Photo: Williams Martini Racing
One of the most heated debates in Formula One of recent years has been that of track limits. In the past if a driver made a mistake or pushed the limits just that 1% further than the car will manage, they were punished with a trip to the outer limits of grass, gravel and in many cases; the wall.
With the implentation of numerous run off areas over the last decade on most of the circuits that Formula One now travels to, drivers exceeding track limits has now become a chronic issue that is bothering the drivers but mostly, the fans.
Racing drivers are trained to go as fast as possible, to utilise every inch of a racetrack to find the fastest way around it to beat their opponents and that’s what we love so much about them, but give them that inch and they’ll try to take a mile.
I’ve been asked by some fans over the years “Why do we have these run offs?” As it is with most decisions in Formula One, safety is the number one priority. The idea of creating run offs was to allow a smooth surface for cars to slide on in the event of an accident, as it was deemed gravel could cause a car to flip and perhaps cause more harm.
An example of this is Mark Webber’s accident at Valencia in 2010, despite the fact he did walk away with no physical injuries, had a gravel trap been at least half way in the run off, he may never of reach the tyre barrier in such a violent fashion, however that is mere speculation.
Motorbike riders are also having an issue with this scenario all now for a different reason, with the tragic loss of Moto2 rider Luis Salom at the Catalan Grand Prix earlier in this year, run off areas and track safety are being scrutinised even further in the name of safety.
A lot of circuits that Formula One travels too often have some motorbike action at other points of the year which can often make designing precautions to cater for both very difficult. Bike riders dislike run offs because of they come off the bike and slide, the friction caused by the slide can often burn through their leathers and cause burns, or in Salom’s case a lack of deceleration before colliding with the wall close to the track.
The current modern view is that gravel & grass are deemed as dangerous because of how a car could dig in and perhaps do more harm than good in the event of a violent accident.
Two examples come to my mind when I think about this debate, one of which is at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix Fernando Alonso collided with Estaban Guttierez in the turn three braking zone, as Alonso reached the gravel trap the car pitched into a roll and came to a stop after barrel rolling and a flip. Alonso climbed out of the car and walked away despite finding later he had a few fractured ribs and a punctured lung. Had that of been a run off, would he have scrubbed enough speed before the wall in a similar fashion to Webber’s Valencia crash? Hard to say. But the gravel trap certainly did it’s job.
My second example falls to Jack Miller from MotoGP, at the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix during the sunday early morning warm up session, as he exited turn seven he rode the kerb on the inside and it unsettled the bike and caused him to lowside at quite high speed. The gravel trap on the exit helped dissipate the speed he was carrying albeit bouncing his way through it, but again despite a few minor injuries he managed to survive, had it of been a run off he could well of ended up in the wall, something we don’t want to see again after Luis Salom’s tragic incident in Barcelona.
Getting the Balance Right
Fans around the world know that the white lines in any sport is the difference between in or out. Whether it’s a football in a goal or a try in rugby, so fans are asking; Why in Formula One are we having this issue?
The white lines either side of the circuit define the race track, it’s very simple, so when a driver decides to take all four wheels off of the circuit they should be punished for taking the car beyond the defined race track.
Currently there are being placed on specific kerbs at corners where they deem an advantage can be made. Is this the correct answer? I don’t feel it is. The looming threat of a 10 second penalty in the race is no match versus the possible cost of retirement.
I personally would allow a run off that it is just one quarter of the car’s width on every corner exit, followed by grass and gravel, this way there can a tiny room for error, but push any harder whether defending or attacking a position, or if your going for pole position in qualifying, you get punished.
Many would argue on the safety front and while I agree to a certain extent, these drivers get in these cars knowing they may not get out again, so we should them as such with the right balance between safety and common sense, driver skill must prevail above all else.