The big question to arise in the aftermath of the recent Mexican Grand Prix is: how to prevent drivers from straying off track after making a mistake in a corner without any consequences.
The rot started on lap one, when pole winner Lewis Hamilton braked too late into Turn 1, to prevent himslef from spinning he simply took to the grass, missed Turn 2 altogether and rejoined the track with a greater advantage over his rivals behind him.
His Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg did the same thing with Max Verstappen beside him as they exited the first turn. Neither Mercedes drivers were penalised for their transgressions and finished the race first and second respectively.
Much later in the race Red Bull’s Verstappen did pretty much the same thing while dueling for third place with Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel. Race stewards slapped the teenager with a five seconds penalty for the move which was almost a carbon copy of what the Mercedes duo done.
Interestingly, prior to the race at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone suggested that walls made for a very good deterrent for drivers needing to stray off track to save an over-eager move or an ambitious lap time.
Needless to say the incidents in Mexico have created a debate regarding how best to prevent drivers surviving an off track excursion without any consequences. In other words mistakes should be punished and by no means should a mistake become an advantage is the obvious consensus.
Ecclestone’s wall solution is one extreme of the spectrum which indeed works on street circuits. At Monaco earlier this year, Verstappen cut through the chicane (behind the Piscine) got airborne and lost traction and slammed the barriers exiting Turn 16.
Street circuits tend to be mean that way. Little chance to escape a mistake without suffering the consequences.
But not all grand prix circuits are street based, so what is the solution for permanent racing venues?
Juan Pablo Montoya enjoyed a high profile weekend in Mexico and during it he was asked his opinion regarding the track cutting saga.
The former F1 driver proposed, “Build a gravel bed and the debates ends.”
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo agrees, “I’m a fan of gravel. Because it punishes you, even if you do not get stuck. You then have stones on the tyre or in the coolers. This eliminates the advantage that the shortcut or the faster line [off-track] might bring you.”
Ricciardo was not happy after seeing his teammate and both Silver Arrows drivers taking advantage of the Turn 1 shortcut.
He said one the radio after the race, “What about all these guys out-braking themselves at the first chicane? I mean Lewis at the start and Max the same. Put a f*cking wall there and they will not do it. That’s bullshit guys. F*cking kindergarten stuff.”
After the race Ricciardo said of Hamilton’s first lap excursion, “If that was not an advantage then I do not know. If there is no punishment for it, everyone does it.”
Although gravel seems to be a logical solution, the FIA is not keen to explore this option for safety reasons. As soon as a n F1 car travels at speed over gravel it can dig in and a s result flip, cart-wheel or barrel roll.
Fernando Alonso’s accident during the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne was an example of what happens when an out of control car hits a gravel trap at high speed.
Nico Hülkenberg suggests that they “could also build a narrow lane of cones in the run-off area, as in Monza at the first chicane. If you go straight you have to weave you way through and you lose time appropriately.”
Track cutting prevention is a debate which will rage as long as nothing is in place to discourage drivers from doing so, because policing of transgressors by race stewards is clearly not working and inconsistent which only launches a myriad of conspiracy theories and harms the credibility of the sport.
Personally I would put down gravel at corners or areas where off track jaunts are discouraged and have repercussions. Sure it is dangerous but let’s face it motor racing is dangerous – it says so on the stickers – and why should walls be okay for some tracks such as Monaco, Motreal, Baku etc and gravel ok for the likes of Melbourne, Bahrain, Barcelona etc but not for others?
In the end this is a sporting matter which is the realm of FIA, so all there is to say is: over to you Mr Jean Todt…
Inside Line Opinion by Paul Velasco