Written by Dan Jones, Owen Bradley, Archie O'Reilly, Sean McKean, and Vyas Ponnuri
Emphasises the need for alternative solutions
There’s no other word to describe the track limits other than a farce. Formula One drivers are the best in the world, but they’re not robots. We are talking running millimetres wide over 71 laps and over 700 corners, you can’t be perfect. The advantage gained? Hundredths of a second, at a push, that doesn't equate to five or ten seconds over four offences.
The FIA had to deal with 1200 cases. For context, there were approximately 1400 laps run in the race. It’s ridiculous. A farce. Another example of the FIA over-scrutineering matters that aren’t relevant or necessary. This is supposedly the pinnacle of motorsport. The drivers don’t like it, the fans don’t like it, results being changed post-race is usually frowned upon, but the magnitude shown at the Austrian GP is just insane.
But what was noticeable in the FIA’s document is the need for an alternative solution. What can you do? More lenient track limits? Simple, until the boundaries are pushed on those limits the problems are raised again. Sausage Kerbs? A good natural deterrent, but the issues caused by these kerbs in recent years should almost certainly eliminate it as an option.
The easiest solution? Grass and Gravel. The perfect natural deterrent, it punishes if the limits are reached, but isn’t as dangerous as, let's say, a sausage kerb. Yes, it may lead to issues with cars being beached, and although drivers aren’t robots, they are very, very skilled. Undoubtedly, driver errors have reduced in recent years, and although they push to the limit, they don’t overstep the mark on a regular basis. It’s an ideal solution to a farce of an issue.
With the demand for grass and gravel being increased in recent years, as well as problems like this needing immediate solutions, the opportunity is there. The farce that was the Austrian Grand Prix cannot be repeated, especially with the options on the table.
Exceeding Track Limits? More Like Exceeding Necessary Punishment.
At the Austrian Grand Prix last weekend, we had 47 Laps deleted in Qualifying due to track limits extensions at Turn 10. During the race, we had so many drivers picking up black and white flags, warnings and finally, penalties. Had this been the case for one or two drivers, then it would be an example of a poor display of driving ability. But that isn’t the case, because we had eight drivers penalised on Sunday. That is nearly half the entire F1 field.
What the FIA seem to have failed to understand, is that as the race continues, the tyres lose grip and begin to blister, leading to a natural time loss in lap time. Now, track limit penalties are supposed to be punishing drivers for leaving the track and crucially GAINING an advantage. However, most of the drivers simply were not gaining an advantage, because on the exit of the final corner they are actually running wide and out onto the kerb, therefore meaning they are carrying far more speed heading into the corner, but they are sacrificing their exit speed. This can be debated for qualifying, where there is such a short run down to the start/finish line and therefore drivers won’t feel the sacrifice of a poor exit quite as much. But in the race, when you’re losing grip and in constant slipstream and DRS trains, it is exceptionally hard to control.
Max Verstappen for example, ran in clean air for most of the entire race, excluding some lapped cars and ran incident-free. This allowed him to not be carrying any extra speed because of slipstream or DRS, whereas some drivers were infrequently picking up those throughout the race, making it much harder to judge their braking zones as they were moving infrequently throughout the whole race, at different speeds and at different points in track grip.
As for the penalties themselves, the finishing order ended up looking like an online F1 game race, rather than an actual official F1 race itself. Esteban Ocon for example, picked up 30-seconds worth of penalties. For his minor “track extensions” has he really extended so often to the point where he has made up 30-seconds just by extending the track? Most likely, he would have gained about five tenths of a second with all the extensions, because everybody was doing it in one way or another, which surely does not warrant a 30-second penalty, a penalty which for Austria, is about half a lap. It’s truly a case of, the sentence does not fit the crime.
Track limits are fine… but issues policing them means change is needed
I don’t mind track limits. They serve a viable purpose, preventing drivers from essentially gaining time in an illegal manner by veering off the track. They are necessary to stop unfair advantages from being gained, which is particularly pertinent in qualifying sessions, when margins can be so fine at times across a single timed lap. Track limits provide jeopardy, which is necessary in Formula One, testing the drivers’ skill sets.
Generally, you could say track limits are dealt with fairly well in qualifying, when policing is probably most necessary, albeit with 47 lap time deletions during qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix fairly extensive. Come the race, however, policing gets a whole lot more difficult, and factors such as tyre wear as races progress makes it more difficult for drivers too.
It became so chaotic at the Red Bull Ring that discussion now has to be held about alternative ways of making drivers stay on the track, or possibly more leniency regarding the penalties being awarded. The FIA are said to be looking at introducing gravel in Spielberg, which may be the best solution given it offers a physical limit to deter drivers from pushing too wide, and going outside of the track limits would still be punished by the gravel.
You cannot be having 1200 possible offences to keep track of in a single race - it is impossible to be consistent and keep track of everything if this is the case. The ensuing post-race protests and changing of results several hours after a race’s conclusion is not a good look, and such debacles have to be prevented in the future.
Excessive numbers of penalties - for the majority of drivers - also reflect quite poorly on the sport, hence penalising drivers after more offences than just four could be another alternative future solution. Esteban Ocon picked up a 30-second post-race penalty in Austria, which draws its own debate as to how the stewards can miss so many track limit excursions. You get the impression they lose control of track limit violations.
Ultimately, having multiple penalties handed out after a race - in Austria’s case to eight drivers - overshadows the actual race. On-track fights are devalued, and the lack of clarity until a long while after the race is frankly farcical. It risks making the sport a laughing stock.
Making drivers stay inside the track limits is fine, but there has to be some leeway and, really, just a solution to prevent the events in Austria from occurring again.
Do Away With Track Limits
Prior to the Austrian GP weekend, I was always a strong supporter of strict enforcement of the track limits, but following the events of the race, I think major change is needed. While reading through the documents of the copious amount of post-race penalties, my father - whom I watched the Grand Prix with - said it best: “If the FIA can’t even police track limits during a session, what’s the purpose of enforcing them at all?” I hate to say it, but I think I agree with that sentiment.
While I understand the idea that the ‘best drivers in the world’ should be able to keep it within the white lines, at what point do we need to admit to ourselves that they’re not capable of doing it? In the Austrian Grand Prix every single year, the discussion of track limits always come up. I believe it’s willfully pleading ignorance to suggest that they just need to ‘keep within the lines better.’ It’s not realistic. Besides, if we want to see the best drivers in the world go as fast as possible in the fastest machinery, shouldn’t they be given every inch of surface to their disposal to maximise their pace?
The other argument against it says that it would be unsafe, as drivers would test their luck by extending all the way to the barriers. Firstly, this wouldn’t be the case, and we have examples of this in mainstream motorsports. Take IndyCar for example: they didn’t enforce track limits at all at COTA (another victim of strict FIA limits enforcing), and it arguably delivered a better product in their one year there than F1 have in the last 10 years, as the drivers could truly push to the limit knowing that their finishing position wouldn’t be decided by a sensor or the human eye.
And even with axing track limits entirely, the drivers would still not feel the need to go over, as it’s self-punishing. With the underbodies of these cars very sensitive to some surfaces, the teams would likely tell their drivers to not go over out of risk of damaging the floor. Considering that these cars are some of the most intricately engineered in the world, this could also reward cars developed with more durability, as they could go out of the limits more often with less risk of damage.
I know my stance will be the unpopular one amongst readers, and I’m okay with that. However, if the FIA can’t be bothered to enforce them during a race efficiently, what’s the point of keeping them at all?
Grass and Gravel IS The Best Way Forward
Before I start, Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix was definitely a spectacle to watch, even outside track limits and the surrounding controversies. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz put in a spectacular drive on the day, with some superb overtaking and smart battles with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez. Lando Norris too vindicated McLaren’s decision to introduce upgrades for the race, netting yet another top five finish on a track he absolutely adores. Max Verstappen put in yet another flawless drive, rounding out a clean sweep that saw him net pole position in qualifying, sprint shootout, and successive wins in the sprint and the main Grand Prix. He even snatched the fastest lap on Sunday, grabbing the point on offer.
However, the Austrian spectacle was somewhat let down by the sheer policing of track limits by the FIA all through the weekend. The track limits were a topic of debate in the prior running of the Austrian Grand Prix too, in 2022, but this year’s controversy was off the charts. We had 47 lap times deleted on Friday’s qualifying session in itself! This was nearly thrice the number of laps deleted in the previous running of qualifying, in 2022. And for the main race, the FIA were themselves stated to have reviewed over 1200 laps for track limit breaches. The final results were still up in the air for anyone to guess, even four to five hours after the race. And when this happens, you certainly know it wouldn’t be received well by the masses.
The hotspots? Turns nine and 10, two quick right-handers with plenty of tarmac run-off. Drivers are encouraged to push harder to gain more time, and stray across the extremities of the circuit i.e. the white lines. Turn three was also a spot for warnings or deletions of lap times.
The solution? Either grass or gravel on the exits of these corners, right next to the kerb. For comparison, one would observe drivers getting penalised only at certain corners, and not at others such as turns four, six, or eight. Why? Simply due to the gravel or grass right at the extremities of the circuit. Drivers would be a lot more careful when they notice gravel on the run off, and wouldn’t risk going wide over the corners. It would reduce the number of lap times deleted, as drivers would be more vary of the limits and what awaits them in the run-off area.
While most would say, drivers should stay within the white lines, the nature of the circuit, its corners, tyre wear.....all of them play a role in drivers going over the track limits. Underneath, drivers are humans too, and it is natural for them to make the odd error and slide just over the white lines. This is even more evident in a race of 71 laps around a fast circuit, when drivers may not be able to see the white lines on the extreme edges of the circuit, at times.
This would be the best possible alternative to solve the issue of track limits, and to decide the results on the track, and not in the stewards room, a few hours after the race concludes. And drivers would certainly not be slapped with 30 seconds worth of penalties, as was the case for Esteban Ocon on the day.