The 2015 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps created much controversy, with both Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel suffering catastrophic tyre issues. Both experienced rear right failures at high speed, but it is here that I believe the similarities end.
Rosberg’s failure was one of the strangest I have ever seen in Formula 1, an opinion shared by Mercedes AMG Technical Director Paddy Lowe who confirmed to NBCSN on Friday afternoon that he had never seen a tyre failure like it. When the tyre let go, it did so almost perfectly along the centre, circumferential line. The carcass sheared nigh on precisely in half, with the inside half tearing itself off, leaving just the outside edge of the tyre on the rim. Pirelli believed that the failure was caused by a cut, picked up on track, and the cleanliness of the failure and what remained would give credence to this. Mercedes ran checks on its own floor to ensure that nothing could have rubbed the tyre and created the issue. Pirelli stated the team was running its tyres well within the prescribed camber and pressure recommendations. Indeed, their adherence to these parameters was described as “exemplary.”
Vettel’s failure is the one which has now taken the focus of the story. His expletive-laden post race interview with the BBC could, one might argue, be excused given his disappointment in a potential lost podium. In truth, it was anything but a certainty given the freshness of Romain Grosjean’s tyres in comparison to his own. Yes, Vettel was still running competitive laptimes, but the overriding feeling is that Grosjean would have taken the position regardless.
Pirelli insists that a one-stop strategy at Spa was risky. But their post-race media strategy of releasing a statement highlighting that they had requested two years ago to have a mandated maximum percentage of a race run on each type of tyre, seemed an odd route to take. It took the focus of the story too far away from the case in point and that, in Pirelli’s opinion, Vettel’s failure was down the fact that the team had taken a gamble on tyre wear and it had not paid off. To pretend that this is somehow a new phenomenon or something unique to Pirelli would be disingenuous. Vettel’s Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen can tell him all about pushing tyres beyond their lifespan. His badly flat-spotted Michelin front right eventually lost pressure and caused suspension failure on the last lap of the 2005 European Grand Prix. A race he was leading. Just a few years ago one might remember only too well Bridgestone’s issues with tyre failures after they began “chunking” and the belts tore away from the carcass.
Sunday was not the first and won’t be the last time we see a tyre fail when pushed beyond its limits.
Ferrari insists their strategy was not risky. Vettel has now made his own statement to also say that his team’s strategy “was never risky, at any point. The Team is not to blame.” This, in spite of the fact that 13 laps before his tyre blew he had radioed the team and told them to think about making another stop.
But if we accept that the team is not to blame, and given that nobody else encountered a similar issue in the race, one might ascertain that the fault must therefore lie with Vettel himself. Because if it is not the tyres and it is not the team, the apportioning of blame has few other avenues.
Vettel repeatedly exceeded track limits at Raidillon, running all four wheels past the white line and pushing his tyres over the kerbing at the top of the hill. What can be in no question is that moments after running all four wheels off track, and his rear right riding the edge of the kerbs, the tyre surface began to let go on the precise outside section which moments earlier had been riding the angled top edge of the kerbs.
Vettel insists he respected track limits. Visual evidence belies this.
Perhaps though it is not Vettel who should take the blame for the tyre failure. If we conclude that, while perhaps not being the sole cause of the failure, running over the kerbs and outside track limits did not help maintain the integrity of tyres that were 27 laps old, it follows that those who permitted Vettel to run outside track limits must also accept their share of culpability.
On arrival in Belgium for 2015, a new kerb had been placed on the inside of Raidillon. In Friday practice it was well respected by all the drivers as riding it would have caused massive instability precisely at the point where a driver needs the greatest control of his car. And yet on Saturday the kerb was removed, reportedly because of some incidents in which cars were launched in the GP3 practices session. But these incidents were caused by the white bump kerbs perpendicular to the track, not the orange sausage kerb that was removed. The kerb in question was, it now seems apparent, removed due to concerns that should anybody make a mistake through Eau Rouge and into Raidillon in the wet, the kerb could act as a launch pad.
And yet the weather forecast for the weekend was bright sunshine, with no chance of rain until 17:10 on Sunday. Ubimet was wrong. The rain arrived at 17:20.
So the kerb was removed and drivers’ lines through Raidillon instantly changed. An FIA statement was released on Saturday morning which said that track limits would still be monitored, but that “a report will only be made to the stewards if a driver has exceeded the track limits (principally but not limited to the areas behind the kerbs in Turns 4 [Eau Rouge] and 15 [Stavelot]), and is suspected of gaining an advantage.”
Yet what we saw through qualifying and repeatedly during the race was drivers seemingly cutting that very corner. Why, then, was nobody penalised? Why were drivers repeatedly allowed to exceed track limits without being taken to task for it?
The problem lies in the fact that Charlie Whiting and the FIA have only one means of policing track limits, and that is via the third paragraph of Article 20.2 of the Sporting Regulations. That paragraph features the caveat that in order to be judged to have broken the rules for exceeding track limits, a “lasting advantage” needs to have been gained.
Kimi Raikkonen cut the very corner in question three years ago in qualifying, but the data as seen by the stewards said that no advantage had been gained. Indeed, it showed that running all four wheels off track had actually slowed him.
It is important to recognise that the stewards have far more information at their disposal than you or I. Our track timing is split into three sectors. The stewards have timing loops every 100 metres. They can trace velocity, entry and exit speed and are privy to enough real time information to make an instant and informed call. They saw no advantage had been gained.
In the race itself, again, no penalties were handed out and we only heard one warning message being broadcast, that to Dany Kvyat. But from a television perspective, we saw repeat offenders at Raidillon and, to a lesser extent, at Stavelot.
Why were they not punished? If one looks at the wording of the regulation it would follow that in all likelihood nobody was reported and no penalties were handed out because no “lasting advantage” was gained. But it is possible to argue that if the majority of drivers cut the corner in question, then each would have been advantaged or disadvantaged to the same extent and so it follows that no advantage would have been gained. But that doesn’t mean that exceeding the track limits is right.
Quite simply, it appears that the FIA has fallen back into the old argumentum ad populum which it employed in July of 2014 when it was widely understood that the reason Kimi Raikkonen had not been punished for his re-entry of the track on lap 1 at Silverstone was because the governing body believed that any other driver would have rejoined the track in the same manner. In other words, if everyone is doing something then it becomes acceptable.
And this is something I cannot and have never been able to accept.
To me, it falls down to the fact that Charlie and the FIA should have been far stronger, far earlier.
Of course, the great irony is that track limits are only able to be exceeded at all because of the sport’s constant drive towards greater safety. If gravel or grass still existed on either side of the track through Eau Rouge and Raidillon, nobody would dare to cut the corner. Were this so, the challenge of the corner might revert to its old majesty but then so too would its inherent specter of danger. It is thus a tough balancing act.
Would Max Verstappen have dared to put his wheels on the grass in passing Felipe Nasr around the outside of Blanchimont, or was that incredible move only possible because of the additional asphalt? He only had two wheels off at that point and so was theoretically “within” track limits, but on exit he placed all four over the white line to take to the kerbs. Indeed, did he only avoid punishment because the Sauber pitted at the end of the lap and thus any “lasting advantage” of the Dutchman’s move was impossible to verify?
Verstappen was, of course, reported to the stewards for his move on Valtteri Bottas at Les Combes given that, in the midst of his passing move, he slid wide and put all four wheels off track. But again, possibly because he was already past at his point of leaving the track, it was considered that no advantage had been gained. A few years ago in Hungary, Romain Grosjean was not so fortunate and was reported and penalised for passing Felipe Massa around the outside of Turn 4 because he had exceeded track limits on corner exit.
Grosjean’s move on Massa all those years ago in Hungary, just as Verstappen’s on Nasr at Blanichimont on Sunday, was one of the moves of the race. Gutsy as hell. But, if we are sticking to the letter of the law, it was only possible because he exceeded track limits.
As such the policing of track limits is a very difficult line to walk. Do we want to stop these kind of great, daring moves? Do we stand by the black and white position that track limits are track limits? For if we are dismayed by what the drivers were doing through Raidillon, how do we balance that with our excitement at what Verstappen did at Blanchimont?
Both current and former drivers have suggested that a few metres of grass either side of the track should be enough to keep drivers inside track limits. Put as many miles of asphalt as you want between that grass strip and the barriers. Perhaps this is something the FIA should start to give greater thought to. But the problem is that tracks cannot simply alter their run-off depending on which championship is racing that weekend, and two-wheeled racing these days requires the extensive run-off areas which have so blighted the challenge of the Eau Rouges and Parabolicas of the world.
A “Hawkeye” style system is one suggestion that has been raised, along with the concept of a three-strikes policy for drivers exceeding track limits. Note that there is no mention here of gaining an advantage. It would simply be for going all four over the white lines.
With Sebastian Vettel claiming his tyre failure could have led to a serious accident there is, perhaps, more at stake here than the simple concept of advantages and discipline. One can maintain the actual racing surface in adequate racing condition, but once one leaves the confines of the outlined racing track, one finds oneself in the unknown. We know that drivers will seek out any advantage they can. They’re racing drivers. But we saw in Belgium that drivers pushing outside the prescribed limits of the track could, arguably, add an unpredictable variable into the safety debate.
The track limits argument is one which requires resolution. The long and the short of it is that the regulation, as it stands, is unfit for purpose.
Formula 1 drivers are supposed to be the best in the world. They are supposed to set the example to junior formulae. And yet while junior drivers are penalised for exceeding track limits, F1 drivers are increasingly getting away with sloppy discipline because of the wording of a regulation.
Police it, or change it. Because if Spa showed us anything, it’s that it isn’t working.