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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Just What Are Track Limits, Anyway?


Tyres tyres tyres tyres Lewis is blonde now tyres tyres tyres Pirelli Pirelli Pirelli Pirelli tyres. Does F1 ever talk about, y'know, not tyres? Occasionally they'll throw financial discomfort into the mix so we can watch every single person in a position of influence ignore the issue, or a team will complain that they're losing, or someone will mention the bloody noise again (I like it, honestly) or people will talk about how to improve the sport - a popular topic with pub bores, I gather - but ultimately the talk seems to come back to tyres more often than not, whether it's how long they last, how quickly they lose performance or who will supply F1 with rubbery black circles from 2017. This recently happened again in the midst of the Belgian Grand Prix, when Nico Rosberg had a slow-then-sudden puncture which started with a structural chord coming loose up Eau Rouge and ended in a 190mph blowout and spin approaching Blanchimont 3/4 of a lap later. This incident in Free Practice was then followed up by Sebastian Vettel's less dramatic puncture on the penultimate lap of the race itself, after which he had very strong words for F1's sole tyre supplier, Pirelli.

He called their explanation of a small cut on Rosberg's tyre "bullshit" and made clear that if his own puncture had happened just 200m or so earlier when he was charging up the famous Eau Rouge corner, he'd have been "fucked" as the car spat itself off the track and into the tyres at ~180mph. Thing is, tyres have always blown after taking too much punishment. The Ferrari pilot had gone much further than anyone else had all weekend on his last set of tyres, and once a tyre has worn through it's much more likely to fail in the way his did. Maybe it's just one of those things? At the time I did briefly - perhaps cynically - wonder if the proximity of this double-incident to Jules Bianchi's burial had put drivers on edge a little bit...

Either way, his little outburst has lead to a couple of things. First of all, C. Montgomery Bernie has gathered all the drivers together and told them not to air their grievances about Pirelli in public. Secondly, Pirelli's extensive investigation of the tyres on multiple cars after the Belgian GP has shown a number of microscopic cuts, both on tyres that failed and ones that didn't but might have. The track is always cleaned before the race, but only the tarmac and the kerbs. Any area beyond the kerbs is left alone, meaning small amounts of debris can still be found just off circuit. Can you see where this is going yet? The real problem here appears to be drivers abusing track limits, as shown in the image up top of Vettel short-cutting Radillon (the top part of Eau Rouge) just moments before his right-rear tyre burst.

There is now a widespread call for stricter enforcement of track limits, from drivers and pundits alike. Now that we've seen even small debris cause damage to the tyre surface that can lead to a puncture or delamination, we can even say it's on safety grounds, rather than just to satisfy the likes of Tiff Needell.

Up until now, you see, complaints about track limits abuse have largely been from those arguing about drivers not being punished for sloppy driving. "Back in my day, they'd have hit a barrier by doing that!" "Before they added all that tarmac run-off, he'd have been straight into the gravel and out of the race!" "Why can't it just be the 1980s again?!"

The other point of course is that, for example, if a driver runs wide because they carried more speed through the corner, doesn't go onto any grass and just carries on regardless, they've technically left the track and gained an advantage, which is against the rules in pretty much every circuit racing series. Y'know, because it's cheating. The same goes for short-cutting corners on the inside too, obviously.

The track limit is governed using the white lines that border the track. If all four wheels are beyond the white border line, you're off the track. The kerbs might be there to provide margin for error, but they don't count as being part of the actual track. Here's a demonstration from two Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s racing in the Blancpain Endurance Series:

The difference between Pro and Pro-Am as well?
Basically, the white line is the law. In F1 and a few other series, the race stewards occasionally exercise lenience if they're reassured that there isn't a significant advantage to be gained, which seems a little too lenient given that a) F1 drivers are purported to be the best in the world and should be able to keep it between the lines, and b) if they didn't gain an advantage by running over the white line, they wouldn't do it. Give a racing driver an inch of wiggle room and they'll use 1.1 inches of it. There are some particularly tough customers that would rather see drivers punished for just two wheels over, but I wouldn't really want to see that. We want to see the drivers pushing themselves and their machinery right to their limits, but if they were penalised for putting a wheel's width on the kerb then they'd be slightly hesitant to do that. Let me put it this way: if he would've been given a time penalty for going two wheels over, would Max Verstappen have tried it on around the outside of Felipe Nasr at the flat-out 190mph Blanchimont corner? No. Not even Maximum Verstappen is that reckless. You can see that move at 1:35 in this video, by the way, just because it's cool:


So what can be done to enforce track limits? Well, you could hand out a penalty to anyone who repeatedly leaves the track to gain an advantage, but F1 already has a lot of penalties going around for cars who have gone over the maximum allowed four power units (or elements thereof) in a season, so it wouldn't be a good look for them to hand out even more. In qualifying, lap times set by breaching track limits get deleted, which is only right and fair, but doing so in the race is a bit meaningless unless you subtracted the lap(s) from their race distance, which would be much sillier than a 5-second pit/race time penalty.

Some fans are saying that the grass and gravel traps which used to line the corners should be put back again, but that's a tricky one, more so than penalties. On the one hand, there are some corners that have lost their challenge due to tarmac run-off areas letting drivers get away with taking them too fast, like Monza's Parabolica or indeed Blanchimont at Spa. On the other hand, those run-off areas are there to make crashing safer. Take Rosberg's blowout again - when he suddenly lost control at 190mph, he was able to slide onto a large expanse of extra tarmac, letting the surviving three tyres generate enough friction to stop the car hitting the tyre wall. Also, these circuits are used for motorcycle racing as well as cars, and riders falling off don't have to get launched back into the air like a rag doll if they can just slide to a halt on tarmac run-off instead. Paving Parabolica was done for that reason (there was initially hope that they'd only pave the first half of the gravel trap... but they ended up pulling the gravel back all the way around). So it would be difficult to convince circuits to spend the money to make their tracks arguably more dangerous. Instead, let's just hope that the decision makers are more selective about where they pave things over in future, lest every track become the same as the Sochi Autodrome...

THE FUTURRRREEEE!!
On balance, then, perhaps penalties really are best. Punishment for going off the track is more understandable and credible than punishment for an engine needing replacement, at least for fans of the drivers. Maybe a cumulative system (5-second time penalty, then 10, then 20 or a drive-through) would be best, so repeat offenders get taught a lesson. Another suggestion I've seen online is to have sensors in the wheels or somewhere to detect a car off track. Things is, sometimes a driver goes off track because the car kicks sideways, they lock their brakes or they get pushed off, so a sensor system would have to just alert the stewards, rather than trigger an instant penalty.

Track limits are clearly defined, yet often abused. They matter because we want to see drivers exercising their skill and ability to stay right on the limit without going over, and because going off track increases the risk of a puncture - also true in the days of grass and gravel, of course. If you want to see people saving time by driving all over the place, I believe PS4 users can now "broadcast" their gaming shenanigans over the internet. Accuracy at speed is part of the art of track driving. It shouldn't be difficult for F1 drivers.

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