Opinion: Don't penalise the driver, address the problem

By on Sunday, August 4, 2013
Grosjean Budapest

Lotus F1 Team

Car 8 under investigation...

It comes as little surprise. For as quick as Romain Grosjean has been during the Hungarian Grand Prix, his move on Jenson Button was clumsy at best.

…for exceeding track limits.

Wait, what? You mean to say that sensational pass that Grosjean pulled off on Felipe Massa around the outside of turn four was deemed illegal?

As it turned out, Grosjean had exceeded track limits and was subsequently handed a drive through penalty for his actions. What had been initially viewed as an exquisitely judged piece of racing – on behalf of both drivers – had been punished, for Grosjean took to the run-off to complete the pass. It’s difficult to criticise the stewards for their decision, even if Grosjean, Lotus team principal Eric Boullier and Massa were all left baffled by the penalty. Their hands are tied by the regulations. But what it did was sour what was a brilliantly entertaining race. Just a week before in MotoGP at Laguna Seca, rookie Marc Marquez went around the outside of Valentino Rossi at the Corkscrew. Marquez braked late, tipped the bike in and had to marginally cut the track to complete the pass. It was an extraordinary move. It felt like the passing of the mantle of greatness from Rossi to Marquez. No-one complained. No-one demanded a steward’s enquiry. It was pure, hard racing at its very best. It will go down as an iconic moment in MotoGP history.

But if the stewards in Formula 1 must hand out penalties for exceeding track limits, then should it not be done so arbitrarily? The removal of proper track limits (gravel, grass, or even a walloping great wall) allows the drivers to push the boundary of what can be deemed legal to the very limit.

During the Hungarian Grand Prix, Grosjean was punished for exceeding track limits while in the mode of aggressor. Sebastian Vettel, while defending against Grosjean on the nineteenth lap of the race, exceeded the track limits twice in the space of two corners. It was only by inches, but it was not within the track limits. Therefore, if logic is applied, Vettel surely gained an advantage by exceeding track limits. This isn’t an attack on the driving standards of Vettel (far from it), but rather highlighting the problematic situation into which the sport has fallen.

Red Bull/Getty Images

Red Bull/Getty Images

Tarmac run-off – largely introduced on safety grounds – has led to drivers exceeding track limits to gain an advantage, whether it is on a qualifying lap or in a racing situation. The situation has been exacerbated by some new circuits, where exceeding the track limits produces a faster lap time than staying on the circuit: Turn 7 in India, the penultimate corner in Abu Dhabi, for example. Tarmac run-off has also led to sloppy racing. It isn’t fully at fault – DRS has some blame to take – but it promotes carelessness. Take last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix; Sergio Perez elected to run wide at Turn 13 and came back onto the circuit, taking out Grosjean and Mark Webber. The next race takes place at Spa-Francorchamps; in recent years drivers have been warned against running wide at La Source at the start.

So it’s easy to criticise drivers, but the root of the problem is what really needs addressing.

Drivers shouldn’t be penalised for running wide per se, but if a driver is being given such liberties then it reduces the spectacle of Formula 1. There are great corners in the sport, but if there’s no punishment for getting it wrong, then where’s the challenge? Perfecting a ballsy corner lap after lap is what separates the great from the merely good. It’s too simplistic to send out a rallying call for a wholesale return of gravel, but something needs to be done to keep the racing on the track. If a driver runs wide, they should lose time. The problem is now trickling down into categories such as GP2, GP3, FR3.5, BTCC and DTM; drivers are being given warnings or even penalties for exceeding track limits. It ruins the spectacle and it’s simply unnecessary. If there’s a situation where someone can gain time by exceeding track limits, then there’s something wrong.

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