Motorsport: when you think of it you think about the breathtaking daring of the drivers, the speed of the race, the glamour of the machinery, the epicly convoluted grid and time penalty system barely any of us understand. Let me (attempt to) help.
Heading into the Mexico City Eprix current champion Lucas di Grassi seems under a curse; ever since the number ‘1’ was grafted onto his car, that singular amount of points — or even finishes, recently — has escaped him, car after car failing. For a man who attributes his Season 3 championship win to consistency, it’s not the type he would have wanted in mounting a defense.
He’s got another 10 grid place penalties this weekend, after 10 in Santiago. Once again, it’s the inverter in his car that’s prompted re-homologation and the subsequent drop.
This might seem confusing if you’re used to just Formula 1’s convoluted technical regulations; in that, you’re (as of the 2018 season) allowed 3 full replacements of a power unit — whether taken as individual elements or all together and then you start to incur grid place penalties.
Anyone familiar with last year’s ‘suddenly we have to do maths in the media centre’ shenanigans will know some of the penalties could really rack, if teams took a 90s approach and threw out every element after every session of a race weekend in order to ‘stack’ the penalties and bank parts for the next race, as per my dubious google sheet below-
If the same rules applied, you’d assume that Audi would currently be lobbing inverter after inverter into Lucas’ cars and praying for a reliability upturn.
However, Formula E is a harsh mistress. With electric car longevity a major concern, one of the challenges of the series is that you can only use one homologated power train per car for the whole season:
So you change an element, you’re going to face a penalty. Anywhere, any time — unless another driver or a force of nature smashes your car to pieces in which case there’s a provision for unavoidable replacement where it’s not your fault.
You can also flip a joker and replace any part once a season for free, which is somewhat confusing but basically means you have to pre-authorise with the FIA that you’re playing your joker, around a month before the event you will be re-homologating the car to accomodate this changed element at.
Wait, what is homologation?
Oh yes. From ‘homo’ ie: the same and ‘logo’ ie: identifiable, this is basically a process where FIA officials agree that all the correct parts are on the car. It’s done as part of the original build, with scrutineering then confirming that the car’s technical passport, defined during homologation, matches what’s on it now by barcodes. If they’re different — as Daniel Abt’s were in Hong Kong — penalties will be faced up to and including disqualification from a race result.
But hold on, there are more confusing bits. Because this is Formula E, we can have twice the shenanigans.
Not just because we’re so very good at shenanigans round here but because there are, of course, two cars. Now the screenshot of sporting regulations above, you’ll note, talks about replacements per race number — and a joker permits one change to each element, per race number not by car.
So over two cars, you need to choose which you play your joker on each element for. And you need to do that way ahead of an event in any case, notifying the FIA by email.
Once you’re at an event, any change will incur penalties. And Formula E is really harsh about enforcing grid-drop penalties, with the oft-joked-about starting so far back you’re in another country a kind of genuine risk, at least in time zone terms:
16.3 says that:
a) 5 second time penalty
b) 10 second time penalty
c) drive-through penalty
d) 10-second stop-go penalty
And the penalties continue to disqualification. So writing off a race with replacement parts might really be totally writing it off — except that you can’t even do that anyway, as re-homologation has to be agreed with the FIA.
So, to conclude: Formula E, although having a much shorter calendar, makes the reliability demands of Formula 1 look both simple to understand and pretty lenient, especially when you consider it only uses those tricksy MGU-type elements you hear so much about.