F1’s penalty system explained: How does a driver pick up a penalty from the FIA?

Thomas Maher
Max Verstappen leads at the start of the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. Sakhir, March 2023. Budget cap.

Max Verstappen leads at the start of the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. Sakhir, March 2023.

F1 has a robust penalty system in place to penalise drivers and teams who fall foul of the rulebooks – here’s your guide to how that can happen.

Formula 1 has several specific rulebooks in place to ensure the teams and drivers comply with the extremely high standards expected of the leading single-seater motorsport in the world. These regulations books are compiled and maintained by F1’s governing body, the FIA, and are updated as required following due process.

The Technical Regulations outline the regulations of the cars the drivers race, with every parameter imaginable defined as to what is legal – the job of the team’s designers are to interpret these regulations to come up with a design and to try identifying avenues and loopholes that could give them an advantage.

The Financial Regulations, newly introduced in 2021, define the sport’s ‘budget cap’ and outline the rules regarding what is and isn’t allowed for financial expenditure by each team during the course of a season.

These two rulebooks are of more concern for the teams themselves, with the drivers unlikely to be singled out for individual punishment as a result of a breach.

In the drivers’ cases, their standards are upheld through the FIA’s International Sporting Code (which is used across all FIA-governed motorsport), and the F1-specific Sporting Regulations.

The ISC is used to outline the FIA’s structure and powers during a Grand Prix event, such as outlining the duties of officials, driver’s entry licencing requirements, and some of the rules pertaining to all the FIA’s series – including governing rules such as how drivers start a race, as well as the structuring of officials such as the technical scrutineers to ensure compliance with the technical rulebook.

The ISC’s comprehensive authority also includes driver conduct within its appendices, detailing the expected standards on the drivers conduct while on track.

The ISC is the rulebook that also sets the FIA’s authority to impose penalties on drivers as required during a Grand Prix weekend, setting out the scale from which the stewards must operate.

What penalties can the FIA apply on a driver during a Grand Prix weekend?

There is a wide range of options available to the race stewards during a Grand Prix event, with the most minor being a warning. In order of scale of severity, the stewards can also impose: a reprimand, a fine, or an obligation to complete work of public interest (e.g. Max Verstappen being forced into two days of public service following his ‘fracas’ with Esteban Ocon at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix).

Scaling up, the penalties which can affect a driver’s on-track progress include:

Deletion of lap times

A grid drop

An obligation for a driver to start from the pit lane

A time penalty

A drive-through penalty, or a stop & go penalty, escalating all the way to outright disqualification or suspension.

Since 2014, the FIA introduced a ‘penalty point’ system for F1 drivers’ super licences, identical to how a regular road user might pick up penalty points on their normal driving licence. 12 penalty points equals an automatic race ban for the offending driver. In the nine years the system has existed, no driver is yet to reach the 12-point mark.

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How might a driver pick up a penalty during a Grand Prix weekend?

There are umpteen ways in which a driver may be penalised during a Grand Prix, although that’s not to say that the driver has actually committed an offence.

A particularly common penalty handed out during a weekend is that of a grid drop. This means that, for example, a driver who qualified fifth on the grid could be forced to start the Grand Prix from 15th.

The most common reason for a grid drop in modern F1 is due to a team needing to fit new engine or gearbox components to a car. If a car needs new parts that have a set annual allocation, such as a power unit component or perhaps a new gearbox, the team will pick up a grid penalty for that car.

The allocations for individually rationed components are outlined in the Sporting Regulations, as are the corresponding grid drops.

While this is often seen as unfairly punishing a driver for something outside of their control, Formula 1 in general doesn’t separate the driver from the team – meaning that penalties that are targeting the team understandably bring the driver down with them.

However, the driver can pick up specific penalties that apply only to themselves – usually by breaching driving standards or a rule.

Appendix L of the ISC outlines the driving standards expected in competition, including oft-repeated rules such as not changing direction more than one while in defence, not being permitted to leave the track without justification, and ensuring to leave at least a cars’ width alongside for an attacking car while approaching corners.

Article 2 (b) also outlaws crowding competitors off-track, while 2 (c) sets out in stone the white line dictating track limits rule which many drivers fall foul of during a weekend.

Article 2 (d) also outlaws the very broadly worded ‘causing a collision’, which allows the stewards to investigate collisions between drivers in order to determine and apportion blame, which then allows for the imposition of a penalty as outlined above.

With every single racing scenario analysed and catered for in the rulebook after more than 70 years of Formula 1 championship racing, the penalty system has been worded carefully to ensure the provisions are there to allow the stewards to investigate and punish driving misdemeanours and transgressions as necessary.

For instance, the ISC decrees a pit-lane speed limit is in place for a Grand Prix weekend – the Sporting Regulations for 2023 confirm this limit is 80km/h. However, this limit can be further reduced by the Race Director if desired, a further provision in the same rulebook. Exceeding the speed limit, as drivers frequently do by such minor amounts as even 0.1km/h as they slam on the brakes entering the pits, triggers a fine and a time penalty.

While not common, drivers being out of position in their grid slot has been more frequent in 2023 due to a lack of visibility with the new-specification cars. This resulted in five-second time penalties for Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso, respectively, in the first two races of the year.

A frequently examined incident is that of the ‘unsafe release’, which is when a car is suspected to have been allowed to rejoin the race from a pit-stop while in an unsafe position or condition.

This can apply to many scenarios, such as a car being released into the path of a car already travelling down the pit-lane and forcing evading action, or perhaps being released with a loose wheel. These incidents require subjectivity from the stewards on a case-by-case basis, although a team being found to have released a car in unsafe condition will trigger a certain penalty.

Drivers doing something so extreme that they are shown the ‘black flag’, ie. immediate disqualification, are exceptionally rare nowadays.

The most recent examples of drivers being disqualified mid-race were at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix when Rubens Barrichello and Giancarlo Fisichella both left the pits while the red light was on, while Takuma Sato got shown the black flag at the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix for repeatedly ignoring blue flags instructing him to let leading cars by him.

Jumping the start, crossing the white line on pit entry/exit, carrying out practice starts from an unpermitted location, exceeding track limits too often, being found guilty of causing a collision, falling too far back under the Safety Car – there are many, many ways drivers can pick up penalties which can hamper their racing results, impact their driving licence through penalty points, or cost them financially – these penalties applying to the drivers rather than the teams.