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Track Limits Bring New Potential

Saturday 9th November 2013

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Track Limits Bring New Potential

Track Limits Bring New Potential

If you tell children something they don't want to hear they'll close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears and hum.

Ostriches and the FIA do the same kind of thing.

The issue of track limits has been plaguing F1 since the summer, when Romain Grosjean made a brilliant overtaking move on Felipe Massa at Turn 4 of the Hungaroring, but then had to serve a drive-through penalty for putting all four wheels off track.

Footage from the on-board camera showed that yes, he had momentarily slipped four wheels over the kerbing, but if he hadn't, he'd be removing Felipe Massa's front wing which was very close to the E21

It was a majestic move at a place where cars can rarely pull off an overtake, and was even applauded by the overtaken Massa. Not at the time, obviously, he had Turn 5 coming up. However technically... technically it was still in the same boat as Sebastian Vettel overtaking Jenson Button at the exit of the Hockenheim hairpin in 2012 (the most regular of off-track passes up to that point).

What was irritating about Grosjean's penalty was that even putting the issue of sticking to the track limits aside, overtaking regularly takes place off the circuit and goes unpunished. At the start of the German Grand Prix Mark Webber ran very wide into Turn 1, over the white line, onto Hermann Tilke's over-generous tarmac run-off and he was able to pass Sebastian Vettel. He wasn't asked to give the place back and continued on happily... until Red Bull threw him the usual curve ball, a tardy Lap 9 pitstop and ooops, there was Sebastian back in front.

A race later and they punished Grosjean for one of the passes of the season.

The FIA's defence of the track limits rule is that it's not illegal to run off the track, it's illegal to gain an advantage by running off the track. And because it's nasty and rough and slippery out there drivers are only punishing themselves by going outside the white lines which demark the optimum racing lines.

Which means that 22 of the World's elite racing drivers are choosing the wrong lines lap after lap after lap. (Imagine how much better Sebastian Vettel, the four-times World Champion, would be if he'd actually read that simple bit of advice from the FIA.)

Running wide at first may be a disadvantage, but after cars have been consistently allowed to do it through three free practice sessions, a corner can build up such a layer of rubber, that there's actually more grip out there than on the circuit. In Abu Dhabi this was true of Turns 19 - the turn just after the cars go under the Viceroy Hotel, and the following corner Turn 20.

During the race, almost every driver, every lap, ran his car with four wheels over the white line onto the blue-painted run-off, out to the edge of the track up to the barriers to carry the maximum speed through there. Everyone did it, all the time. It became the racing line. This is why the simple repetition that cars don't get an advantage by running off the circuit is like burying your head in the sand.

A favourite old British cliché about people who couldn't or wouldn't lose weight (un-PC in lots of ways now) was - nobody came back from a Japanese Prisoner of War overweight. Similarly, nobody takes advantages of track limits at Japan's Suzuka circuit*. Because it's so narrow you can't cheat the circuit confines. And there's good old-fashioned gravel out there to suck in anybody who wants to push his luck.

And nobody complains about the Suzuka circuit either, drivers love it. There's some traditional jeopardy involved, with errant drivers paying the price. What's more, despite the narrow track, there are more places to overtake than Abu Dhabi.

The FIA say that making drivers keep inside the white line during practice, qualifying and the race would be impossible to police and that they would need "observers on every corner".

Have they joined the 21stcentury? Would these "observers" need a telegraph operator to wire their observations back to a central telegram depot for the collation of vehicle transgressions?

Today, data acquisition drives the sport. In the 1990s, a vehicle tracker system looked Space Age. Now you can get one on a cheap phone. Together with an accurate GPS and Hawkeye system you can know to the centimetre where cars are on the track - build in a 15cm margin of error and you can have an automatic signal that tells you when a driver goes off limits to trigger a penalty.**

This might even bring a thrilling new dimension to the sport. Introduce a system where drivers are allowed to exceed the limit ten times in a race - after that they get a drive-through penalty. This means that the leader has to be extra careful in the closing stages of a race and maybe slow down and not risk too much, whereas somebody wanting to gamble can go to the edge of the track and catch up.

It would have the extra impact in that the number of excursions would build during the race, threatening to shake up the order at the end, leaving everybody on a cliff-hanger. Lock your brakes on the last-lap, run wide while you're on nine excursions and bang goes a podium finish.

So instead of track limits being an issue for the FIA, and Hermann Tilke's circuits being over-generous, track limits could be a way of bringing more precision in driving and late-race excitement into the sport. Tilke's tracks could be an enticement to stretch it just a little bit too far. Technology moves the sport on. We've brought multi-function steering wheels, delta times and DRS to the party. Making the drivers keep more or less within the white lines could be more thrilling than it sounds.

Andrew Davies

*Daniel Ricciardo may have had a little fling on the outside of 130R, but that's because of a modern insistence on having tarmac out there after Alan McNish ran out of talent one year in a Toyota.

**Unless you're pushed off , obviously.

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