Track limits: drivers not the FIA need to shoulder the blame

Max Verstappen’s controversial move on Kimi Raikkonen during the US Grand Prix reignited the debate on track limits in F1. In the ensuing storm of post-race accusations and social media bitching, blame has been placed variously on the FIA, the race stewards and even track designer Hermann Tilke.

Esteban Ocon Force India F1 2017
Sergio Perez considers cutting the corner. (Image: MotorSportNotes).

Amongst the accusations and finger pointing one group however has remained absolved of any responsibility. Yet they are the ones at the heart of the track limits issue: the drivers.

Let’s get one thing straight: Verstappen’s move was illegal

Say what you want about Verstappen’s ballsy move on Sunday but when considered in isolation – and following the letter of the law – it was illegal. All four wheels off the racing circuit and a place gained made it a slam dunk for a penalty.

Had the move taken place even two or three laps previously, the Dutchman would have been instructed to hand the place back. Undoubtedly if that scenario had played out there would have been far less mention of it on the sports pages today.

But Verstappen was unlucky…

The interpretation of the Formula 1 sporting regulations was not the source of most of the often quite aggressive criticism. Verstappen and his Red Bull team felt robbed specifically by the perceived inconsistency in application of the regulations by the race stewards.

Max Verstappen overtake Raikkonen US Grand Prix 2017
Just one of many angles of the Verstappen/Raikkonen overtake. (Image: F1).

TV channels, broadcasters and prolific tweeters pulled up video after video of drivers exceeding track limits just as Verstappen had. The simple logic was undeniable: if Max was penalised, why not Hamilton, Sainz, Vettel and the rest of the field who did the same?

Track limits: a never-ending F1 saga

Track limits continue to be one of the areas where the application of warnings and penalties remains inconsistent from race to race. Drivers however play the innocent party in all of these discussions; quick to take advantage when it suits, just as quick to complain when it does not.

It is a deliberately naive attitude for drivers to take that cleverly absolves them of responsibility.

The not-so-innocent drivers

Let us for a moment imagine that during the recent US F1 Grand Prix, the stewards had applied the sporting regulations consistently and ruthlessly. Meaning any driver leaving the circuit, breaching track limits and gaining an advantage would have been warned and then penalised.

The ensuing mess would have been more farcical than trying to work out the starting grid for the race on Sunday or the ‘Las Vegas’ driver introductions. Almost all of the field would have been penalised – starting with Sebastien Vettel for his move to take the lead at the first corner of lap 1.

Such a scenario would have been horrendous for those watching in the stands and around the world. And especially bad as F1 tries to rebuild its tattered reputation in the USA.

Would you prefer grass, gravel or concrete around your track Mr Verstappen?

In the ‘good old days’ of course the track limits would have been defined by way of a gravel trap or grass. No grass-crete or miles of asphalt run-off as we have at most circuits today.

The FIA’s job would be much easier if that were the case. But of course – in order to improve safety for the drivers – the sport has been phasing out such remnants of the past.

Drivers losing control over the grass, getting bogged down in a gravel trap and flipping over were – rightly – deemed too great a risk for a sport trying to move on from a bloody past.

This has been achieved by a combination of circuit improvements and racing at sanitised venues like the Circuit of the Americas.

But as we saw this year at Monza where asphalt replaced the grass on the outside of the famous Curva Parabolica, drivers happily took liberties with something that was intended to keep them safe.

The FIA have their hands tied

Where there was not grass or gravel in the past, there were usually concrete walls. After Imola 1994 the protection of drivers became paramount and such archaic means to enforce track limits were binned. With the exception of classic circuits like Monaco and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, concrete walls are not welcome in modern F1.

With their hands tied – no grass, gravel or concrete walls allowed – the FIA has attempted other methods of enforcing track limits. Chiefly getting circuits to install large kerbs to deter corner-cutting and running wide on corner exit.

We can’t cut the corners with these kerbs…

However once again the concerns and protestations of the drivers in F1 have pretty much sunk that option. Twice already this season – at Monaco and then the Red Bull Ring in Austria – drivers have cut corners/run wide at turns featuring more substantial kerbs. Kerbs specifically designed to stop them doing exactly that.

Instead of acting as a deterrent, the drivers took liberties anyway and simply complained the kerbs were ‘too dangerous’. Instead of accepting that they could not run wide/cut corners with impunity, the drivers pushed for the deterrent to be removed.

The end result: the offending kerbs were ground down. Leaving the drivers to cut corners and/or run wide to their hearts’ content.

Now back to that Verstappen overtake…

F1 did shoot itself in the foot by making such a big call on the Verstappen move in Austin this past weekend. Such a decision was always going to be controversial coming at the end of a race that had been marked by a relaxed application of the rules on track limits.

The blame however cannot be solely and squarely placed upon the shoulders of the FIA, race stewards or individual circuits.

Drivers are simply being given too much leeway on this issue.

Time for F1 drivers to grow up

F1 stars cannot complain that circuits are too dangerous before deliberately ignoring the rules to make an overtake stick. Drivers must grow up and start behaving like adults in this debate.

They need to forego their habit of casually ignoring the rules when it suits and then calling into question the integrity of the sport when it doesn’t.

The FIA are not blameless in the whole track limits debacle, but neither are the drivers.

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