If They Wanted To Formula 1 Could Fix Their Track Limit Problem Tomorrow
What is and is not a penalty is murky at best and the problem could be fixed with ease.
Track limits have once again reared its ugly head after the F1 race in Austin Texas this past weekend. Max Verstappen was handed a five second post race penalty for exceeding track limits while passing Kimi Raikkonen. All four of Verstappen's wheels left the racing surface however this is not uncommon in Formula 1. Technically the rules state that anytime this happens it should be a penalty, and yet it is only enforced in circumstances like Verstappen's. To fans and teams alike it appears what is a penalty is a moving target regarding track limits. Many are left wondering if Verstappen should have been penalized.
Verstappen, who charged hard from the back of the grid and his Red Bull Team certainly think the penalty was bogus. "The engine penalty is like it is, so we had a great race but with these stupid decisions you really kill the sport. " Christian Horner echoed his driver's sentiments, "“I’ve only just heard it (the decision) but there have been cars going off track all day today with no action at all so I think it would be unbelievably harsh to give Max a penalty for that so it’s wrong – it is wrong. We’ll have a look at it but, for me, it was fair, hard racing and I think that’s a bad judgement by the stewards to have made that call because he did it the hard way. We’ve seen cars off track all day today, all weekend, so to penalize him at this stage, that’s not right.”
So why are track limits such a big deal? In the old days, on the classic circuts if there was pavement drivers would use it. There are countless videos of old races and drivers exceeding the rumble strips, white lines etc. So why now has track limits become such a sticking point? The answer is simple, the modern F1 track has run off areas for days. This is done for one major reason, to limit the number of safety car periods. Classic tracks have sand traps that are designed to slow cars that venture off track before they hit the wall. By paving these areas cars that stray slightly off track aren't stuck in the trap, causing a caution. In theory this makes perfect sense, the cars that break or are otherwise out of control are going to cause an accident anyway. So drivers that make a slight mistake and have a small adventure off track can recover and rejoin the racing. Less safety cars means more racing in anger, everybody wins.
The problem is these are F1 drivers and they are a competitive bunch. They will redefine the old, "Give an inch take a mile" saying. So if they can get away with it drivers will habitually toe the line of what is and is not allowed. Eventually they will find the balance that is fast and allowed by the stewards. Seems like a fairly simple system, where things go sideways is when the stewards hand out penalties inconsistently. Now teams, drivers and the fans don't know what is going to be allowed and situations like Verstappen's arise.
Modern track design and FIA safety regulations are not changing, any new track built to these specifications will have these giant run off areas, the question is how does Formula 1 deal with track limits going forward. One solution would be to make the off track more penal, as in add psychical objects like bumps or grooves or something that if struck risks damaging a car. After a few cars lose position due to off track excursions they will be less likely to test the limits of the track. This however introduces another problem which is what is penal and what is a safety risk. If a car going over 100 mph hits a bump or a groove or whatever system someone way smarter than me comes up with, sure it will damage the car, it will also risk the driver losing control and causing a bigger incident.
The stars and stripes theme gets one all patriotic, but that is an enormous amount of pavement between the racing surface and the gravel trap. pavement that drivers will absolutely look to exploit should it offer a faster lap time.
Another solution would be to bring back the gravel traps. They do the job of slowing a car down, plus they deter drivers from exceeding the acceptable limits of the track. The downside, like I mentioned above would be an increased number of cautions and debris thrown onto the track. Some of these stones in the traps can cut a tire down very easily.
Neither f these is a perfect solution but something has to change. The easiest solution is to simply enforce track limits with an iron fist. If a driver puts all four wheels off the track to gain a competitive advantage they receive a penalty. Obviously if a car leaves the track to avoid an accident, is forced off track by another car or they lose momentary control this is a different story. If a driver leaves the track during the course of normal driving, give them a penalty. Corner entry, exit or cutting the apex, if all four wheels leave the track the car receives a penalty. The thing is this is what the rule is it just isn't being enforced on a regular and consistent basis.
In many ways this whole entire thing reminds me of the strike zone in baseball. The rules clearly dictate what is in and what is out of the strike zone. However, the strike zone has morphed into a personal preference of that day's umpire. So what was a strike yesterday may not be today and I feel this is how F1 stewards are officiating track limits. Clearly set the rules and then enforce them, seems simple enough and yet here we are with Max Verstappen's amazing drive to a podium ruined by unclear enforcement of the rules.