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Opinion
BTCC Brands Hatch

The national motorsport track limits mess that needs to be cleaned up

OPINION: When the proposed revision of track-limit regulations was declared across UK national motorsport, it was met with a poor reception. The situation has arguably worsened even before its official instalment, and a new course of action is desperately needed

Ashley Sutton, NAPA Racing UK Ford Focus ST and Ricky Collard, Toyota GAZOO Racing UK Toyota Corolla GR Sport

There’s something going very wrong in British motorsport. The trigger to writing this column is the fallout from Ricky Collard being denied his maiden victory in the British Touring Car Championship at Brands Hatch last Sunday following a thrilling race against three-time champion Ash Sutton. But Collard, whose crime was multiple breaches of track limits, is only part of a worrying bigger picture.

There were six race meetings in the UK last weekend, including three that were headlined by some of our most prestigious series: BTCC at Brands, the British GT Championship at Silverstone, and TCR UK at Croft. Across those three events, there were no fewer than 10 races where the on-the-road winner was given a penalty, and in one case was excluded. In nine of the 10, that resulted in a driver who hadn’t crossed the line first being awarded victory, the exception being Ginetta Juniors at Silverstone, where Freddie Slater was given track-limits penalties in two races, but in one of them had pulled out sufficient gap to still be the winner.

The penalties weren’t all for track limits. Among them were false starts, overtaking behind the safety car, and gaining an advantage by contact with a rival. This column isn’t disputing that any of those penalties were entirely justified and correct, but together they build up to a grim picture.

And let’s put it another way. If you’re a motorsport enthusiast shelling out around £100 (including petrol and food) to take your family for a day out at the track, you deserve to enjoy that day and for what’s happening on track in front of you to be the be all and end all. It’s a massive turn-off when the race you’ve just witnessed has its result changed, just the same as a football fan seeing their team score a magnificent goal, only for officials with VAR monitors to then deliberate for up to five minutes before knowing whether they can celebrate or not.

False starts, overtaking behind the safety car and contact with rivals are arguably indisputable in being deserving of penalties, although in the last-mentioned of those scenarios that’s on the proviso that the officials’ view on the contact is correct – which quite frequently it isn’t.

Breaching track limits too is not a satisfactory way to go racing. Until 2023, this was policed fairly and effectively, particularly on Motorsport Vision circuits including Brands, by sensors positioned on the outside of corners that are triggered when all four wheels go off course. For this year, our governing body Motorsport UK, in all its wisdom, has decided that any part of any wheel going off course constitutes a track-limits breach. In doing so, it has created a rule that is almost impossible for officials to keep abreast of.

OPINION: Why national motorsport's track limits shakeup is deeply flawed

These new rules are slated for introduction in June – midway through the season! – but BTCC organiser TOCA sensibly decided to implement them from its opening round at Donington Park in late April. Not because it necessarily agreed with the regulations, but because it made no sense for a rule change during the course of a season. British GT followed suit by bringing them in last weekend for Silverstone.

Are the new track limits rules ruining racing in the UK motorsport scene?

Are the new track limits rules ruining racing in the UK motorsport scene?

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The big problem is that the track-limits sensors are positioned for the old rules, so the sport is now relying upon judges of fact stationed at as many corners as possible to report track-limits transgressions. TOCA chief Alan Gow explained at Donington that not all corners are covered because there aren’t enough judges of fact on the planet! (Bear in mind that, on any BTCC weekend, there could be anything up to 10 race meetings taking place across the UK.)

So straight away we’re into a situation where we have regulations that cannot be consistently and accurately applied. And it’s left many figures exasperated, including 1992 BTCC champion Tim Harvey.

In the wrap-up to the Brands TOCA coverage on ITV, Harvey said to presenter Steve Rider: “It's policed by somebody with eyes watching, and they only will police it at certain corners, not at every corner. Now, if it’s a rule it should apply universally to every corner at every track, and be policed in a way that can be accurate and consistent. And it’s not. So it’s not a rule that is fit for purpose.”

Harvey is speaking for many here, and made the very valid comment regarding Collard that “all eyes are on the leader, they’re not on everybody else.” The inference is that somebody in, say, a massive six-car ruckus for 12th place wouldn’t necessarily get picked out by the officials.

“You can’t do one rule for one and one for another. 99% of the drivers have gone off, so why is it only me who gets a penalty?” Ricky Collard

Collard was a serial offender at Brands, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Around one third of the way through that particular race, black-and-white-flag warnings for track limits were issued to Sutton, Colin Turkington and Jake Hill. In other words, a trio who were all comfortably in the top 10 and therefore probably more noticeable to the judges of fact.

Later in the race, when Collard and Sutton were enthralling the crowd with their battle, it was noticeable that Collard was much wider through Paddock Hill Bend than Sutton, and Sutton was moved to comment: “I saw Ricky was driving off the track quite a bit, and I thought, ‘Hang on a minute boys, I’ve got a black-and-white, he’s got a black-and-white, but he’s still taking the Michael shall we say’, and obviously the penalty then came his way.”

Under the rules as they are, it’s fair to say that Collard deserved the 10-second penalty. But if you get chance, look back to earlier in the race and you will see the Motorbase Ford of Sutton running wide at Graham Hill Bend and using the momentum to grab third place from Collard’s Speedworks Toyota team-mate Rory Butcher into Surtees. You could describe that as gaining an unfair advantage, but it was possibly just one of the incidents that led to the black-and-white flag that Sutton – who is a master of building every little detail into his arsenal of astonishing racecraft – thereafter heeded.

It was become almost impossible for officials to correctly police track limits under the new rules

It was become almost impossible for officials to correctly police track limits under the new rules

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

It left a sour taste in the mouth of Collard. Lest we forget, this is a guy who was good enough in other disciplines of the sport to finish runner-up to Lando Norris in British F4, and win fiercely competitive GT3 races abroad as a BMW junior. But the son of BTCC battler Rob Collard also wears his heart on his sleeve. Since he entered the BTCC full-time at the start of 2022 with Speedworks, he has now lost three podiums to time penalties: before Brands, we had Oulton Park in 2022 where he finished third but had lined up incorrectly at the start, and we had Snetterton a few weeks later where his last-lap pass on Tom Ingram for third was ruled to be unfair.

“It’s the third time in a row and it’s frustrating,” he told this writer on Tuesday, still fuming even though there had been some time to settle down. “You take the first two on the chin a little bit. But you can’t do one rule for one and one for another. 99% of the drivers have gone off, so why is it only me who gets a penalty?”

Collard added that he keeps the Autosport story of the new MSUK track-limits guidelines as a screenshot on his phone, and “I can’t work out why it’s a 10-second penalty”. He’s right. It’s a warning after the second transgression, 5s after the third, and an additional 10s for the fourth. There’s no way that can add up to 10!

Harvey made the further point that when drivers are pushing to the limit, as we surely all want to see them doing, then mistakes will be made and track limits will be breached. He’s right, and anyone who paints those who breach track limits as a bunch of miscreants has a fundamental misunderstanding of what it’s like to drive a racing car quickly.

“We all push the cars to the absolute limit – we don’t want to see Scalextric cars,” explained Collard. “And these cars are so hard to drive on the absolute limit. Tim said you want to see the drivers out there giving 110%. We don’t want it to be a procession, we want it to be fun. We want to see action in touring cars for God’s sake. I want to have fun, I want people to enjoy the racing. It’s not F1. We don’t condone contact, but hard, fair racing is what’s in my family’s DNA.”

It's to be hoped that Collard can vanquish any thoughts of a witch hunt and get on with the job of turning himself into the BTCC frontrunner he’s capable of being.

“I feel desperately sorry for Ricky because he raced his little heart out there to try and beat a three-time champion and score his first victory,” said Harvey on ITV. “Motorsport is in the Collard family heart and soul [grandfather Mick was a superstar in hot rods], and he put everything into that, and the rules have denied the fans a fantastic race. It was a brilliant race. It isn’t personal, he’s wrong on that score. It’s not against him and his family. But it’s denied the fans, the teams, the sponsors, everybody of a great result.”

Collard put it more bluntly: “The worst thing for me is the fans got robbed.”

BTCC remains highly popular but concerns are growing the rules could dampen the excitement

BTCC remains highly popular but concerns are growing the rules could dampen the excitement

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

They did. But they got robbed because of new regulations under which Collard did probably merit a penalty, but which are largely unworkable.

Next up on the BTCC calendar are Snetterton, where there are 12 corners for the judges of fact to monitor – double the number of Brands Indy. And after that comes Thruxton. On 95% of the Hampshire speedbowl, if you breach track limits you’re probably heading for a very large accident, but it also features the Complex and the Club chicane. Two years ago, we saw Adam Morgan win a BTCC race from Colin Turkington despite bypassing the chicane completely on one lap. Now, Adam’s one of the loveliest chaps in the BTCC paddock, but it’s astonishing that he escaped a penalty. And the new regulations appear to do nothing to address that particular ‘crime’ – just chalk it up as one on your tally before you get to the third transgression and a penalty.

Then there are the antics in the support categories. Last year, the unruly Mini Challenge Trophy provided dozens of examples of drivers cutting through the centre of the chicane. And in 2021, there was a British F4 race in which one of the drivers in the battle for the lead was blatantly cheating by doing the same time and again, but he did eventually get a penalty. But only after he’d crossed the line as the on-the-road ‘winner’.

In a sport such as motor racing, some of these instances are unavoidable, but Motorsport UK has undoubtedly done itself no favours in introducing regulations that, as Harvey puts it, are not “fit for purpose”

When your columnist first started going to Thruxton in the 1970s as a kid with his late father, the chicane was lined with Armco barrier, and perhaps that’s the only solution…

In the meantime, Collard says “I’m still going to push as hard as I can and put on a show for people, and bring a bit of energy and excitement to the championship. I was watching videos of Matt Neal, Jason Plato and my dad on Saturday night, and they were on the grass going past people!”

Some of their antics were arguably overstepping the mark during an era where BTCC racecraft was, frankly, rather agricultural. But Collard is right in saying that enthusiasts want to see good, hard – and fair – racing. We don’t want endless waiting for confirmation of final results that bear no resemblance to what we’ve seen on the circuit.

As we’ve mentioned, in a sport such as motor racing, some of these instances are unavoidable, but Motorsport UK has undoubtedly done itself – and the sport it is supposed to safeguard – no favours in introducing regulations that, as Harvey puts it, are not “fit for purpose”. Hopefully Collard has inadvertently done us all a favour – that a controversial incident before the regulations were even intended for implementation will encourage some re-evaluation. Because there will surely be more and more and more of them.

Will a track limits rules rethink be applied?

Will a track limits rules rethink be applied?

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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