Why are there so many penalties in Formula E?

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The Santiago ePrix, as with many other Formula E races saw a number of drivers reported to the stewards and race director and a number of infringements deemed worthy of penalty. Including:

  • Di Grassi was excluded from qualifying for contravening article 27.9 of the sporting regulations.
  • Vandoorne was excluded from the super pole qualifying session for failing to leave the pit lane in a timely manner.
  • Sims earned a 19s time penalty for colliding with Mortara in the race.
  • Lopez was given a 22s time penalty for exceeding the maximum power in the race.
  • Di Grassi was given a 34s (equivalent to a 10s stop go) time penalty in the race for colliding with Lopez during the race.
  • D'Ambrosio received a 5s time penalty for speeding under full course yellow conditions (50km/hr speed limit).
  • Vegne was also given a 5s time penalty for speeding under full course yellow conditions, although he had already retired from the race.
  • There was also a short investigation into the race winner, Virgin's Sam Bird, for being underweight, though no penalty was applied.

    Much of the frustration in Santiago revolved around these penalties being applied after the race, some were immediately applied as the chequered flag fell but others were still under investigation at the end of the race meaning the final finishing order was unknown until about an hour after the chequered flag - in particular the status of the race winner and who would lead the championship. While race results in any FIA series are always provisional until the cars have passed post-race scrutineering, this is normally a formality, albeit there is precedence for post-race exclusions as Abt lost a win in Hong Kong in season 4 for a car passport irregularity.

    Other penalties handed out in Saudi Arabia and Morocco were:

  • Bird, Frijns, Di Grassi, and Turvey were excluded from the qualifying in Saudi Arabia for exceeding the regenerative braking power limit.
  • Dillmann was excluded from qualifying in Saudi Arabia for failing to follow the correct qualifying procedure (in short he circulated too many times).
  • Vergne, Lotterer, Sims, and Massa were all given drive through penalties for exceeding the regenerative power limit in Saudi race.
  • Massa was given two time penalties (+5s and +25s) post-race for fan boost infringements during the Saudi race.
  • and Da Costa was given a 3 place grid penalty in Marrakesh for exceeding use of the 250kW power mode in qualifying.
  • And that's just from the 2018/19 season so far.

    Are the penalties fair or overly punitive?

    All motorsports have rules, in fact a racing "formula" refers to a set of technical and sporting rules laid out for competitors to follow, but it is hard to remember a Formula 1 season where as many penalties are applied for seemingly trivial technical infringements as seem to occur in Formula E. Ricciardo losing his 2014 Australia podium for going over the fuel flow limit, and Perez and Magnussen's penalties in Austin in 2018 for exceeding fuel flow and maximum use limits would be similar offences to Formula E's power limit; though that is 3 offences in 5 seasons compared to 8 in just 1 race (Ad Diriyah). That said, 1000's of grid place penalties have been applied in Formula 1 since 2014 for replacing power unit components, mostly for McLaren and Honda. So are these penalties fair and what is the reason for them?

    Like in Formula 1 the stewards will investigate incidents which occur throughout the race meeting for any breach of the rules, in this case under article 16 of the Formula E sporting regulations:

    16.1 "Incident" means any occurrence or series of occurrences involving one or more drivers, or any action by any driver or competitor, which is reported to the stewards by the race director (or noted by the stewards and subsequently investigated) which.
    a) Necessitated the suspension of a race under Article 40.
    b) Constituted a breach of these Sporting Regulations or the Code.
    c) Caused a false start by one or more cars.
    d) Caused a collision.
    e) Forced a driver off the track.
    f) Illegitimately prevented a legitimate overtaking manoeuvre by a driver.
    g) Illegitimately impeded another driver during overtaking.
    h) Resulted in power consumption higher than stated in Article 7.6 of the technical regulations.
    i) Failed to comply with the prescriptions and procedures of the E-Safety training (Appendix 4).

    The stewards can choose to apply one of the following penalties depending on the severity of the offence:

    16.3 The stewards may impose any one of the penalties below on any driver involved in an Incident:
    a) A five second time penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane, stop in his pit stop position for at least five seconds and then re-join the race. The relevant driver may however elect not to stop, provided he carries out no further pit stop before the end of the race. In such cases five seconds will be added to the elapsed race time of the driver concerned.
    b) A ten second time penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane, stop in his pit stop position for at least ten seconds and then re-join the race. The relevant driver may however elect not to stop, provided he carries out no further pit stop before the end of the race. In such cases ten seconds will be added to the elapsed race time of the driver concerned.
    c) A drive-through penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane and re-join the race without stopping.
    d) A ten second Stop and GO time penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane, stop at his pit for at least ten seconds and then re-join the race.

    The 5s and 10s penalties described in 16.3a and b would only be applied during a pit stop for a tyre change or a stop to repair accident damage, both of which are rare in Formula E, so would normally be added to the driver's race time at the end of the race.

    In most cases, and where a number of fans have expressed frustration, a penalty has been given for breach of article 16.1h which itself pertains to article 7.6 in the technical regulations, which reads:

    Power out of RESS (Rechargeable Energy Storage System) and maximum voltage

    The maximum total power going out of the RESS is limited to 250 kW.
    The amount of energy that can be delivered to the MGUs by the RESS is limited to 52 kWh.
    Braking regeneration will be added to this value based on a factor of 0.75 to take account of losses (1kW regen = 0.75 kW released).
    The maximum voltage on the car must never exceed 1000V.

    Which refer to the limit of power which can be used (the maximum power of 250kW is only available in qualifying and practice, while the race is limited to 200kW with the exception of attack and fan boost modes where 225kW can be used), the maximum energy which can be used in a race (the batteries can store more than 52kWh but once this allocation has expired the driver will be excluded from the result), and how much power can be returned to the energy store under braking (333.3kW considering the 25% loss expected between motor and battery). With the rules so explicit about power and energy use it is difficult to argue against a penalty for exceeding these limits, even if the breach is only for a fraction of a second. It is the nature of motorsport that teams will push up against these limits, so will sometimes be caught out. However, only 1 penalty for over use of power was given in the Marrakesh and Santiago ePrix (Lopez as listed above), while 8 were given in qualifying and the race at the opening round in Ad Diriyah, so perhaps teams are already on top of their control systems with the Gen 2 brake-by-wire system.

    Why was Di Grassi thrown out of qualifying?

    In the case of Di Grassi's exclusion from qualifying in Santiago the reason given was a breach of article 27.9 of the Formula E sporting regulations, which reads:

    It is mandatory to follow the instruction manual from the FIA-designated supplier at all times.

    The exact nature of the breach is unknown as the instruction manual is not released outside of the teams, but the issue appears to revolve around an amendment made by the supplier in the week prior to the race regarding the use of brakes on the in lap to the pits. Possibly to prevent a repeat of Dillmann crashing into the back of both Virgin's in the pits with "no brakes" during Marrakesh qualifying, as drivers run the brakes on their in laps to try and radiate heat into the wheel and tyre to maintain the minimum tyre pressures for the post qualifying scrutineering. Di Grassi himself was unimpressed with the severity of the penalty calling it, "the most stupid rule motorsport has created", and perhaps an exclusion from qualifying was a harsh punishment considering the lack of a performance advantage for the discretion.

    The incident which caused Di Grassi's in-race penalty was indefensible, as he drove into the rear end of Lopez at speed heading into a yellow flag zone in which the other Dragon car of Günther was stopped on track, so the stop-and-go penalty was fully justified though why it took until the end of the race to be given is a mystery. Sims' penalty for pushing the Venturi of Mortara into a spin seemed excessive though as the contact appeared minimal (if there was contact at all as Sims and the BMW i Andretti team unsuccessfully argued after the race). Considering the autocratic application of the rules in Sims' case, why Rowland and Mortara were also not investigated under article 16.1d, e, f, and g, Rowland for driving Massa into the outside wall at turn 14 which bent his steering and caused his retirement, and Mortara for an over aggressive defence after a mistake, forcing Frijns to take evasive action, would appear to at least be inconsistent.

    Other qualifying faux pas

    Vandoorne's exclusion from super pole related to him not entering the track in a timely manner was a procedural issue in his and the HWA team's first appearance in a super pole session relating to article 33.6 in the sporting regulations:

    Any driver taking part (except for the 1st driver) in the Super Pole may enter the fast lane and proceed to the pit exit light, when the previous car has left the pit lane.
    b) The pit exit light will switch to green when the car on track has crossed intermediate 2 line during his timed lap. The next car must leave the pit lane in the 30 seconds following this signal. The drivers are responsible for leaving the pit lane on time.

    As the pit exit light had turned to red while Vandoorne exited the pit lane his lap time was removed under article 33.6c but he remained in the top 6 (with Di Grassi's penalty he actually retained his starting spot):

    If a driver fails to leave the pit lane within this green light period, for whatever reason, he shall be regarded as having set the slowest time in the Super Pole. In such a case, the pit light will be red for 90 seconds and then change back to green for the next driver. If there are several drivers without Super Pole lap times, they shall start behind the drivers with Super Pole lap times in descending order of the times they achieved in the qualifying group.

    In Ad Diriyah and Marrakesh, Dillmann and Da Costa fell foul of article 33.3a:

    For this qualifying practice session, the pit out line can be crossed only once during the session unless there are any red flags. Each race number can do a maximum of two flying laps, only one at maximum power. A switch to maximum power can only be done during the last sector of the previous lap.

    Dillmann and NIO's transgression was odd as despite the qualifying format having been changed after rain prevented any morning running, and a free qualifying session having been discussed, no directive from the race director had been released to confirm such a qualifying format and no other teams fell foul of the rule. While Da Costa turned up to his 250kW qualifying mode before the start of the final sector, and open-and-closed mistake.

    While it can be annoying to see such a high number of penalties affecting a race or qualifying result, all cases result from a legitimate breach of the sporting regulations which teams agree to uphold when signing up to any FIA championship. In short it is a reflection of the competitive nature of motorsports as teams seek every advantage available to them, and the difference between heroes and zeroes comparable to the thickness of a sheet of paper.