Charles Leclerc will not have the Belgian Grand Prix grid advantage rivals thought he might benefit from because of a rules quirk.
Drivers have a certain number of engine components they can use in a season and the first time they exceed an allocation they receive a 10-place penalty per component, while repeat instances of exceeding an allocation are five places per component.
If a driver incurs a single penalty exceeding 15 places that triggers an automatic back-of-the-grid start and this is what Max Verstappen, Lando Norris and Esteban Ocon were hit with on Friday at Spa.
But Leclerc looked set to start ahead of the group of penalised back-of-the-grid drivers despite an ostensibly similar offence because of a quirk of the sporting regulations that is understood to have drawn attention from rival teams when it was spotted.
Leclerc also had several new engine components on Friday and was expected to get the same penalty but didn’t – at least not on Friday.
This is because Ferrari fitted a third energy store (10 places) and a fifth MGU-K (five places) of the season for Leclerc for first practice, triggering a 15-place penalty. For second practice, Ferrari fitted a fourth control electronics of the season.
Leclerc only received an extra five-place grid penalty because it was interpreted that as the wording of the regulations refers to a singular “penalty” of more than 15 places, and neither document imposed more than 15 grid places, this does not trigger a “back of the grid” penalty.
The Race understands this was questioned by at least one team on Friday evening but was initially defended by the FIA as the correct interpretation.
On Saturday, though, the stewards have reviewed the matter and acknowledged the gap between the rule as written versus the intention needs to be clarified.
They have determined that logically the intention of the regulations is to punish multiple component changes and now consider these should be considered cumulatively. So Leclerc’s Friday changes do demand a back of the grid penalty after all.
This is the first time such a scenario has arisen since the back of the grid rule was implemented, to stop what the stewards call “nonsensically high grid penalties”, and therefore this explanation from the FIA is to be considered the precedent for future cases.
As it happens, Ferrari changed the internal combustion engine, MGU-H, turbocharger and the exhaust system for FP3 anyway, giving Leclerc another back of the grid penalty anyway.
There are now six drivers – Verstappen, Leclerc, Norris, Ocon, Mick Schumacher and Zhou Guanyu – who are required to start from “the back of the grid” and Valtteri Bottas has a numerical grid penalty.