Just where should you draw the line when it comes to track limits? Charles Bradley thinks he has the answer
Once again, the thorny issue of track limits threatened to raise its ugly head at last weekend's German Grand Prix. Ninety-three warnings in one free practice session alone!
I regularly covered races in the DTM in the early 2000's, and track limits have always been a problem at the "Tilke-ed" version of Hockenheim. Give drivers an inch, and they’ll take an entire run-off zone – especially at Turn 1 and the last corner of the Mercedes Arena.
In the end, it wasn't much of an issue for F1, with drivers showing they could behave if they really wanted to after race director Charlie Whiting laid down his law ahead of qualifying.
I recall too last year’s "Lone Star Le Mans" weekend in Austin (one of Tilke’s best works), where the FIA’s World Endurance Championship and IMSA’s United Sportscar Championship shared the bill, but not the same attitude to track limits.
In WEC, it was strictly enforced, but in IMSA it was “have at it." A good barometer were the works Porsche 911s that then raced in both, where the IMSA car’s quickest race lap (without track limits being enforced) was 1.4 seconds faster than the WEC machine’s quickest time.
And watching the sessions trackside was just plain weird to see one set of drivers religiously hugging the curbs, and another flirting with the gravel traps at the outer confines of the run-off in another.
It looked [said best in a Texan drawl] “kinda dumb."
Know your limits
We’re all used to mainstream sports that utilize white lines to demarcate the boundaries. Whether it’s a football pitch with touchlines, penalty areas and in-goal areas, or a 400-metre running track’s lanes, it’s fair to say the watching public are used to dealing with the concept.
Imagine then that spot kicks could be awarded "somewhere near’ the penalty area, or Usain Bolt starts from Lane 8 and takes a "racing line" on the bend in the 200 metres to set a new World Record in the Olympics this month?
As ever in life, a strong deterrent is the best means of enforcing rules – with punishing consequences if you break them.
So imagine my surprise when a team boss as eminent as Mercedes’s Toto Wolff said at Hockenheim that he believes track limits shouldn’t be stringently enforced.
“We had quite a discussion in the Strategy Group,” said Wolff of the meeting in Geneva the Thursday previous to Hockenheim. “There are two different philosophies.
“Charlie’s philosophy is a clear one: we need to be enforcing track limits, and safety comes first, like it needs to be. And we said ‘it’s a bit confusing for the spectator if lap times are being taken away if you’re 2 centimetres over the white line.'
“I think you should choose the fastest line, and if there’s a problem with run-off areas, then make a big curb, because nobody is gonna go on the curb. But this is racing, we should be balls-out there, flat-out, and if the fastest line takes you over a curbs so sparks fly, and cars are unstable, this is what we want to see.
“Not cars going between white lines, and if you cross it by two cm you are penalized. We could discuss this for a long time I think.”
Indeed. And I agree with his point that it’s confusing for fans on site when drivers have times deleted, but this is a problem of the sport’s own making. And I also concur with his point on big curbs.
The real answer, I feel, lies in the fundamental design of the circuit. For instance, this whole problem has been created by the push for safety, and if asphalt run-offs are indeed judged safer than grass/gravel, then so be it.
However, the track limits must then be enforced by substantial curbing – and this is where the true problem lies. Because the motorcycle fraternity has pushed for lower curbs to help the safety of its ultra-exposed riders, the requirement is now diametrically opposed to the four-wheeled brigade.
So the simple solution is surely to halt the pinnacle two/four-wheeled series from using the same tracks? Because then you can simply adjust the curb requirements accordingly.
Separating F1 and MotoGP on the schedules
But how do you keep F1 and MotoGP away from each other in terms of the tracks they race at?
As per this year’s calendar, five venues host both F1 Grands Prix and MotoGP, namely: Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, Austria’s Red Bull Ring, Britain’s Silverstone, and Malaysia’s Sepang.
Let’s make life easy on F1’s Bernie Ecclestone, so he only has to change one date. How about we switch out Barcelona for the Valencia Street Circuit? He might have to do some political manoeuvring and spend a pretty penny to make it happen again, but MotoGP’s Carmelo Ezpeleta would have to negotiate new deals with four different tracks.
America is easy – just take MotoGP back to Laguna Seca, so we can get those achingly-cool shots of bikes twisting their way through the Corkscrew again.
In Austria, top level motorbikes could return to the Salzburgring, where they were a regular fixture throughout the 1970s and ’80s – right up until 1994. In Britain, bikes have always suited Donington Park better than Silverstone, while the real tricky one is Malaysia.
Not blessed with many racetracks, the alternative to Sepang is Jahor – which hosted the 1998 round (I understand it’s currently undergoing a makeover). Or if it wants to strike out in a new Asian market, how about visiting the state-of-the-art, Tilke-designed Buriram track in Thailand?
This way, Barcelona keeps its flat curbs along with the other MotoGP tracks and – bonus! – we lose a boring Grand Prix from the F1 schedule, and teams can still spend the winter testing there or Jerez.
The resurrected Valencia Street Circuit would have huge, Sonoma-style curbs installed at the corner apexes and exits – and they become de rigueur across the F1 calendar at "problem" corners like Hockenheim's Turn 1.
And, unless you’re going to start running at NASCAR-style rideheights, you’re not going to go on them willingly, and will lose time if you do.
We keep big run-offs for safety purposes, but they become the no-go zones they're supposed to be – demarcated by fit-for-purpose curbs that the crashing MotoGP riders will never encounter.
Presto - F1's problem is solved without jeopardizing the safety of MotoGP's riders.
Take that idea into the next Strategy Group meeting, Mr Wolff.