Start, Circuit of the Americas, 2021

For the sake of the title fight, F1 must get a grip on its track limits problem

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Watching Lewis Hamilton hunting down Max Verstappen over the final laps of the United States Grand Prix was a somewhat conflicting experience.

Of course the prospect of seeing the two world championship contenders getting stuck into each other again is terrifically exciting. But it was tinged with a degree of apprehension, and not just because the pair have had two spectacular and potentially dangerous tangles already this year.

If Hamilton had a little more life in his tyres on Sunday, or a little better luck with the traffic, perhaps we’d have seen one of his last-of-the-late-brakers lunges for victory. Or maybe Verstappen would have pulled off another of his stunning and tenacious defences, keeping a nose ahead of his rival even when his position seems untenable.

But based on what had gone before in the race, a far less satisfying outcome seems more likely. The pair would have gone into a corner, one would have gone off the track and rejoined ahead, and then they would have been told to let the other past.

This is not how fights for position should be resolved. Least of all when it involves the two top drivers of the day fighting for the world championship. Yet it constantly happens at tracks like Circuit of the Americas where the boundaries are defined by lines painted on asphalt instead of grass, gravel and other physical deterrents.

Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Circuit of the Americas, 2021
Report: Raikkonen call was ‘marginal’ FIA admits as Alonso highlights ‘inconsistency’
Earlier in the race we saw Carlos Sainz Jnr keep Lando Norris behind him at lap one by going wide at turn 12. It took race control six laps to decide Sainz had illegally maintained the position and ordered him to hand the place back (which happened in a move which wasn’t broadcast on the world feed, further confusing those trying to follow proceedings).

Sainz would not have had the option of running wide to maintain his position had there been a gravel trap at the edge of the turn 12 kerb instead of asphalt. Nor would Fernando Alonso or Antonio Giovinazzi have been able to do much the same at the same corner later in the race.

Faced with the possibility of being passed by a rival, any driver will choose the alternative of going off the track, staying ahead and leaving it up to race control to decide who deserves the place. That option needs to be removed wherever possible.

COTA is a fabulous track which both challenges drivers and offers room to overtake. But the ease with which drivers can run wide and gain an advantage is a drawback which hasn’t been successfully addressed in the 10 years F1 has been racing there.

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Track limits were a constant bone of contention last weekend, prompting revisions to the rules resulting in a set of confusing and inconsistent policies.

The usual guidance from previous seasons about not running wide at the regular trouble spots of turn nine and 19 was put in place. Additionally, from Saturday drivers were given further guidance not to cut the inside of turn six. Unlike the other two corners, the limit was not the edge of the track but the edge of the kerb further inside. Nor was that the end of the changes.

Over the weekend F1 drivers had 81 lap times deleted for track limits violations. Three drivers were given the black-and-white flag during the race for repeatedly running wide. Race control had to instruct several drivers to relinquish places they gained off-track during the race.

Fernando Alonso claimed – not for the first time this year – that other drivers gained places by going off at turn one at the start. He was also adamant Kimi Raikkonen did so to him on lap 16.

Raikkonen undoubtedly did go off the track on that occasion, having been edged wide by Alonso. Whether the Alpine driver had been ahead of his rival and therefore permitted to run him wide was not entirely clear from the replays shown on the world feed. FIA F1 race director Michael Masi described the decision as a “marginal” call.

Another change to the track limits rules on Sunday morning was a factor in this incident. Several ‘sausage kerbs’ at the exit of the corner were removed, following incidents in support races where cars had hit them and been partially launched into the air.

“Those kerbs have been there for quite a while,” Masi explained, “those kerbs have actually been there for a number of years. But based on what we saw, we made the decision to remove them at that point and obviously still kept with the track limit elements that we had there.”

The Alonso-Raikkonen row may not have unfolded had those physical limits remained in place. Masi said F1 is trying to introduce them where possible, but wasn’t concerned about the incidents which took place at COTA.

“I don’t think it was too much of a discussion at all here this weekend,” said Masi after the race. “If we have a look at it we had three drivers during the race get a black-and-white flag for their ‘three strikes’ scenario during the race. And it’s been policed in the same manner that we have done all year. So no, I don’t think it was a hot topic at all.

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“The drivers will always try and push the limits wherever that limit is. But yes, as we’ve said many times, we’re trying to find more natural solutions in as many places as we can, but it’s not an overnight fix anywhere.”

The Circuit of the Americas has seen rows over track limits in the past, notably in 2017 when Max Verstappen was penalised for cutting the inside of a corner to overtake Kimi Raikkonen. He lost his podium finish as a result.

When F1 returned 12 months later the corner Verstappen cut was altered to prevent anyone doing the same. This was a step in the right direction, but it shows F1 tends to act reactively on matters of track limits.

This was the case at the next venue on the calendar, Mexico’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Its 2015 remodelling left ample scope for drivers to gain an advantage by leaving the track, notably at turn one, yet it wasn’t addressed until controversies the following year involving Hamilton cutting the corner at the start of the race and Verstappen infuriating Sebastian Vettel by doing the same later on.

Since then new track limits restrictions have been added at several points on the track. These largely involve forcing driver to take slower routes to rejoin the circuit if they run wide. They are quite effective, though potentially open to exploitation, as Alonso demonstrated in Sochi last month.

The championship will end with a trio of races on new or heavily revised circuits – Losail, Jeddah and Yas Marina. F1 must ensure these unfamiliar venues do not offer opportunities for drivers to gain an advantage by leaving the track.

The first time Hamilton and Verstappen crossed swords this season in Bahrain, it ended with one of them going off the track and being told to surrender a position. It was an underwhelming way to start the season and a repeat would make for an anti-climactic conclusion to the championship.

When F1’s best title fight for years is decided, hopefully it doesn’t happen because one of them has to be told to pull over. A proactive approach to the problem of track limits can prevent this happening.

Quotes: RJ O’Connell

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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60 comments on “For the sake of the title fight, F1 must get a grip on its track limits problem”

  1. I point out the same thing as before: Removing the three small orange bumps (not sausage curbs) at the last minute for an isolated case in the W series was a knee-jerk reaction.
    T1 is a slow-speed corner anyway, so they’ve never been a risk.
    Several other COTA corner exits (including T12) also have those, as does, for example, Paul Ricard’s T2 exit.
    Bahrain has the most effective solution, which should be in place at all ‘slow-speed’ corner exits everywhere.
    The brown-ish surface material is both effective & safe, so this should be a no-brainer.
    The detour type application used at Sochi Autodrom, etc., has been in place for a while already, not only since the 2017 Mexican GP when a bump sequence around T1-T3 got added in reaction to the infamous previous season drive-throughs.
    Overall, I still wish Masi didn’t suddenly become unnecessarily excessive with TL enforcement post-2019 as nothing was wrong with that season’s level. No one used liberties or anything such.
    Lap time invalidation only at high(to medium)-speed corner exits with physical deterrents at all slower ones would be the best scenario.

    1. Do you know why tl is being enforced so strictly now? Because drivers are constantly cheating and can’t be trusted to not cheat.

      Drivers are the problem, no one else

      1. Yes and No: because I have witnessed tracks with limits no one would come only nearby the idea that cheating might be an option ;-)

  2. Historically track limits were enforced by less forgiving materials. If we are going to have big run-off areas to keep things safer then we need a way to enforce it instantly. Sensors in the edge of the track could just cut power for 1 second.

    1. That is impossible with the speeds an F1 car can achieve even in corners. Suddenly cutting power on a car that is followed by one or several other cars closely will result in accidents.
      I still think gravel traps are the better solution to all these track limits issues.

      1. Does not have to be a complete power cut e.g. 10% (or whatever) power loss for the next 2km. You can adjust the power loss/length as necessary.

      2. Suddenly cutting power on a car that is followed by one or several other cars closely will result in accidents.

        That’s the same as braking, and nobody complains about that.
        When off track it’s even more predictable as the following car can see when/where the car ahead will ‘brake’.
        And if you’re still worried about a 100% cut, then make it a 50% cut for 2sec, or a 10m/s2 deceleration for 3sec, or an inability to get 100% power for 5sec (onto the next straight).

        I prefer grass/gravel/slippery asphalt/water hazard/etc above electronics, but if all of the above are not acceptable due to safety concerns then I’d rather have an ‘automated steward decision and implementation’ than a 6 lap wait.

        1. You don’t think anyone would complain if their brakes suddenly activated without them pressing the pedal, mid-corner, possibly causing a loss of downforce and therefore control?

          You don’t think a driver following right behind another car that suddenly and unexpectedly decelerates would complain when they ram into them?

          1. 1) the original comment was about the cars following;
            2) when you’re off track it’s to be expected to have less grip;
            3) downforce doesn’t fall away since they banned blown diffusers;
            4) drivers (at least Verstappen) are constantly complaining about loss of power;
            5) it’s not ‘unexpected’, but rather expected and even more predictable than a braking point of the car in front;
            6) cutting power (even by 100%) doesn’t decelerate as much as hitting the brakes (which cars in front often do);
            7) and if you’re still worried, then start with a 10% loss of power.

        2. if you’re somehow cutting the power of a car that has exceeded the track limit, then there won’t be any “closely following” cars unless they too are exceeding the track limit (and having their own power cut by an equal amount)

    2. An electronic solution would be ideal, but that would require some technical know-how so probably not the right sport for that.

  3. The solution might be to add a new line inside the curve which is the track limit for the inside car when racing side by side. I think there also needs to be a clarification for when a car is sufficiently ahead and does not have to give room. Something that takes into account the dive bomb maneuvers we see where one car is braking to actually make the corner and the dive bomber has too much speed to make the corner without occupying the entire corner.

    1. The solution might be to add a new line inside the curve which is the track limit for the inside car when racing side by side.

      scalextric
      One only needs a rule for the cross-over point, and make sure cars don’t fall on top of each other in the loop.

  4. José Lopes da Silva
    29th October 2021, 13:49

    Keith should have added a paragraph remembering/repeating the economics of having asphalted run-off areas, as there is always new fans that don’t understand why there isn’t grave everywhere.

    1. Yeah, I’d like to know more about what track owners and promoters really think about the economics of track days for amateurs and how important all this tarmac really is. I often wonder how elastic the demand for track rentals truly is. We hear from F1 and track owners that these amateurs need the runoff for safety, or to make a track more attractive to amateurs who don’t want to repair gravel chips in their cars, etc. Maybe that’s true in some places, but it sounds like tracks in the US are doing booming business in rentals — and old-school tracks like Road America and Laguna Seca, with minimal runoff, are still fully booked and just about at capacity with amateur activities. So would COTA really be leaving money on the table if it added some additional gravel and grass?

    2. Please don’t say that people who do not agree don’t know about this, it sounds petty.
      How many track limit issues were there in Zandvoort? Exactly none, since there are no track limits. There are plenty of track days at Zandvoort.
      https://www.circuitzandvoort.nl/en/consumer/track-days-with-your-own-car/

      When track designers go for big tarmac run offs an important argument is always track days. But I feel that is a cop out. Reality is more nuanced. It is not that no track days can be held if they did something else than tarmac. On the other hand, even with tarmac run offs you can still do something about Alonso’s first corner at Sochi. And on top of that, when a track does go for grass and gravel, it’s not like they can’t do something to accommodate amateur drivers in their own cars missing the braking point. At Zandvoort they actually have put down tarmac as an extension of the straight(s). So overshoot a corner and you are on the tarmac. The gravel trap starts right next to it, so you can’t cut across. It just seems fine by me.
      google.com/maps/@52.3918032,4.5429694,169m/data=!3m1!1e3
      google.com/maps/@52.3871087,4.5427269,113m/data=!3m1!1e3

      1. Jose Lopes da Silva
        30th October 2021, 12:54

        I don’t say that. On the contrary, I would love @keith to develop on your topics.

        1. Cheers! It just sounds petty to me, but since there are 2 ends to communication, a sender and a receiver, 50% is me. English not being my mother tongue is probably also part of the problem. Still, thanks for clarifying.

  5. This might be (probably is) crazy, but just remove all track limits! Running off track shouldn’t gain anyone an advantage but where it does, drivers should be able to exploit it unpunished until the track owners/designers will find a way to fix that corner/those corners for next year!

    In the meantime it’ll lead to some interesting races with no danger of results being adjusted for something the track designers got wrong – after all, you can’t blame a driver for finding the fastest route, it is their job!

    1. That’s the worst idea of them all. It’s not supposed to be a maze, it’s a track. If drivers could take any route they want, every single track would have to end up being another Monaco with walls on both sides. It’s their job to find the fastest route within the track, not the fastest route from point A to point B.

    2. This might be (probably is) crazy, but just remove all track limits!

      There will always be ‘track limits’ unless you do loops in an open car park or race in a straight line.

    3. János Henkelmann
      29th October 2021, 19:04

      That’s the IndyCar approach (most spectacularly at COTA) and from what I’ve seen it works great!

    4. Agreed 100%. There are so many benefits to this. It will instantly force track builders to rethink the shoddy work they did. I mean, how is it even physically possible for Alonso to straight line that corner in Sochi with that speed, it is ridiculous. And then you remove all track limits, you are immediately remove all the discussion as well. No more whining radio messages ‘he pushed me off’. No grey area on the ‘did he get a lasting advantage’. No grey area like Raikkonen and Alonso in the first corner. Less chance of yet another discussion if the finishing order can stay that way or maybe we will see some penalties days after the actual race. No more policing, makes it clear for everyone, saves a lot of time grief and money.

  6. Inconsistent stewarding with regards to track limits has been a hallmark of Formula 1. The natural solution to track limits in my opinion is not the right one. There is a line, if at any point you go 4 wheels over, it’s a penalty. Policed at every white line around the circuit. This is something sim racing gets oh so right but real life’s archaic, innacurate and expensive sensors can’t realise.

    1. This simple application of a rule would punish drivers for getting run off track, which I would argue is not the desired intent.

      1. Grass and gravel also do the same, as do getting squeezed into walls.
        Drivers should be obliged to stay on the track, whatever the track is defined by. And pushing or crowding someone else off the track should also be punished accordingly.
        All the time, everywhere.

    2. @skipgamer Yet we see plenty instances where not the drivers going over the line but the drivers who forced them off track are penalized. And rightly so. So that’s already a big exception (and arguably the one that caught out Alonso). Then there are instances where drivers lose control and go off track. Gust of wind making them go wide. Penalize them too?

      If these lines are policed like they are walls then what happens is that overtaking become massively less likely.

      Problems only seem simple when you haven’t yet thought everything through properly.

    3. This is pretty much what F1 needs to do. As I’ve suggested before, why not add a penalty time to a driver’s lap times for each excursion over the white line. For example, if the penalty time was 5 seconds added to each driver’s lap times then 81 time penalties would have been handed out over the course of the Grand prix. Somehow I suspect the offences would have been much less than 81 at the end of the Grand prix. 3 drivers were shown the Black and White Flag (I think that means during the race, but I’m not sure), meaning each had gone over the Track Limit lines 3 times. I’m fairly sure a Team Principal would have difficulty understanding why a driver had a 15 second Time Penalty at a pit stop.
      As I think about it, maybe they could graduate the offence, so if a wheel goes over the white line then you get a 1 second Time Penalty (annulled at the next pit stop / end of the race if there’s no other Time Penalties), if the centre of the car goes beyond the white line then you get a 3 second Time Penalty, and if it’s both wheels at either end of the car then it’s 5 seconds. Yes, there will be complaints about unjust penalties. I’m not sure what should be done about that. For example, say one driver fails to leave sufficient space for a competitor, then maybe both drivers should get the stipulated Time Penalty. For example if we take the Fernando and Kimi incident, and say Kimi was given a 5 second Time Penalty for going off the Track, then Fernando would be given that penalty too.

    4. @skipgamer Maybe have actual incident points as with iRacing. Subtract from your championship points. Incident points are awarded regardless of blame, as with iRacing (1x, 2x, 4x etc. same or similar infractions). Accumulate 17x and you are black flagged :)

  7. Its simple the white line on the edge of the track is the limit. U go 4 wheels over the white line then yu should be penalized. Bring back gravel traps and grass but develop it to not be a race ending trap rather a restrictive trap which forces a driver to slow down

    1. Agree. A two meter strip of grass then asphalt runoff, where possible, or a wall if necessary would work well.

  8. Fair dinkum what a load of rubbish! All of this slow speed corners, different surface corners, hold your mouth in a certain way corners.
    The regs say the white line. The drivers are happy with the white line. So here is a crazy idea.. how about they use the white line?

  9. The current rules apparently encourage cases of “surprise understeering” by the person on the inside line.

    Harsher rules would only exasperate that.

    So ambiguity is what we get, and I prefer it because it allows the stewards to wag their fingers at the blatantly obvious.

    1. So ambiguity is what we get, and I prefer it because it allows the stewards to wag their fingers at the blatantly obvious.

      It also allows them to apply the regulations inconsistently – leading directly to all kinds of controversy, arguments, embarrassment and dissatisfaction.

      Every other sport that uses white lines to define the field of play has it figured out, simply because they apply them in the most straightforward way. Touching the line is in, over the line is out – the same every where and every time, no exceptions.
      Get with the times, F1. There are no ‘gentlemen drivers’ out there anymore. Everything that can be done to gain an advantage will be done because you allow them to. Who’s actually in charge here?

      1. When you have half a dozen competitive drivers on the grid analyzing every rule in search of minute advantages, ambiguity is a feature, not a bug.

        And if one decides to go ‘full cheeky’ you remind them that being technically correct may be the best kind of correct, but it may still not get you what you schemed for, and embarrass you in the process, too.

      2. And speaking of being technically correct…

        Every other sport that uses white lines to define the field of play has it figured out, simply because they apply them in the most straightforward way. Touching the line is in, over the line is out – the same every where and every time, no exceptions.

        Except of course that is not actually true for such obscure white-line-using sports as Basketball and Baseball, where touching the line is indeed out. 😜

        1. Sorry, Football, not Baseball. Brain fart on my part.

        2. Whatever their rules say – they still do it the same way, all the time, on every line – completely unlike F1.

        3. Except in basketball, where you can go over the white line as long as you’re flying. You can land in the first row of seats, then and only then it’s out.

  10. Lol this “fight” for the title is artificial anyway and only exists because of:
    A freak tyre incident in baku
    Hamilton causing a crash at Silverstone and getting away with it
    Bottas causing a crash at Hungary and getting away with it.

    If Hamilton comes out of this as champion he should be embarrassed

    1. Thanks for helping me with a spot of insomnia.

    2. “embarrassed” does not quite cover it

    3. Thats racing good luck bad luck all part of a season

  11. In my view, the solution is simple. Unless the immediately alongside another car, if any car has both tyres beyond the white track marking on either side at any point on the circuit then they should be considered off track. If they are alongside another car, then they should not be able to gain an advantage.

  12. I find it hard to get riled up by track limits to be honest. Blatant massive car park run-off straight-lining off track, yes, a marginal couple of centimetres beyond a white line when there’s a humongous kerb there anyway, can’t get interested, especially when the driver being legal i.e. on the white line with some tyre would still actually involve the whole car off the circuit anyway.

    Either modify the circuit design to punish the driver, or genuinely find a way to make it slower to be out there, or just let it go and accept that that’s what the marginal gains of F1 is all about.

    What irritates me more is the massive disparity in how they’re treated in practice/quali versus the race. Actually deleting a quali laptime first time round versus “deleting” it in the race, i.e. letting them away with it multiple times before then beginning to consider a penalty, that seems stupid to me. You’d soon cut it out if you properly deleted the laptime in the race, and dropping marginally off the side of the circuit put you a lap down.

    But then people would say that was disproportionate to the issue, so how do you win with this?

  13. Thanks Alonso for bringing this topic out.

  14. I don’t think it’s ‘track limits’ specifically that are the biggest problem. It’s the rules of racing that seem most inconsistent. The stewards can’t seem to decide whether crowding out a car on corner exit is allowed or not. In most cases it is allowed – note many times Max has crowded out Lewis on turn 1 incidents recently, and indeed Lewis did to Max in turn 1 at Austin. But in other cases it is not – for example Lando on Perez in Austria, Alonso on Kimi in Austin (also turn 1). There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of consistency in how this is enforced, and until it is addressed then we will also not know how to treat the drivers who find themselves outside of track limits for that reason. Are they allowed to maintain position or perform an overtake? It seems to go on a case by case basis, so is mostly at the mercy of whichever stewards happen to be adjudicating that weekend.

  15. Big foam blocks strategically placed where track limits are likely to be abused. They can always add a few more at short notice between sessions. Hit one and it’s a five second stop-go, plus the risk of damage to the delicate aero parts. There’s no grey area for interpretation of the rules.

    Psychologically, the drivers are averse to hitting things, so they won’t be as keen to explore the limits.

    1. Then you get more forcing people wide.

  16. Imagine this. Have something other than road on the other side of the track margins, paint the margins white so you can spot the edge, job done.

    1. If only we had suitable material, that could be placed beyond the white line.

      Must be the global shortage of gravel.

      1. Hahahaha haha!!! due to covid gravel is at an all time low.

      2. It shouldn’t matter what lies beyond the white lines because nobody should be out there.
        In the absence of a ‘natural’ penalty from grass, gravel or walls, there should still be a performance/time cost for leaving the track – imposed by the stewards if necessary.
        All they have to do is apply it consistently for a while and it won’t keep happening so often.

        Implement a drive-through penalty for leaving the track, and how many drivers do you think would do it?
        Same goes for crowding anyone beyond track limits. It would be a thing of the past within a season.

    2. A minefield? A piranha-infested moat? Both were sorely missed at T1, Mexican GP 2016

  17. Track limits are like Pandora’s box. Once you open it, you’re going to have an endless source of problems. Track owners/FIA should just handle/fix any problematic corner individually to the extent that is realistically possible. Every solution won’t be 100%, but enforcing of track limits will never be either.

    Keep it simple. No track limits and fix corners physically & individually – less problems.

    1. ‘Some aren’t obeying the rules, so there should be no rules.’
      That’s the absolute worst “solution” imaginable.

      1. Please read again and try to comprehend what I said.

  18. It really doesnt matter which system you use to guard track limits. Its about sticking to the choice and proper enforcement.

  19. My sarcastic self thinks the title should be: For the sake of the title fight, F1 must get a grip.

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