When Max Verstappen had to let Lewis Hamilton pass after overcoming him in a fight for the lead in the first race of the year in Formula 1, with just four laps to go, not all fans understood what had happened. The Dutchman had left with the four wheels of the track to complete the maneuver and, therefore, the team instructed him, at the request of the race director, to let the Englishman pass.
So far, so good: it is normal that an overtaking that used the advantage of the paved exhaust area is not worth it. But the fans were confused when a video started circulating on social media after the race, showing that Hamilton himself had passed 29 times off the track in exactly the same place, at the exit of turn 4, without suffering any kind of punishment. .
Theoretically, both cases would fall within Article 27.3 of the F1 Sports Regulations, according to which “drivers must endeavor to use the track at all times and cannot leave it deliberately and without justifiable reason (…) . If the car leaves the track, the driver can return, however, this can only be done when it is safe and without gaining a lasting advantage. “
In other words, in the first analysis, Verstappen’s overtaking maneuver was considered a lasting advantage and the 29 times that Hamilton left the track, no. But how is this possible?
As the tracks are different from each other, F1 adopts a kind of addendum to the rules for each GP, which is published under the name “notes of the track director”. This is done so that the rules are applied in a more appropriate way to the circuit, taking into account not only what the race director decides, but also the opinion of the drivers and the race directors of the teams.
Because of this process, it is not uncommon for this document to undergo changes over the weekend. F1 racing director since 2019 Michael Masi makes his first version on the Thursday before the GP, and the rules are discussed after the free practice on Friday night. And it can go through changes.
In this document, rules specific to each track are discussed, such as where drivers can test start times, Safety Car lines and also where the rule of track limits will be rigorously applied.
This decision has to do with how much the race director believes that the driver can earn by leaving the track on that particular stretch. And in Bahrain, turn 4 has always been a controversial point. In the race last weekend, it was decided that the track limits on turn 4 would be policed firmly in the classification – whoever left the track on that stretch would have the lap deleted – but not in the race. In other words, gaining lap time by leaving the track there would not be considered a ‘lasting advantage’.
That’s when Lewis Hamilton took the opportunity to create a completely different line, knowing that, based on the race director’s notes, this was allowed in the race. Several cars left the track on that stretch several times, but the way Hamilton did it, consistently and ending up far from the white line that borders the track, caught the attention of Masi, who asked, through the team, that he stop take that line. This happened after half the race and angered Hamilton, who questioned why the rule was being changed in the middle of the race.
Masi denies that this has been the case. The Australian said that although the drivers were cleared to leave the track there, they were also being monitored for the advantage it would bring.
Rules cannot be Shakespeare’s play, says Wolff
It is no wonder that even team leaders are confused about the application of the rules. Not because of the Verstappen thing, which was very clear and was not questioned by either the pilot or by the chief Christian Horner, but how it is possible to free the pilots to leave the track and take advantage of it and then say that, at the same time, they were being monitored precisely for gaining an advantage.
“As soon as we saw that the Mercedes started to force the pace and leave the track there, we asked the race director if we could do the same. There is an advantage of about two tenths when using that part of the track, and they were doing back after back. So Masi asked them to respect the limits, otherwise they would receive a black and white flag (warning for piloting outside the rules). “
It is good to remember that, even if the “notes of the track director” were strict regarding the limits of the track in turn 4, Hamilton or any other driver would not be punished right away. The flight attendants observe if the rule is broken a few times, and first ask the pilot to stop, then give a black and white flag and, only afterwards, some kind of punishment.
In Bahrain, as the “track director’s notes” did not hinder the exit of the track on that stretch, Hamilton was actually surprised when his engineer asked him to change his trajectory. And even the Englishman’s boss, Toto Wolff, after the driver and his team won a race in which they didn’t have the best car, said he was confused.
“At the beginning of the race, they said that the track limits on turn 4 would not be sanctioned. And then, during the race, we suddenly heard that if we continued to leave the track we could be punished. It’s that thing: if he decides to punish, it’s over. So we need to be consistent in the way the messages are being delivered. They need to be clear, they can’t be like a Shakespeare play, which can lead to various interpretations. “
This issue of track limits has been giving motor racing a headache since, for safety reasons, the asphalt exhaust areas replaced the gravel areas. Thus, at certain points, it became advantageous to leave the track to save time.
To try to remedy this, Masi introduced sensors to the exits of problematic curves in F1, which had been generating more warnings and more deleted laps, automatically. But in Bahrain, he seems to have given in to pressure from pilots and teams at the meeting after free practice. And the controversy after the race made it clear that if the drivers are given loopholes, they will be taken advantage of.
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