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Track limits – threading a needle

If a Formula 1 fan had to pick one onboard footage of a lap of any track in a Formula One car, it is reasonable to assume that it is going to belong to one of the greats – Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and in modern times, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. One of the joys of a racing fan is being able to appreciate a driver who is at one with the car at legendary tracks like Suzuka (Japanese GP), Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps (Belgian GP), Silverstone (British GP) or Circuit de Monaco (Monaco GP).

The driver is a master and the car, a loyal beast that does exactly what the driver expects it to. A sixth sense of where, when and how to push the buttons (pun intended). A quick sift through these videos would reveal a common thread that ties all of these great laps together – precision. The intricacies of Monaco and Suzuka’s sector one demand a surgeon’s precision – the hands on the wheel, the legs on the pedals and the mind working together in smooth, artful harmony, something that’s hard to replicate even on a PlayStation track! In these tracks, precision is a “must-have”, since anything short of Zen-like focus is going to punish you. It is also entirely reasonable to attribute some of the beauty in these laps to the demanding track configuration itself, earning the above-mentioned tracks a cult status among fans and drivers.

Let’s face it, nobody is going to fall in love with onboard footage of cars lapping vanilla tracks such as Sochi or Abu Dhabi; they just do not elicit the same skill level and hence fail glaringly to evoke that same emotion. Nonetheless, “punishment-free” corners where a driver can cross the track limits and gain time has rightly come under the microscope in recent years. As a fan, I think these incidents go against the very essence of professional racing, precision, and are more reminiscent of arcade racing where the computer is too naïve to penalize you for it!

Racing drivers are greedy, lap time-hungry animals and aren’t shy of cutting a few corners (pun intended, I’ll stop with this) in the process. While many elite drivers like Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso claim to be purists (through their hate for the hybrid V6s and teary-eyed nostalgia for the V12 beasts), it will never cross their minds that exceeding track limits is a cardinal sin once their visors are down.

In a competitive environment, it is hard to apportion blame on the drivers. If one exceeds limits, gains time and the stewards turn a blind eye, expect everyone to blissfully follow suit. The blame squarely lies with the FIA and the stewards for these abberations. My argument against track limits is this: when everything in a professional driver’s life revolves around discipline and sacrifice – the diets, the hours spent in training and mental preparation, it seems absurd that they can throw that discipline away when it comes to doing their actual job!

If Formula One is the pinnacle, this has to stop now. The higher down-force levels and durable rubber in 2017 should help alleviate the problem in theory; the higher grip levels and increased cornering speeds may mean that the drivers do not have to go the extra mile (seriously, the last pun) to gain lap-time. The pro-racing moves to clamp down on unnecessary penalties is a welcome direction but the policing of track limits has to intensify so that clear precedents are set to deter drivers from exceeding limits. The installation of track limit sensors on all the corners is a monumental exercise that wastes time and money. Nothing like a harsh precedent to send the message home. Often, the track limit violation is glaringly obvious for commentators and the TV audience and I bet you will be able to pick a few excursions at the next race.

The best deterrent of all has to be gravel traps; a DNF due to a beached car is going to haunt the driver for days (sorry if I am sadistic) and nothing teaches a better lesson than a driver mistake that then becomes the focus of the media. It actively promotes more precise driving and is another element that “separates the men from the boys”. Also, I bet gravel is a whole lot cheaper than installing sensors and makes for a sustainable, long-term solution.

By Sachin Seshadri

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