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Analysis
Formula 1 Saudi Arabian GP

How new F1 gearbox rule reduces Saudi Arabian GP crash grid penalty jeopardy

A largely unheralded change to Formula 1’s gearbox regulations has removed some of the jeopardy associated with a heavy pre-race crash around the tight confines of the Jeddah track.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, crashes out of FP2

Under the 2022 FIA sporting regulations there is no longer a penalty associated with a change of gearbox after the start of running on a Saturday.

Street and temporary tracks like Jeddah, Melbourne, Monaco, Baku and Montreal – where it’s all too easy to heavily damage a car – are no longer such a tightrope walk for teams and drivers.

Speculation about whether a heavy rear or side impact could trigger a gearbox change and potential a penalty, at least in the early part of the season.

This is because until last season drivers had to use a gearbox for six consecutive events, with an event defined as Saturday and Sunday only – on Fridays they could use a practice gearbox that was outside the main allocation.

What that meant was that a heavy impact in either FP3 or qualifying often led to a gearbox change for the race and a five-place penalty.

The system has changed for this season, and there is now a pool of gearboxes that can be swapped around in much the same way that there is a pool of power unit components. Penalties now only kick in when the limit for the year is exceeded.

Henceforth gearboxes are now classified as “restricted number components” or RNCs. In fact they are divided into two elements – firstly the gearbox case and cassette, and secondly the gearbox driveline, gear change components and auxiliary components.

A driver is allowed to use four sets of each of those two elements for a 22 or 23 race season (there is a sliding scale based on the number of events), and if a driver takes a fifth element, a five-place grid penalty will result.

Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21, climbs out of his car after crashing out of the race

Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-21, climbs out of his car after crashing out of the race

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

If a driver changes more than once on single race weekend only the second example can be kept in the pool and used in subsequent race weekends, so there can be no stockpiling if someone is already at the back of the grid.

In addition, Friday is now considered as part of the whole event, so practice gearboxes that were not subject to penalties if damaged and changed are gone.

However, each team can also play what are in effect four “jokers” meaning they can use a gearbox outside of the allocation on four Fridays during the season in FP1 and FP2.

The reason for that is to give teams (or its gearbox customers) a chance to test updates that they would not otherwise be able to run on track. However, it also takes away a little bit of the pressure to get through a whole season of 23 full weekends with just four gearboxes.

Indeed on Friday in Bahrain both Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon did exactly that, with a document from the FIA confirming that “the following drivers have run a gearbox assembly outside of the RNC allocation during P1 and P2 of this Event.”

The new pool system also means that drivers no longer get a free gearbox change at the next race if they retire. That means drivers outside the top 10 will no longer be encouraged by their teams to park in the closing laps, because there will be no benefit to so doing.

Teams are allowed to undertake maintenance or make repairs in order to extend the life of components, although only if “the nature of the work to be carried out has been approved by the FIA and communicated to all competitors.”

In addition the FIA requires that the “competitor takes all the necessary measures to satisfy the FIA that the provisions of this article are fully respected. This may include, but is not limited to, an accurate record of the repair work that gets carried out, photographs, the recording of part numbers, etc.”

The damaged car of Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, on a truck

The damaged car of Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, on a truck

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The FIA adds that “change gears, dog rings and reverse (excluding final drives or reduction gears) may be changed under supervision for others of identical specification at any time during an event provided the technical delegate is satisfied there is evident physical damage to the parts in question.”

What the new system means is that at least in the first part of the season F1 drivers won’t pick up gearbox penalties as a result of accidents.

On the other hand if a driver does have reliability issues and gets to the end of that four gearbox limit, then the penalties will start to kick in.

And given that, as mentioned there will be no “free” gearboxes handed out after retirements, in the pitlane as a whole more gearboxes are likely to have to do their full mileage allocation, potentially making it more likely that we will see some failures at some stage.

And accidents could still play a role. If a driver gets to the last few races with only one usable gearbox, perhaps after failures have seen the other examples binned, crash damage sustained on a Friday, Saturday or even in a race could lead to a penalty if a fifth box has to be used.

The bottom line is that as with the power units, the threat of gearbox grid penalties has now been moved to later in the season. In other words as the title battle is potentially hotting up it adds an extra layer of intrigue to those final races.

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