F1 needs to clear up rules on off-track overtaking

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Felipe Massa, Jenson Button, Melbourne, 2011

Felipe Massa, Jenson Button, Melbourne, 2011

When are drivers allowed to go off the track to make an overtaking move?

Jenson Button was punished for it in Melbourne but Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Buemi weren’t.

A clear line is needed on this much-abused area of the F1 racing rules.

When Jenson Button took to the run-off area to pass Felipe Massa during the Australian Grand Prix, it was immediately obvious he was going to get a penalty.

I said it, television commentators said it, and everyone on F1 Fanatic Live said it.

Button had no excuse because he did exactly the same thing on the first lap of the European Grand Prix in 2009 and had to surrender the place.

This time he was not so lucky – Felipe Massa made his pit stop shortly afterwards, leaving race control no choice but to issue a drive-through penalty.

The stewards have been reasonably consistent in punishing drivers who gain places by cutting the inside of corners. Much like Fernando Alonso’s mistake at Silverstone last year, it’s hard to understand how McLaren and Button got this call wrong.

But the Australian Grand Prix highlighted other examples of confusion and inconsistency in the rules over what constitutes an illegal, off-track overtake.

On lap 16 Sebastian Vettel passed Button by going off the track at turn four. Sebastien Buemi did much the same to Adrian Sutil later.

It’s possible that neither would have made their passes stick without going off the track. But neither had to give the places back or received a penalty.

When drivers gain places by going off the track on the outside of a corner, it’s much harder to predict how the stewards will react.

At Singapore in 2009 Mark Webber had to surrender two places after passing Alonso on the outside of turn seven – despite the fact that Alonso himself had also gone off the track:

Race Driver Incident Result
2009 European Grand Prix Jenson Button Ran off-track on inside of corner to pass Mark Webber Handed back position
2009 Singapore Grand Prix Mark Webber Ran off-track on outside of corner to pass Fernando Alonso Handed back position
2010 British Grand Prix Fernando Alonso Ran off-track on inside of corner to pass Robert Kubica Drive-through penalty*
2011 Australian Grand Prix Jenson Button Ran off-track on inside of corner to pass Felipe Massa Drive-through penalty*
2011 Australian Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel Ran off-track on outside of corner to pass Jenson Button No penalty
2011 Australian Grand Prix Sebastien Buemi Ran off-track on outside of corner to pass Adrian Sutil No penalty

*Driver was no longer able to hand back position on track

There were reports after the Melbourne race that drivers had been told they were free to go off-track at turn four if they needed to.

If that was the case, that information should have been communicated to everyone watching the race before it had started. (And perhaps someone could have mentioned it to Button, too, because his radio messages gave the impression no-one had told him.)

It’s difficult to judge exactly how these decisions are being made because we hear so little of the stewarding process. Given this confusion, it’s to be expected that teams will be wary of second-guessing the stewards, and may gamble on not getting a penalty at all.

Generally, we saw better, fairer and more logical decision-making from the stewards last year, thanks to the addition of experienced former drivers to the panel.

For example, they clamped down on drivers going off the track on the outside the La Source hairpin at Spa to gain an advantage.

It’s illogical that a driver should be allowed to go off the track on the outside of the corner and gain an advantage when they are penalised for going over the inside of corners.

F1 stewarding may be getting better, but Australia showed us there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Where do you think the line should be drawn on what is and isn’t allowed when drivers go off the track to gain a place?

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