically high grid penalties from PU changes, and has never been used to accumulate grid penalties imposed from other articles of the Regulations. It should be read holistically as part of Article 28.3 and does not refer to other articles.

“This explanation is provided as this is first time this situation has occurred and this is a precedent.”

What are the starting positions?

Qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix thus looks set to clarify the top 13 positions on the grid, with Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas looking set for 14th place due to his separate engine and gearbox penalties not triggering the ‘back-of-the-grid’ penalty that applied to the remaining six drivers.

Based on the order of the penalty announcements, this would suggest Verstappen will start from 15th and at the head of the gaggle of six that triggered the back-of-the-grid penalty. Leclerc, Norris, Ocon, Zhou, and Mick Schumacher make up the remainder of the grid.

However, this grid is as interpreted under the rules, and could be updated further before the FIA publish their final grid on Sunday morning.