F1 finally cracks down on track limits abuse

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Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Hockenheim, 2012The FIA appears to have finally woken up to the necessity of preventing drivers from abusing the limits of the track.

Sebastian Vettel’s penalty for passing Jenson Button on a stretch of run-off was an encouraging sign that the FIA have finally taken notice of the problem.

While the advantage gained by cutting the inside of a corner is self-evident – it makes the track shorter – the potential benefit of going off on the outside of a corner has sometimes been underestimated.

In the days when circuits were bordered by grass and gravel drivers rarely considered going off the track deliberately. But the increasing use of tarmac run-off has presented drivers with opportunities to use the outside of corners to dodge around rivals who are defending their position on the track.

Hockenheim was one of the first tracks to adopt extensive tarmac run-off when it was remodelled in 2002 and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t take drivers long to start exploiting them.

Michael Schumacher used the tarmac border to get past Jarno Trulli’s Renault during the 2003 race:

The move went unpunished and so did a string of similar moves by others in the years that followed.

The 2007 renovations at Spa added more off-track tarmac and in 2009 there were two particularly blatant examples of it being abused: Kimi Raikkonen passed at least two cars on the first lap using it (which provoked much debate in the comments) and Adrian Sutil took Luca Badoer at the exit of Pouhon also by going onto the tarmac outside the corner.

The first race of last season saw another two examples of drivers going off on the outside of a corner to overtake a rival. I wrote a comment piece at the time arguing that the stewards had a blind spot for drivers gaining an advantage in this way.

Encouragingly, they now appear to be tackling the problem. As reported here, FIA race director Charlie Whiting addressed the subject prior to the race in a letter to competitors and stewards, saying the latter should “use their discretion in cases where it is not entirely clear whether or not a driver has gained any direct or immediate advantage”.

The same document stated: “Any driver leaving the track, (i.e. no part of his car remains in contact with the track in accordance with the current regulations), may re-join the track but without gaining an advantage.”

Vettel’s subsequent move on Button may have been a near carbon-copy of Schumacher’s on Trulli nine years earlier, but this time the stewards did not turn a blind eye. They handed him a post-race penalty which cost him three places.

He will be ruing not taking the opportunity to hand the position back to Button on the track and having another go at overtaking him properly. And other drivers will have taken notice of the precedent.

However overdue it may be, it is encouraging to see the stewards are finally cracking down on F1 drivers abusing the track limits to gain an unfair advantage, even on the outside of corners. It is not hard to see how the input of the recently-introduced drivers stewards may have been of benefit here.

But we should also question why some tracks offer such opportunities for drivers in the first place.

Tarmac may be a suitable surface for run-offs on the outside of fast corners – unlike gravel, cars will not dig into it and flip at speed. But it is surely not necessary, even on safety grounds, for the acceleration zone at the exit of a slow hairpin to be bordered by tarmac?

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117 comments on F1 finally cracks down on track limits abuse

  1. DaveW (@dmw) said on 25th July 2012, 19:03

    As for running off track to make a pass, I thought the Hamilton-Spa rule was invented to deal with this. If you go off tomake a pass, give the spot back for two corners. For other situations, we can just leave the run off areas with the same surface, but put in a Cyclops system as in tennis. Or you don’t need to embed sensors in the ground, just use a camera and some simple software. If you get three dings for your car reaching a point a car’s width or more from the track, you come in for a drive-through. No arguments, no whining about stewards’ discretion, no arguments about “advantage.” Oh, and those dinged laps are excluded from timing and scoring as fastest laps. They turn red if you will, as in GT5.

    I see that Keith eyeballed Alonso’s excursions but what about Vettel? It seems every other time time we saw the shot of Alonso from turn 2 looking back, we would see Vettel shoot off the to right and them come back onto the track. I even say him go off on the last and first corners consecutively a couple times. That advantage has to accumulate. Common sense tells you that using perfectly good asphault on the outside of a corner, while longer in distance, can allow you to reach the next corner in less time.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 26th July 2012, 8:29

      @dmw

      Alonso’s excursions but what about Vettel?

      To be honest I expect most if not all the drivers were taking these liberties at times, we probably just didn’t see all of it.

  2. DM0407 (@dm0407) said on 25th July 2012, 19:09

    To play devil’s advocate a bit, Micheal was clearly faster than Trulli in that situation and if he had not passed him there he would have eventually.

    Vettel on the other hand was running out of time and was only slightly faster than Jenson at that time making a pass there vital. Vettel also had DRS heading into the turn where as Micheal was down to car superiority.

  3. michaeldobson13 (@michaeldobson13) said on 25th July 2012, 19:36

    The way all the tracks should have it is a small strip of grass, to stop people running off track to gain advantage, then tarmac, for cars that run very wide and where they need to have grip to stop the car sliding to a wall, then finally a gravel, where there is space, in case a car is sliding off track out of control.

    Or, as somebody tweeted in during the practice session on Sky, use marmite run-off areas.

  4. Henri said on 25th July 2012, 19:41

    The only thing this rule will encourage is drivers closing the door earlier, resulting in less side-by-side racing and more collisions on track. It is clear that Vettel’s performance advantage over Button during that stage of the race meant that he did not absolutely need to use the asphalt runoff area to complete the overtake, but did so in order to leave Button enough room to race him. I thought it was an incredibly respectful overtake, and can not understand how anyone could view this incident and then move Vettel down the rankings, not only behind Button, but behind two other drivers who never had a chance to race Vettel on track.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 26th July 2012, 8:31

      he did not absolutely need to use the asphalt runoff area to complete the overtake

      Then he shouldn’t have. As the rules say, drivers may not go of the track to gain an advantage.

  5. taurus (@taurus) said on 26th July 2012, 11:42

    Apart from Schumacher’s accident at Silverstone in 1999 did anyone ever get seriously hurt because of a gravel trap?

    Places like Hockenheim and Canada that have long straights down to tight hairpins should have a tarmac run off straight ahead, and once past the apex of the turn, gravel. F1 tracks are way too clean and dont punish mistakes enough these days.

  6. Robbie (@robbie) said on 26th July 2012, 16:16

    I find it a bit curious as to how many people are trying to find other solutions than tarmac as a solution for this issue. I think they have (or can) tackle the issue simply by having and enforcing the rule that four wheels inside or outside the white line means a penalty. ie. how about we treat the drivers like adults rather than coming up with substances other than tarmac that will force them to not go outside the white lines with more than two wheels, presuming they can’t think for themselves or that being racers they are going to use the tarmac for an advantage, full stop….imho, they only will if they can get away with it. If they can’t, they won’t.

    From what I understand, tarmac is there as the best option for cars to continue to slow down during an off, such they they hit the barrier with less momentum, and therefore more safely. In some cases (or many) they are even able to slow down enough that they can avoid hitting the barrier completely. And the other benefit is that as opposed to gravel that can flip a car not just bury it, a driver can live to fight to the end of the race or the quali session if one little mistake doesn’t see him stuck in the kitty litter and done for the day, and that makes for better days for the audience as they get to see their driver carry on and not be penalized permanently for a small error (or maybe even a bit of rain at one portion of a track while they are still on slicks). So for that reason I’m not sure I can agree with your suggestion, @Keith, that perhaps they don’t need tarmac on the outside of the exit of a slow hairpin.

    Obviously if there were walls everywhere the risk would be far different and we wouldn’t see drivers carrying so much momentum as they have been, knowing that they can because that act won’t end their day. But the walls are gone or moved further away in many areas of many tracks, for safety reasons, and that’s fine. The walls remain at other venues, and the drivers drive accordingly. They have no choice. Given the choice, and with big tarmac runoffs, the risk is minimal of carrying too much speed so they do it.

    So I say leave the tarmac in place because it is there for a couple of good reasons, enforce the rule that more than 4 wheels beyond the white lines is penalty worthy, and then all they have to speculate on is whether a certain driver was forced off the track by a car that didn’t leave him enough room according to other rules in place for that, which we have been talking about since MS questionably held LH back for about 20 laps at whatever race that was, and for which they have firmed up that rule too. Perhaps at some corners of some venues, if they find the drivers simply can’t resist going way wide or cutting a corner they can use orange cones or ‘stanchions’ or what have you that are forgiving and moveable. Touch one of those when you are not spinning off or being forced off…penalty.

    In virtually all sports I can think of there are limits…there are lines over which if the ball or your foot crosses, play stops. You can’t receive a ball or a puck from your teammate if you are ahead of a certain line…it’s called being off-side. etc etc. It can’t be that hard to simply enforce a rule for F1 cars regarding the white lines. Where there’s the will there’s a way. And it sounds like there’s more will, now that they have seen and reacted to Vettel’s driving last weekend.

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