F1’s Never-ending Track Limits Problem
The years might tick away, but the complaints about Formula One’s track limits seem here to stay. Since the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix, F1 news sites have gleefully published and quoted various drivers’ thoughts on the subject. The rules are “stupid” in Lando Norris’ eyes, Max Verstappen called them a “joke”, and George Russell believes there’s “no accountability” for those that enforce them. After so many years, why are we still hearing about this well-covered subject?
It’s remarkable that such a simple rule could cause so much controversy. Keeping at least one wheel within the track limits denoted by the white lines at a circuit’s edge seems like an almost trivial task for 20 of the world’s best drivers. If these same drivers can’t spend 90 minutes on a Sunday staying on the racetrack, are they deserving of the salaries they demand?
Unfortunately for the drivers, I don’t have any sympathy for them when they get penalized for literally crossing the line. They are athletes competing in a sport with defined rules. To paraphrase Indycar commentator Tom Gaymor in a recent podcast, “Rugby players don’t just keep running with the ball once they cross the white line at the edge of the pitch.” Hearing it put so bluntly makes the matter almost laughable that F1 drivers feel hard done to.
Consider other fundamental rules of sports for a moment. Imagine if a basketball player wanted a point for hitting a rimshot because they were so close to getting the ball through the hoop. Or if a tennis umpire allowed a rally to continue playing even if a player volleyed the ball out of the tennis court. It’s farcical to think about, and we would see the respective sport fall into disrepute.
The problem Formula One faces is that they can’t stop the races just because one driver cut a corner or ran too wide. Like all motorsports, it’s a continuous game of balancing speed and strategy, where only severe crashes or the heaviest rain can stop proceedings. So, the best F1 can do is give out warnings and time penalties to repeat offenders and govern the issue as best they can. However, that seems to be easier said than done.
The lack of consistency from the FIA on how to govern track limits is where I find some compassion for the drivers on this subject. One race weekend, they can race with reckless abandon and drive on run-off curbs as though they are part of the race track. Then, the following week at a different circuit, it can be an instant warning and a lap time deletion, as we saw in Austria. We saw this get worse when Michael Masi was the race director from 2019–2021 and hoped for some uniformity; the FIA sacked him at the start of this year yet change hasn't happened.
The new alternating race directors of Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas argued that they have kept the rules the same for every race this season that the white line represents the track’s limits, and they’ll punish those that cross it. Although, yes, I believe they’ve said that the line is the track limit at each Grand Prix (as opposed to a wide curb or some astroturf), their level of upholding regulations has not been equal from weekend to weekend or even lap to lap. This is the crux of the matter.
On the first lap of the Austrian Grand Prix, Carlos Sainz overtook George Russell after avoiding an aggressive first-corner run by the Mercedes driver. However, the overtake came thanks to Sainz jumping far onto the tarmac run-off area to avoid contact, then kept the momentum off-circuit to slingshot his Ferrari back past Russell. There was no penalty and not even a warning for Sainz here. However, if the Spaniard had driven there in Qualifying, the stewards would have immediately deleted his lap time.
Later in that same race, Lando Norris locked up a tire at Turn 1 to run slightly onto the exit curb and lose time. He received one warning that contributed to his eventual five-second time penalty for this infringement, despite being slower because of his mistake. Why was Norris’ crime worse than Sainz’s? Just because Sainz’s happened on Lap 1 doesn’t mean the stewards should exonerate it that’s not consistent.
Track limits conversations (and complaints) will continue to plague the sport as we head to Le Castellet for the French Grand Prix at the Circuit Paul Ricard, famous for almost limitless run-off spots. As much as I don’t like street circuits, we don’t have these controversial problems with them. As soon as the area past the white line is a metal barrier rather than 100 yards of tarmac, track limits stop becoming an issue. The most succinct argument I’ve seen is that the 20 drivers miraculously don’t go over the lines at the Monaco Grand Prix, so they should behave and drive to the same rules at every other venue, too.
Despite that Monaco analogy ringing true, the fault still remains at the top level with the FIA. The race directors and stewards have let the driver’s behavior go on far too long, and their strictness at Austria (aside from Lap 1) has upset the apple cart. So, from here on out, their best course of action is to double down in France and Hungary later this month and show the drivers that this is the new playbook. If they don’t, keep an eye out for my track limits article in 2023 it’s the sequel that no one, including myself, wants to happen.
Originally published on Fortloc.