Between the lines: In defence of Formula 1's track limits

Two words that strike fear into any Formula 1 driver in 2021: track limits. While many have grown frustrated by them, there’s simply no sensible alternative to suit all parties that doesn’t already stick to the key principle of staying within the white lines

Between the lines: In defence of Formula 1's track limits

“We've lost the victory, fastest lap, and pole position. I hope that's the end of it. Something has to change.”

That’s how Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko responded to TV reporters at the Formula 1 Portuguese Grand Prix with post-race emotions still running high after a spate of high-profile track limit infringements.

The problem is, track limits will always be a point of debate just as long as circuit officials remember to paint the thin white lines and put kerbs on the track. Track limit breaches, the scourge of Max Verstappen at key moments over the early rounds of the 2021 F1 season, feel like a modern conundrum but it has been a part of the rules since the formation of circuit racing. Stay within the track boundaries or face the consequences.

But the issue has become magnified by a few factors; the increased use of tarmac over gravel or grass run-offs for safety purposes, the improvement in technology to detect and police track limits and the ever-closing margins in performance. When a couple of thousandths of a second can be the difference in securing pole position or taking the fastest lap bonus point, that equates to grabbing those few extra centimetres.

PLUS: Why F1 must get rid of the point for fastest lap

Gaining any advantage has to abide by the rules, which is why track limits continue to be such a hot topic. But doing away with them isn’t an option.

The matter has become such a headache for F1 that it was a key discussion point during the Spanish GP weekend in a meeting between the team principals and series’ chief Stefano Domenicali, leading to added pressure on the FIA’s own long-running track limits working group which works on solutions to suit all motorsport categories – including MotoGP through input from the FIM.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“Something has to change. Either you make a boundary with kerbs or you make gravel or something. If you go out, there's an automatic penalty,” Marko added after the race in Portugal.

Marko, like many others, have pleaded for a more natural deterrent for exceeding track limits – bigger kerbs, gravel or grass – which continually gets considered and applied wherever possible, but only if deemed safe.

But for many circuits, in order to be a profitable and sustainable business, the highest safety standards must be upheld for car and bike racing which means run-offs and track limits must cater for both.

Where Red Bull’s complaints can be supported is its call for consistency. But the rule makers must also be consistent to themselves. Whether it is a few centimetres or an entire car’s width, if you are off, you are off

That’s not to say bike racing has it any easier, as Maverick Vinales also found out in Portugal two weeks before Verstappen’s heartache, when he lost two of his fastest laps in qualifying for fractionally dipping his tyres off a kerb, leaving him to drop from a front row start down to 12th.

Even at car-only circuits, like at Monaco where the Armco barriers are essential to safety, multiple drivers were still falling foul of the same old frustration at last weekend’s grand prix. At the Nouvelle Chicane, where there is a tiny run-off to stop drivers hurtling nose first into walls at high speed, drivers were continually running off the track and duly picking up warnings from the FIA. It almost cost Lando Norris his podium finish having used up his two track limit allowances at that corner by lap seven.

While any pragmatist can point to some kind of barrier to enforce track limits and provide a physical deterrent, in the most extreme cases it is impractical.

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Photo by: Erik Junius

“When we look at everything from a safety perspective, we need to find the best balance of everything in each and every situation. Each corner is different, and each circuit is different,” FIA F1 race director Michael Masi summarised.

Where Red Bull’s complaints can be supported is its call for consistency. But the rule makers must also be consistent to themselves. Whether it is a few centimetres or an entire car’s width, if you are off, you are off.

The debate draws parallels to football’s VAR grievances when offside calls are decided by a toe or a shirt sleeve. Much like motorsport’s frustrations, these are understandable as they can be pivotal to who wins and loses, but under the current rules referees are applying what is required with the technology available.

It is curious to note that when goal line technology was introduced in football, no such arguments were voiced when a goal was decided by the width of a sticker on a ball.

This brings the discussion back to the barest of margins that decide the closest of calls on track limits. In the moment, tiny track limit infringements are incredibly innocuous and hard to spot with the naked eye. But if it is the difference between pole position, the right and consistent rule is required.

While the argument for more ‘natural’ track limits remains a valiant one, and agreeable when safely applied, it doesn’t ignore the fact track limits are here to stay. Just as they’ve always been.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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