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Opinion

Why national motorsport's track limits shakeup is deeply flawed

OPINION: The proposed overhaul of track-limits regulations in the UK is not only unworkable but also risks alienating competitors at a delicate time

Track limits

Gary Hawkins

“It’s stirred up a lot of emotion,” says one club chief of Motorsport UK’s proposal to toughen the regulations surrounding track limits. And that is an enormous understatement.

The plans to not only tighten the rules of what is permitted but also introduce penalties for the very first offence and ban drivers from protesting others over missed track-limits abuses have proven highly controversial. Quite understandably, there have been furious reactions from everyone from organising clubs to clerks of the course and, of course, racers.

But, before examining the unenforceable proposals, let us take a step back. These changes are part of a wider review of driving standards from the governing body and it is good to see Motorsport UK taking a proactive approach in this important area.

“Motorsport UK are trying to improve the fairness and enjoyment of the sport – there’s no easy answer,” says British Racing & Sports Car Club chairman Peter Daly, a member of the race committee that put forward the plans.

The idea to reset track-limits abuse tallies after an hour or a driver change in endurance races is also logical – after all, why should the same sliding scale apply over a much longer timeframe? And, most importantly, it has got people thinking about track limits and what is acceptable.

Yet, for all those good intentions, proactivity is pointless if the proposals generated are poor – and these rule changes are very poorly thought through. Let us consider the rest of the world. Track-limits penalties were already more draconian in the UK than other European countries – under these plans, the gulf widens still.

Track limits transgressions will be punished more strictly this year under proposed plans from Motorsport UK

Track limits transgressions will be punished more strictly this year under proposed plans from Motorsport UK

Photo by: Steve Jones

If you are an international driver, why would you bother coming to the UK to compete under regulations that are completely unrepresentative to what you will face elsewhere? That is one problem, but another of greater significance is the lack of a warning or ‘first strike’ before any penalty is applied.

“The logic behind the one-second penalty was because too many drivers were keeping their powder dry and then doing track limits at the end of a race,” says Daly.

Such examples of drivers abusing the system may be frustrating, but equally it does not seem fair to dish out penalties to drivers who make an honest mistake, lock up, run slightly wide (losing time, not gaining it) and exceed track limits.

The rules permit running off the track with a “justifiable reason”, but a camera or pressure pad will not necessarily reveal the circumstances behind a breach and you are reliant on a judge of fact’s interpretation. This means there is no guarantee dodging a spinning car or being squeezed over white lines by a rival would grant an exemption.

“The existing track-limits rules are perfectly suitable, and they allow for genuine mistakes while finding the limit of the grip, it just needs more enforcement” David Smitheram

If you look at the current regulations, the salient complaint is they are applied inconsistently in an individual race or by different clubs, promoters and officials. These proposals do nothing to address such inconsistencies – in fact, they make the problem 10 times worse. If you are giving penalties for the first offence, then the mechanism for observing those offences has surely got to be virtually foolproof. The current system is anything but.

Can an observer – sometimes a long way from the corner – be expected to correctly identify every car that veers two inches over the white lines or outer edge of the kerb? Of course not. You would need at least three judges on every corner to stand a slim chance of the system being fairly implemented when a packed field of 40 cars is passing by – and if such an impossibly large recruitment of judges could be conducted, that in turn would create myriad headaches about how their reports are fed back into race control.

In other words, it would be impossible to police with any accuracy – and, as discussed, technology provides a blunt and far from perfect answer. Comparing the situation to football, it would be like saying any player who commits a foul is given an automatic yellow card, but the referee would be stood at the opposite end of the pitch to the play and will spend a chunk of the game looking the opposite way.

Observer surely cannot be expected to correctly identify every car that veers two inches over the white lines or outer edge of the kerb in a packed grid

Observer surely cannot be expected to correctly identify every car that veers two inches over the white lines or outer edge of the kerb in a packed grid

Photo by: Steve Jones

“We’re fully in favour of track limits – drivers should be staying within the limits – but we’re concerned by the extra workload and pressure it’s going to put on volunteers,” says Classic Sports Car Club director David Smitheram. “The existing track-limits rules are perfectly suitable, and they allow for genuine mistakes while finding the limit of the grip, it just needs more enforcement.”

And that leads to Autosport’s overarching message. In a period of high inflation and competitors questioning whether they can justify the expense of racing, it seems counterproductive to introduce rule changes that risk alienating these people at a crucial moment.

Some might argue it is bad luck if the driver you are battling gets away with an abuse of the rules, but luck with officials should not come into it when people are paying thousands of pounds to compete. The circuits are among those pushing hardest for change, but have they considered the impact on spectators? Who would want to attend an event where dozens of penalties are given after the race and the final result bears zero resemblance to what they’ve witnessed? It happens often enough now, but would become far worse with these rules.

It is important to remember that these are just proposed changes, for now. Until 20 February, competitors can contact Motorsport UK at raceconsultation@motorsportuk.org to give their views. If, like Autosport, you have serious concerns about the plans, we would encourage you to send an email, in polite terms, explaining the flaws. After all, our sport faces enough challenges without needless self-destruction.

Technology wouldn't determine if the white Ginetta pictured here had been forced off or not

Technology wouldn't determine if the white Ginetta pictured here had been forced off or not

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

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