Prompted by this month’s issue of the UK’s MSA News which has an article on page 7 explaining the new rules on track limits. Now while this change only applies to races held under the UK Motor Sport Association rules, and therefore won’t affect Formula 1, I wondered how we had come to the current state of affairs, where drivers have to be punished for driving outside the confines of the racing circuit.
When motoring started there were obviously no motor racing circuits, and so the first races were city to city events on public roads which weren’t even closed to normal traffic, and many of the people that the events passed were unused to cars and the speed at which they approached. In Great Britain the law banned traffic from exceeding 20 mph, and it was not possible to close public roads to hold races, so events were limited to the Isle of Man (using the first iteration of the TT course) or in Ireland, where the local government allowed the roads to be closed.
In 1907 the world’s first purpose built motor racing circuit was built near Weybridge in Surrey. Brooklands had banked corners, and unlike the oval courses that were soon to be built in the USA, there were no grandstands on the outside of the bends. The circuit had no fences to stop spectators wandering onto the track, and if you went too high on the banking the car just went over the edge. A similar approach existed on other European banked circuits (Avus, Sitges Terramar, Monza etc.).
Post the second World War, and with the start of the Formula 1 World Championship, there were a lot of abandoned airfields in the UK, and these were converted into racing circuits by enthusiastic motor clubs. At the very first F1 race at Silverstone, the circuit apexes were marked by straw bales, and to separate the crowd from the track there was a single rope held on posts three feet off the ground. By 1955 the straw bales had been replaced by 5 gallon oil drums filled with concrete, with the spectators now safely behind a wicker fence.
Elsewhere corner apexes may be marked by tyres half buried in the ground, or by very steep kerbs. On street circuits (Monaco) or road courses (Spa) the only additional barriers put up were to prevent spectators wandering onto the track. Cars running wide would either hit something very solid, or nothing at all as they fell into a hole. Drivers had to keep the car on the track because to do otherwise would do more than ruin their race. Nothing really changed until the late 1960’s when Jackie Stewart tried to get the drivers interested in their own safety. At this time Armco barriers started to appear around circuits. During the 1970’s tyre barriers were first used in front of the Armco to help absorb the impact, and also catch fencing started to appear. This worked by slowing the car down as it came off the track by getting caught in a series of weak fences that were designed to fracture on impact. Effectively the driver had a series of smaller impacts rather than one big one. Unfortunately it was a one shot system, once one car had crashed through it, it was ineffective for the next one.
Do during the 1980’s gravel traps started to appear, these worked by virtue of the car building up a bow wave of gravel in front of them to slow them down when they came off the track. Cars that went off in this way were often eliminated from the race even though there was minimal damage as it had been stopped before reaching the barrier. The deep gravel was impossible to drive through if it was to do its job effectively. As time went on however some gravel traps became so compacted that F1 car were able to dive over them with apparent ease, Michael Schumacher making a habit of determining where the nearest solid ground was to every gravel trap before the race weekend started, in that way if he found himself heading for one he already knew which was would offer him the best chance of re-joining the race.
What signalled the end of gravel traps were a few high profile accidents where cars either dug in and flipped over burying their roll hoops in the gravel or skipped over the compacted gravel trap at barely reduced speed (Schumacher Silverstone 1999). The FIA then looked at alternatives for the run off areas. Experiments at Paul Ricard with high friction tarmac proved effective, and so many of the previous gravel traps have been replaced with acres of car park between the track and the spectators. This is undoubtedly safer for all concerned, and cars no longer retire after becoming beached following a driver error and so can be considered a good thing.
Along with the changes in the run off areas around the track, changes have also been made to the devices used to mark out the racing circuit. Gone are the straw bales, oil drums and half buried tyres and they have been replaced with wide low kerbs, these are often mandated by the other racing series that also share the circuits with F1. Silverstone for example was redeveloped to suit Moto GP (when it was thought that the British GP was heading to Donnington Park). The drivers often find that it is quicker to run completely over the kerbs putting them in the situation we had at Silverstone last year where the tyre sidewalls were running against the back of the kerb and contributing to the issues Pirelli had that day. The end result is that there is now no natural penalty for a driver running outside of the defined race circuit (which is defined by the white lines running around the edge of the track), and so if there is a time advantage to running off the track then all racing drivers will take the faster line. We are now left with the race stewards trying to penalise drivers for ‘offences’ that in the past would have been detrimental to their lap time or ability to finish the race.
In my opinion this is not what the stewards should be doing, there are more serious driving standards issues that they should be concentrating on (deliberate contact for example). Instead, I would like to see circuit design address the issue. If drivers go off the race circuit, there should be a ‘natural’ penalty; it should be possible for a driver to have a faster lap time by diving off the circuit than staying on it. Perhaps once again some research could be undertaken at Paul Ricard to find out how to make this possible without reducing the safety of the run off areas?
What do you think, should F1 adopt the UK rules or change the circuit design, or perhaps you are content with the status quo?