If the Mexican Grand Prix showed us one thing, it is that as we approach the end of the 2016 Formula 1 season and prepare to shoot the supposed silver bullet of a technical regulation overhaul designed, as always, to “improve the show,” the sport finds itself at a moral and regulatory crossroads.
The fight is one between over regulation and a laissez-faire attitude towards the rules of racing, and falls particularly into two categories: track limits and what Mercedes earlier this season termed “the rules of engagement.” There is no easy answer to the question of how one deals with either, for both sides of both arguments have merit. But choose the sport must. And choose it must soon.
Track limits has been a bugbear of the sport for many years. Of course, it is a problem which never used to exist. You had a racetrack, you had a painted white line on the side of it and then you had grass. Or dirt. In some places you had kerbs but they tended to knock your fillings out or be so high that they’d rip your suspension off so driving on them wasn’t advisable.
Gravel traps came and disappeared, at first deemed to be a safety measure and then too dangerous in places. In a bid to make the sport ever safer, run off became de rigeur. Get it wrong and you can still get it back seemed to be the overarching philosophy. Fans want to see their heroes competing, after all, not finishing a race in the kitty litter. Kerbs were flattened.
Run off became an extension of the track. Rules about having “all four off” had to be invented. Because racing drivers will take the shortest and fastest route possible.
Bernie Ecclestone hit the headlines in Mexico for claiming that we should put walls up around the tracks. While the safety lobby got up in arms, nobody with any common sense could take the suggestion at all seriously. But the intention behind Bernie’s comments was and is sound and is agreed upon by every driver I’ve ever met. There needs to be a punishment for going off track. Be it losing time or going home, exceeding track limits requires a punishment.
These are, as we keep being told, the best drivers in the world. Part of the allure is watching them dance a car around a complex racetrack. Straight lining corners does not a hero make.
Case in point was Turns 1 and 2, lap 1 in Mexico. If you have a gravel trap in that vast swathe of grass at Turn 1, neither Mercedes makes it to Turn 3.
Hamilton was too late on the brakes, had to get off them to avoid a flatspot, but rather than attempting to make the corner simply playstationed it across the grass. Rosberg makes the corner but in a side-by-side with Verstappen bangs wheels and is knocked off track. The overhead then showed us something a bit naughty. He goes to return to the track, turning right towards the asphalt. Knowing at this point that he will likely have to pull in behind Verstappen and likely also be overtaken by Hulkenberg, instead he makes no effort to make T2, instead turning left, gunning the throttle and maintaining his position.
It was all too easy to say that he was banged off track by Verstappen and thus shouldn’t have been penalised. The reality is that he was moving back to the track, but decided better of it in order to keep position.
That’s both Mercedes drivers opting to take to the grass. That’s the first two guys on the grid deciding that their race is better suited by avoiding a corner than actually taking it.
That the Safety Car came out and bunched the field, thus negating any “lasting advantage,” critically the words within the regulations that must be fulfilled in order for exceeding track limits to be punished, means both Hamilton and Rosberg got away with cutting a corner. But should they have been able to?
Of course the same thing happened with Verstappen later in the race. He’d got it wrong in his attempted pass on Rosberg earlier in the race and his sideways moment trying to keep the car on track was the sort of thing we all want to see. Him cutting the corner to keep position in his fight with Vettel was not. And the call for him to give the place back is something that has become a necessary evil.
Earlier this season there was a suggestion from the likes of Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, men whose judgements I usually admire and agree with, that we simply do away with track limits and let the drivers go to town. But then, what is the point in marking out a racing circuit?
The sweepers at Austin? Screw it, just straight line them. St Devote at Monaco? Well actually if you double back there, then you hit the access road that takes you to Tabac so you might as well just do the Formula E track. Imagine if we were still racing at Indianapolis. No track limits? Sod the infield guys, I’m just going to drive the oval.
Yes that’s extreme and of course not at all realistic, but the idea of getting rid of track limits just doesn’t sit well with me.
But then we have a problem. Because while I want to see track limits enforced, what do we do about truly great overtaking battles, drivers on the limit, where one is edged a touch wide but makes the move stick despite having all four off? Verstappen on Nasr in Spa last year was, to the letter of the law, illegal. But it was a damn fine move.
That’s your problem. Because if you want to be a stickler for the rules, you can’t then just let them go when it suits you.
If running one wheel, let alone four, off track is punishment in itself due to the potential to lose time, then one does not need to regulate for exceeding track limits. And so the only solution here seems to be to completely change the current trend of creating run off and kerbing around every corner of every track. Asphalt, a white painted line and grass / dirt is all you need. But the cost of retrograding every F1 circuit would be vast. And therefore unlikely.
And so we will have to come up with a stringent set of rules and stick to them.
The same seems to be true in the art of racing and defending, or what Mercedes referred to as “the rules of engagement.”
Max Verstappen has been much maligned this season for the tactics he employs in his defense of position. Made possible by his deft touch on the brakes and a car in the Red Bull which you can stick on its nose and stop on a dime, I’ve been in Verstappen’s corner for the vast majority of what have been seen as questionable manoeuvres. For the most part of the season, so were many of the drivers. The trick was that Verstappen wasn’t actually doing anything illegal. But it was a bit naughty.
That the FIA clarified (and it’s crucial here we note it was a clarification rather than an actual new rule) the regulation for acceptable driving in the braking zone in defense of a position, came after much lobbying from, amongst others, Sebastian Vettel. Nobody had much of an issue with the clarification because, of course, the rules hadn’t actually changed. But it meant that defensive driving was now a hot topic and flashing bright and clear on race stewards’ radars. Ironically it would be Vettel himself who would be the first driver to suffer under the new hard line policies his own lobbying had created.
He and Ferrari cried foul, a race result taken away from them by bureaucracy. Of course it was that very same bureaucracy over track limits which had handed them a podium in the first place. The same bureaucracy over the strict regulation of racing etiquette which they had pushed for in the wake of the “Verstappen chop.” Ironic, yes, but as a purist it is immensely sad, too.
How hard can a driver defend? How hard can a driver attack? How much of the trailing car needs to be alongside the leading car in order for the car behind to have a right to be given space? And how much space? Precisely what percentage of a car needs to be alongside for a door to be left open? And when we say open do we mean wide open or just ajar? If a driver makes the move stick but has all four wheels off the track does he have to give the position back? And if so should it be done immediately? What if it the position is given back before a DRS detection point, meaning the driver then has an advantage to take the position straight back again under DRS?
It’s all become so clinical and methodical and cold. Where’s the excitement in coming up with a scientific formula as to what creates an acceptable overtaking move?
The sport needs to think long and hard over the winter about how it deals with these problems. In over regulating the means by which a driver can race, you threaten to neuter the sport. In investigating every overtaking move you take away the joy and the excitement. Racing should be hard, it should be on the edge. No it shouldn’t be dangerous, but it shouldn’t be easy either. Why can’t drivers bang wheels? Why can’t bargeboards go flying? Why can’t a driver overtake another on the grass, where he should theoretically be losing time and going slower?
But then by that same token, if you under regulate the sport, you threaten to create chaos. Why can’t the best of the best stay within the lines? Why can’t they ply their trade and play their sport within the confines of the playable surface? Why can’t the best of the best execute a move for position without reverting to knocking the other guy off the track?
There is no easy solution because you can see the arguments from both sides. And both have merit.
Ultimately the key here is consistency, clarity and certainty.
The overriding feeling after the Mexican Grand Prix was one of disappointment. It was all just such a messy, unsatisfactory end.
Nobody wants to see races decided in the stewards’ office. Nobody wants to see great racing penalised. But nobody wants to see rules flouted and liberties taken.
Is this Formula 1’s impossible question? I hope not. Because the ramifications for our enjoyment of the sport are vast.