The 2023 Austrian Grand Prix will be remembered for its chaotic track limit violations. By the time the stewards had finally caught up on every potential violation of track limits… there were 1,200 reviewable incidents, 83 lap times deleted for violations of Turns 9 and 10, 20 penalties for track limits, 12 of them being published five hours after the race had originally finished and only two drivers – Zhou Guanyu and George Russell, that went the entire weekend without a single lap time deleted.
But how did the Austrian GP descend into a farce over how F1’s track limits are policed?
In the not-so-distant past, when Charlie Whiting was F1’s Race Director, track limits were policed with a light touch, with Race Direction giving drivers warnings for when they strayed off track too much – and drivers usually only judged to be outside of track limits if they failed to keep any part of any wheel on the outside kerb. But as tracks have evolved to have more asphalt runoffs, inviting drivers to exploit the “limits” of the track, and more frequent complaints about doing so, the FIA has had to evolve its own approach to be more draconian and more consistent.
For example, during the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, the first round of the infamous Hamilton vs Verstappen feud, track limits at Turn 4 came into question as the outside of the track was leading to lap times being deleted in qualifying, but not the race. Lewis Hamilton kept extending the corner (which he was legally allowed to do), which led to Red Bull telling Verstappen to “take the qualifying line”, only for then-race director Michael Masi to change his mind on the fly and tell Mercedes to stop extending, leading to complaints from all parties over the erratic policing of track limits.
Since then, a more consistent approach has been taken. The white line before the kerbs on the outside of the track is now deemed the “limit”, and if all four wheels of a car are outside of it, the driver is considered to be in violation of track limits.
It’s a clear and valid system… but in Austria, it breeds issues. Turns 9 and 10 at the Red Bull Ring are corners that have massive potential to gain lap time if you’re willing to risk drifting over the line. And racing drivers being racing drivers… did exactly that.
There were so many reviewable incidents in regard to track limits that the FIA’s usual monitoring of the system was overwhelmed and couldn’t handle the number of incidents that came in. So much so that Aston Martin sporting director Andy Stevenson lodged a formal protest of the original result, thinking that many potential violations had been missed by the system.
Aston Martin was right, and with the stewards being duty-bound to check everything that happened, had to go back and manually review over 1,200 backlogged incidents. Five hours after the race was over, we finally got the final classification, with twelve more penalties added, including Esteban Ocon breaking his own record (set in Bahrain earlier this season) for the most penalties in a race. He copped four of them, and thirty seconds was added to his race time.
In fact, there were so many violations that the stewards actually used their discretion and reset the number of violations after five to ensure more severe penalties weren’t handed out. The stewards ended their night of reviews with a cheeky yet ominous turn of phrase:
“The stewards very strongly recommend that a solution be found to the track limits situation at this circuit.”
So what can be done about it? Many drivers and fans have called for a “hard limit” like gravel or grass to be (re)laid on the outside of the track to stop drivers from overstepping the line. But that comes with its own set of problems. Most racing circuits host multiple series over a year and making major alterations to their tracks might be dangerous.
For example, adding gravel to Austria’s Turn 10 could make their MotoGP races more dangerous as gravel tends to flip riders and bikes over more frequently, increasing the risk of injury. The extra upkeep and use of resources during events like track days could also be more expensive financially.
Yuki Tsunoda gave some great insight as to what might help, suggesting some kind of serrated or raised kerb on the outside of corners would help drivers better judge the limit:
“I think kerbs are easier. At least with kerbs, you feel first from the outside wheel with the vibration that it’s track limits. With the white line, you don’t feel any vibration, you just have to adjust it from entry. At least if you have a kerb there’s a bit of warning just before you go out completely with four wheels so kerb is probably easier.”
And when Max Verstappen, the dominant Championship leader is telling journalists in frustration: “You take my car and try it!” after getting pinged for track limits during Friday’s qualifying session in Austria, it’s pretty clear that it’s not as simple as we as an audience may think to keep an F1 car within the white lines.
In any case, with Austria’s growing nickname as the “Track Limits GP”, this will be a debate that will rumble on for some time.
Do you think F1 needs a rethink on track limits? Should gravel be added closer to the edge of the track? Let us know in the comments and if you liked the video, be sure to Subscribe!