Off the right track

One of my periodic F1 rants is coming up. Don’t feel you have to read on, I won’t be offended.

Even if you don’t follow F1, it will have been hard for you to escape the fact that there was a controversial crash involving Lewis Hamilton right at the end of the last Grand Prix – the one in Valencia. Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado – yes, that’s the same one everyone was praising two months ago for driving a mature race, ran into the side of the 2008 World Champion, the resulting collision forcing Lewis into retirement.

What irked me was not that Maldonado was trying one of his trademark over-aggressive moves, nor was it that Hamilton was trying to defend when he was clearly going to be passed on the next straight bit of tarmac. No, what boiled my piss was the fact that the whole incident happened because someone was driving off the track. Or, to be correct, someone forced someone else off the track, and that someone else was able to rejoin the race shortly after at a high speed.

Racetrack: a ground or track for horse and dog racing; a track for auto racing. That’s what the dictionary on my computer says when I type it in. Because cars are not horses or dogs, the key element here is the word ‘track’. It’s the place on which the racing takes place. Not the surrounding environs. Think about train tracks for comparison. When we talk about trains running on the railway track, we implicitly refer to them running on the rails and the rails only. It would be more than a little silly if we conceived of a world in which the trains were cruising along the platforms or the embankments.

Demonstrating ‘off the track’ with the aid of an old Gran Turismo 4 screenshot

By the same token, then, in my book at least the racetrack – the bit on which the race takes place – does not include the areas at the side of the track, the run-offs at the end of the straights, or the insides of chicanes. And yet increasingly over the last few years, it seems to be becoming perfectly acceptable to run wide on corners if you’re carrying too much speed, drive across the tar if you get your line for a corner, or use the boundaries of the rumble strips to complete an overtaking manoeuvre. Even more irritating is the tendency to run other competitors off the track as a defensive tactic because, after all, all there is out there is more friendly tarmac.

A lot of this can be explained by the design of the new Formula 1 circuits, all of which – as you’ll probably have gathered – feature vast expanses of tarmac stretching far beyond the two white lines that delineate the area on which the race is supposed to take place. Part of this is to allow different configurations for different racing categories (for example, big fat Grand Tourers don’t need chicanes to slow them down as much), and part of it is a safety thing, in that a big expanse of asphalt is far, far more forgiving than a wall if you get something wrong.

At about this stage, all of my rants feature a ‘don’t get me wrong’ clause, and this one is no exception. I’m not suggesting that we build concrete walls where all the NCP car parks at the edge of Hermann Tilke’s hairpins are, because from time to time (thankfully getting rarer year on year) people have mechanical failures and find themselves with no way of stopping. I am no civil engineer, but if it turns out that tarmac run-off areas are the safest way of stopping wayward cars, then we should absolutely, definitely keep them.

What is perhaps required, then, is more incentive to stay on the track – and greater disincentive to force others off the track. Where safety is not an issue, such as at the sides of straights, I’d like to see more grass or even astroturf if the circuit needs to be used for something else during the year. That way, if you temporarily go off the straight to try to pass someone, you take your chances. Vettel and Kobayashi (who else) both did that last year and made it work, at Monza and Istanbul respectively (interestingly in both cases passing Schumacher).

Other than that, I’d like to see much stricter penalties for leaving the circuit unless under duress, even if it does not save one time. PlayStation games aren’t a good analogue for real life, but the course out concept from Gran Turismo would port over well to F1 in my view. Likewise, unless you’re Michael Schumacher or me at karting you wouldn’t force someone towards a wall, so why force them off the course and get off lightly because your opponent didn’t lose speed?

As Sir Jackie Stewart said in Abu Dhabi last year, good drivers should be able to stay on the track, and there should be absolutely no excuse for going off the course in normal circumstances. Alternatively, we could fit the cars with roll-cages, beefed-up suspension and chunky tyres, and let them race along a much more loosely-defined course driving on whatever combination of surfaces they deem most appropriate. Now that’s a good idea for a sport…

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