Watching Lewis Hamilton track down Max Verstappen in the final laps of the United States Grand Prix was a somewhat confrontational experience.
Of course, the prospect of the two world championship contenders getting stuck in each other again is terribly exciting. But it was tinged with some trepidation, and not just because the pair have already had two spectacular and potentially dangerous entanglements this year.
If Hamilton had had a little more tire life on Sunday, or a little more luck with the traffic, we might have seen one of his last brakemen rushing to victory. Or maybe Verstappen would have pulled off another of his breathtaking and tenacious defenses, keeping a nose ahead of his rival even when his position seems untenable.
But based on what had happened before in the race, a much less satisfactory result seems more likely. The couple would have entered a bend, one would have left the track and joined the front, then they were told to let the other pass.
This is not how the struggles for position should be resolved. Especially when it comes to the two best drivers of the day fighting for the world championship. Yet this constantly happens on tracks like the Circuit of the Americas where the boundaries are defined by lines painted on the asphalt instead of grass, gravel, and other physical deterrents.
Earlier in the race we saw Carlos Sainz Jnr keep Lando Norris behind him on the first lap as he pulled away from turn 12. It took six laps for race control to decide that Sainz had illegally held position and ordered him to give back (which happened in a movement that was not broadcast on the global stream, further confusing those trying to follow the debates).
Sainz wouldn’t have had the chance to run wide to maintain his position if there had been a gravel trap at the edge of Turn 12 instead of the asphalt. Fernando Alonso or Antonio Giovinazzi could not have done the same in the same turn later in the race either.
Faced with the possibility of being overtaken by a rival, any driver will choose the alternative of leaving the track, staying in the lead and leaving it to the race director to decide who deserves the place. This option should be removed if possible.
COTA is a fabulous track which both challenges the drivers and offers a margin of overtaking. But the ease with which drivers can run far and gain the advantage is a drawback that has not been successfully addressed in F1’s 10 years of racing.
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Track limits were a constant bone of contention last weekend, prompting rule revisions resulting in a confusing and inconsistent set of policies.
The usual advice from previous seasons about not running far at the usual hot spots of Turns nine and 19 has been put in place. Additionally, starting on Saturday, drivers received additional instructions not to cut the inside of turn six. Unlike the other two turns, the limit was not the edge of the track but the edge of the curb further inside. It wasn’t the end of the changes either.
Over the weekend, F1 drivers lost 81 lap times for violation of track limits. Three drivers were awarded the black and white flag during the race for having raced several times. The race management had to order several drivers to give up the places gained off track during the race.
Fernando Alonso claimed – not for the first time this year – that other drivers have gained places by starting at the first corner at the start. He also insisted that Kimi Raikkonen made it in the 16th round.
Raikkonen undoubtedly went off the track on the occasion, having been dismissed by Alonso. Whether the Alpine rider was ahead of his rival and therefore allowed to overtake him was not entirely clear from the reruns aired on the Global Stream. FIA F1 race director Michael Masi called the appeal decision “marginal”.
Another change to the track boundary rules on Sunday morning was a factor in this incident. Several âsausage edgesâ at the exit of the turn were removed, following incidents during support races where cars had struck them and partially thrown into the air.
âThese borders have been there for quite some time,â Masi explained, âthese borders have actually been there for a number of years. But based on what we saw, we made the decision to remove them to that time and we obviously always kept the runway limit elements that we had there. â
The Alonso-Raikkonen line might not have happened if these physical limits had remained in place. Masi said F1 tries to present them where possible, but is not concerned about the incidents that have taken place at COTA.
“I don’t think there has been too much talk here this weekend,” Masi said after the race. âIf we take a look at it, we had three drivers during the race who received a black and white flag for their ‘three hits’ scenario during the race. And it was controlled the same way we have been doing it all year round. So no, I don’t think it’s a hot topic at all.
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âThe riders will always try to push the limits wherever that limit is. But yes, as we have said many times, we try to find more natural solutions in as many places as possible, but it is not an overnight solution.
The Circuit of the Americas has seen track boundary disputes in the past, most notably in 2017 when Max Verstappen was penalized for cutting the inside of a corner to pass Kimi Raikkonen. He thus lost his podium.
When F1 returned 12 months later, Verstappen’s wedge cut was changed to prevent anyone from doing the same. It was a step in the right direction, but it shows that F1 tends to act reactively when it comes to the limits of the track.
This was the case at the next event on the calendar, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez from Mexico. Its 2015 remodel left plenty of leeway for the drivers to gain the advantage off the track, especially at the first turn, but it was not resolved until the following year, with controversies involving Hamilton cutting the turn at the start of the race. race and infuriating Verstappen Sebastian Vettel do the same later.
Since then, new track boundary restrictions have been added at several points on the track. These largely involve forcing the driver to take slower routes to join the circuit if they are wide. They are quite effective, although potentially open to exploitation, as Alonso demonstrated in Sochi last month.
The championship will end with a trio of races on new or heavily revised circuits – Losail, Jeddah and Yas Marina. F1 must ensure that these unfamiliar venues do not give drivers the opportunity to gain the advantage by leaving the track.
The first time Hamilton and Verstappen crossed swords this season in Bahrain, it ended with one of them going off the track and being told to give up a position. It was a disappointing way to start the season and a repeat would make an anti-climatic conclusion to the championship.
When the best F1 title fight in years is decided, I hope it doesn’t happen because one of them has to be told to stop. A proactive approach to the lane limit issue can prevent this from happening.
Quotes: RJ O’Connell
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