Why F1 track limits are back in the spotlight at Imola

The thorny subject of track limits in Formula 1 has resurfaced in Imola this weekend, and like the similarly emotive VAR in football, it’s not going away any time soon.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

On Friday the quickest lap of the day, logged by Charles Leclerc in second practice, was deleted by the stewards. There’s a reasonable chance that Saturday’s qualifying session could be impacted by similar penalties.

In Bahrain Turn 4 was one of the main talking points of the race, with Lewis Hamilton warned for routinely going wide, and Max Verstappen forced to hand back the lead after his late passing move saw him run off at the same corner.

Inevitably the subject was the main topic of discussion in Friday evening’s drivers’ briefing at Imola, as it has often been in the past. In essence the drivers want consistency, and many felt that wasn’t the case in Bahrain where the FIA had seemingly allowed a little leeway by not imposing a firm “three strikes” rule, as is the case at many circuits for the race.

Instead the drivers were in effect given the benefit of the doubt, and trusted not to take regular advantage by running wide. The problem was that Hamilton didn’t get the message and went too far, too often.

At Imola there is no room for interpretation, and race director Michael Masi started this weekend with the same ground rules that last year’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix ended with.

But on Saturday morning, following discussions in the drivers' briefing, Masi revised his track limit notes for the Imola weekend. From final practice, track limits would no longer be enforced at the apex of Turn 13, while drivers would be allowed to run across the kerbs at the Varianta Alta chicane.

The corners still being monitored are the exits of Turns 9 and 15. Masi’s official notes make it clear that offences in any practice session (including qualifying) will see the relevant time deleted. For the race the familiar three strikes wording is employed.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

The two corner exits at Imola are monitored electronically via timing loops, and any offences flagged up are then checked manually on video. That wasn’t the case at Turn 4 in Bahrain, where it wasn’t possible to employ loops, and two officials monitored TV screens.

The FIA stewards had a lot of totting up to do after the sessions on Friday. Turn 9 produced a total of 30 lap deletions over the two sessions, with Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher leading the way on four apiece, followed by Pierre Gasly, Antonio Giovinazzi and Leclerc on three – all enough to trigger warnings if accumulated over a race distance.

There were also a couple of deletions at Turn 15, but no offences were logged the apex of Turn 13.

One of Leclerc’s lost laps in FP2 was a 1m15.367s, which would have been fastest for the day had it stood, as he sheepishly noted: “I was pleased with my quick lap. The time that was cancelled because of a couple of centimetres would have been quickest overall.”

The Ferrari ace crashed shortly afterwards, an indication of how hard he was pushing.

“We had always planned to monitor these positions here in Imola, exactly as they were in 2020,” Masi told Autosport on Friday.

“As we have consistently maintained, the process of monitoring track limits is done on a case-by-case basis, as each circuit, corner and situation is different.

“We will continue to learn from free practice sessions on Fridays and the discussions that follow in the drivers’ meetings, and if necessary update the instructions.

“This is the most effective way for us to monitor track limits and work together with the drivers and teams to come to a sensible solution.”

Michael Masi, Race Director

Michael Masi, Race Director

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

The FIA faces a near-impossible task, and inevitably Masi can’t please everyone as he tries to create a level playing field.

“I fully get it that what is in place at the moment is obviously not easy to follow,” McLaren boss Andreas Seidl said. “Especially for fans or spectators, because it's different for each track and corner.

“In an ideal world we would all like to have a simple ruling, or tracks where you have, let's say, physical track limits, with gravel beds or stripes of grass and so on, where it's simply not possible if you go offline to go faster than on the racing line.

“But we have to accept reality. We go to a lot of different tracks with different characteristics, tracks that also are made to be fit for other categories, even for motorbikes. And based on that, you simply have to accept that you need specific or individual solutions or regulations for each kind of tracks, or even corners. That's simply a reality.

“And, from our point of view, at least the discussion we had in our team, as long as it is clear before each session of what the rules are, and how they are policed, as long as it's consistent, then throughout the session, we are fine with it, and we can handle it.”

Seidl accepts that there are limits to what the FIA can do: “Sometimes I also read let's simply go for policing and use these three strikes rule for whenever a car is leaving the track limits. From my point of view this is not a practical solution.

“There's a lot of areas or a lot of corners or tracks around where you simply use sometimes a bit more, or you go off outside the white lines.

“And if you would police every single corner, even the corners where you simply do not gain any advantage, I think we would end up in hundreds or thousands of warnings on the screens, which doesn't make sense.

“So it makes sense to focus on the corners where you could gain an advantage by going off, or where it's simply important to police it differently, because of safety. And then as I said before, we are fine with it.”

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The problem in Bahrain was that many saw Verstappen’s move on Hamilton as great racing, and that reining him spoiled the show, even if the Dutchman himself reluctantly accepted that he’d gone over the acceptable limit.

“I understand with the outcome of the race in Bahrain, that there was a lot of discussions afterwards,” Seidl said.

“But on the other hand, the way this overtaking manoeuvre happened, it was clear that Max had to give the position back, he stated that himself. So it was quite a straightforward thing in my opinion, and not really controversial.

"In the end, it's about competition, it's important that you can't gain an advantage by going off track. It needs to be policed, and we all have the same interest there. It's also important to police it for safety reasons, because tracks are not designed in terms of safety to go offline."

In Friday’s drivers’ briefing Masi again explained the rationale behind track limits, while the drivers – once again – called for that consistency. It was the usual game of cat and mouse.

“They want the track limits rule to be clear for the entire weekend and then policed accordingly,” noted one witness to proceedings. “Bahrain Turn 4 was discussed heavily as most drivers felt it wasn’t policed as they believed it would be over the entire weekend.

“The sporting regulations on the track limits are quite clear, but to police a lap on that wording would lead to massive lap deletions and that becomes even more farcical to the fans than mess we have now.”

Unsurprisingly Verstappen was among the most vocal drivers during the debate.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“I think several people disagreed with how things were in the Bahrain race,” he told Ziggo TV after the meeting. “I think we just need to be more consistent. I think in practice, qualifying and the race you should just keep it the same. That is much better.

“In Bahrain during qualifying, you weren’t allowed to go past the kerb. Then your lap was taken away because you gained an advantage. In the race you were allowed to go just outside of the kerb. Apparently that was not perceived as gaining an advantage.

“But if you went too wide, then it was perceived as gaining an advantage. And overtaking was also not allowed there, because that was gaining an advantage as well. So yes, it was all very skewed. And unnecessarily difficult, actually. You just have to say, ‘stay on the kerb.’ Then it's a lot easier for everyone.”

Asked about leaving a wheel inside the white line in order to remain legal Verstappen gave an indication of the fine margins involved.

“Yes, of course, but at some tracks, like here in Imola, coming out of a chicane that will be very difficult. If you make a small mistake, you immediately bounce off the kerb. I find it easier to position the car on the kerb than on the white line.

“Sometimes it is also very difficult to see. For example, here at Turn 9 it’s quite difficult to know if you are on the white line or if you are already passed it. In any case, there it remains the white line. But in the chicane it goes so fast, and if you hit the kerb the wrong way, you’ll bounce a few centimetres too wide. It's just tricky.”

We can only hope that the drivers who tested the limits on Friday learned their lesson and won’t lose vital qualifying times that impact the grid – and that Sunday's race is not decided by another track limits call.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

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