Formula One is a complicated sport. But in the matter of racing cars around a track one of the simplest rules should be that you’re not allowed to take a short cut.
Apparently not. Last weekend’s race demonstrated again the sport’s rule makers have turn even this straightforward point into an unfathomable mess.
The concept of gaining an advantage by leaving the track would have puzzled the first world champions. For them leaving the track meant a trip to the hospital, if they were lucky.
Over time the need to make F1 safer changed that. Gravel traps became a more frequent sight at circuits. These meant a driver ran wide they would only lose time instead of their lives. This was clearly progress.
More recently run-off areas filled with gravel (strictly speaking, aggregate) have been replaced by asphalt. The reasons for this are sound if not quite as obvious.
Run-off areas are designed with a realistic worst-case scenario in mind. Turn one at Mexico is approached at one of the highest speeds of the year, over 370kph for some drivers last weekend, making it crucial that an out-of-control car is be contained safely.
Whether a puncture, brake failure, suspension breakage, stuck throttle or collapsed wing, any of these individual faults could cause a serious accident at high speed. But in all of these cases a driver would retain some ability to decelerate the car.
Gravel has less grip than asphalt, so a driver cannot slow their car as effectively on it. Worse, a car travelling at high speed would be at risk of digging in and flipping, putting the driver at greater danger.
There are other reasons why gravel traps have become a less frequent sight at circuits. Stones get dragged onto the circuit causing punctures. The traps require maintenance – filling and raking – which can interrupt sessions and takes time and money. That cost is multiplied over however many days a year a circuit is in operation, not just the three days of a Formula One race weekend.
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Other circuit users, such a motorbike racers, have different run-off needs to racing cars. Track days are a major source of business for circuits outside of race weekends, and amateur drivers would rather not damage their vehicles in a gravel trap.
But the introduction of asphalt run-offs has resulted in one significant disadvantage compared to gravel. It has allowed drivers to find as much grip beyond the boundaries of the circuit as they could within it.
This was not unprecedented in the days before purpose-built asphalt run-offs (think of Suzuka 1989). But it has been a growing problem since then.
The revised Hockenheimring was one of the first tracks to feature extensive asphalt run-offs. During the 2003 race Michael Schumacher controversially overtook Jarno Trulli by using one of them. He went unpunished, but suffered a puncture a few laps later.
In the 13 years since then F1 has largely failed to solve the problem of drivers using asphalt run-off areas to gain an advantage or (just as objectionably) avoiding any disadvantage for failing to stick to the track limits. There have been 14 investigations over this kind of infraction so far this season.
Sunday’s race was only the latest example. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg cut turn one at the start and Max Verstappen did the same later in the race when scrapping with Vettel. Of those only Verstappen was penalised, though at least two of Hamilton’s rivals raised concerns over his driving.
In each case it was up to the stewards to decide whether an advantage had been gained and had to be returned. But as other circuits have demonstrated it is possible to design run-off areas in such a way that drivers are forcibly disadvantage for running wide.
At other circuits slow corners feature ‘return routes’ which drivers must pass through if they run wide, forcing them to lose time. Examples include the Rettiflio and Della Roggia at Monza, the final chicane at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and turns one to three in Singapore.
If a driver goes off and fails to use the return route, they get a penalty. This is both fair and, importantly, makes it immediately obvious to everyone that drivers cannot gain an advantage by cutting a corner. And Mexico’s turn one is far from the only place on the F1 calendar which could benefit from having one.
2016 Mexican Grand Prix
- Horner baffled by Ferrari’s decision to continue Vettel appeal
- FIA rejects Ferrari petition over Vettel penalty
- Make run-off rules simpler, Horner urges
- Ferrari ask for review of Vettel’s Mexican GP penalty
- Verstappen proposes ban on broadcasting team radio