If you watch a lot of racing, you will have noticed recently that with each passing season the issue of track limits is becoming ever more contentious. As modern circuit safety standards increase the number of corners with open and drivable run-off areas (a good thing), it can only be expected that drivers will attempt to explore the limits of what they can get away with in pursuit of faster lap times. But why is the issue so controversial, and can it easily be resolved from a sporting standpoint without compromising safety?
Firstly, athletes will always look for every advantage they can take in a competitive environment, and there’s no more tempting prospect than that small strip of asphalt beyond a kerb that lets you carry more speed through the corner to gain a tenth of a second or two over your nearest rival. You may think this is something that only affects elite-level motorsport, but every weekend we’re seeing more and more instances of track limit discretion and penalties being applied at race meetings of all sizes up and down the UK. But why does it matter? To examine how to solve the track limit problem it’s helpful to firstly break down what exactly it is that makes it such a disputable issue, weekend after weekend.
Fairness The issue of fairness, sportspersonship, and the reason why rules are there in the first place is where we’ll begin with this one. As with many other sports, motorsport has a designated field of play that is usually defined in the regulations as either the kerb or white line at the outside edge of the race track. At the most basic level this serves the purpose of ensuring that all competitors are completing the same distance over a lap or race, in the same way as lane markers on an athletics track. The legal line has to be drawn somewhere, and in the absence of the natural end point of a wall or gravel trap (sometimes necessary but neither of which are ideal from a safety point of view) we’ve come to accept the outside edges of kerbs to be this linear end point on the field of play.
If there is an area beyond a kerb which has a high grip surface however, drivers can exploit this by running further wide in an attempt to gain more lap time by extending the angle of a corner or maintaining momentum. When this happens, they are essentially leaving the field of play and can expect a penalty accordingly. Sounds simple, right? Well it is as long as it’s the same for every competitor, then it is. In a sporting sense, this is why as a compromise we’d suggest that exceeding track limits should perhaps be less rigorously applied for timed laps in practice and quali (it’s the same for everyone), yet always indisputably a penalty if you do it to pass another driver or gain an advantage in a race situation. Changing the application of the rules in the middle of a race weekend leads us on to the next point though...
Rules changing from venue to venue or between sessions at an event can cause confusion for spectators, officials and competitors alike. Furthermore, consistency across disciplines and at all levels of the sport, from Formula One right down to club meetings, is an integral component of the job of the governing body. It’s a slippery slope from track limits being inconsistently applied to other more safety-focused rules (such as yellow flag procedures) having different applications depending on who or where is enforcing them. As with the previous point, it comes down to a sense of fairness, and competitors will feel less aggrieved about the rule (and therefore more likely to follow it!) if they have confidence of consistent application across all participants and that they will not be disadvantaged by it in any way. From a spectator point of view as well, consistency from one event to the next makes the rules become ingrained and familiar, and therefore less likely to be deemed as a negative or controversial aspect of the weekend. Once again, establishing the norm that there will be a laissez-faire approach through free practice and qualifying, but with the expectation set that there will be no nonsense during the race, seems like a fair compromise.
Optics “They’re the best drivers in the world yet they can’t even keep the car within the confines of the race track!” This is where it gets tricky… is a qualifying lap really devalued if the driver takes a little extra kerb and runs wide to extend their line through a corner? This one is somewhat subjective, and may also vary between venues. For example, there seemed to be a consensus that track limits-gate at the Bahrain GP earlier this season was more egregious simply because the huge open area at the joining point of the International and Outer Loop circuit layouts made the extent to which drivers were running off track just visually too much. A counter argument would be that the best drivers in the world are always going to push the limits to the absolute maximum, and letting them experiment and find the absolute fastest way from point A to point B around a circuit is a skill in itself… see why this can get so heated? Of course, there’s also a risk element to contend with, in that you won’t always get away with it. You’ve got to be confident that the area beyond the kerb you plan on using has enough grip to give an advantage, with the flip side being that there is a chance it could throw you into a spin if not, due to being off-line and possibly dirty.
The issue of track limits is being taken so seriously that an FIA working group has been set up to evaluate solutions. There is much discussion around technology options such as sensors more sophisticated to those in use now and similar to the Hawk-Eye system in tennis becoming standard in the medium term. However one imagines that this would initially only be applied at FIA grade 1 circuits so doesn’t solve the issue at a club level. It also presents the future possibility of a VAR style situation where marginal steward decisions are challenged after the event, which nobody wants.
In the meantime, track furniture such as sausage kerbs, cones or even a thin strip of gravel or grass on the outside edge of kerbs have all been suggested. Each of these options however open another can of worms with safety, with sausage kerbs being notorious for launching single-seaters into the air, and introducing a low grip surface anywhere around a kerb understandably not being popular with bike racers. In the meantime, it would seem that continued enforcement is the only viable solution of notorious track limit hot spots (hello Red Bull Ring), with the caveat that both competitors and fans of the sport simply want consistency in their application.