For two years in a row, Formula One has suffered from poor publicity during the Austrian Grand Prix. Drivers pushing for the ultimate lap cannot stay within track limits at the final two corners and the result is the stewards this year issued well over 1000 deleted lap times during the weekend.
This is confusing for those watching qualifying and even the race and the narrative for the weekend becomes one dominated by a track limits discussion.
FIA now police all track limits
The all new FIA under Mohammed Ben Sulayem has decided that they will police the white line governing the edge of the circuit in its entirety, something Charlie Whiting had repeatedly refused to do.
Previously, the race director would identify corners where exceeding track limits would give a driver an advantage and those alone would be policed.
Yet has the new approach really changed much?
Not really. The problem corners in Austria are still the same and following the debacle in 2021, the FIA requested the owners of the Red Bull Ring deal with the issue, which they failed to do.
Austria probleem recurrs
Austria is set to receive the pyramid kerbs on display on Qatar which become gradually more aggressive the further the driver moves onto them, and then drops away sharply as the car exceeds the track limits causing an instant loss of time.
It may be at the Red Bull Ring these kerbs work well, because the speed the drivers are traveling through this section of the track is much lower than in Losail and the time they spend on the kerb also much shorter.
Pirelli came under fire at this weekends Grand Prix for not delivering tyres suitable for the circuit configuration, yet it was revealed late on Sunday night that the Italian tyre manufacturer had warned the FIA of their concerns some six months before the event took place.
The FIA too the decision to narrow the track through the high speed turns 12 and 13, painting fake kerbs on the flat asphalt designed to fool the drivers into thinking these were in fact the kerbs and the outer limits of the track.
New Tilke circuits created the problem
We’ll never know what would have happened had the FIA failed to act, but the number of deleted lap times on Saturday and Sunday suggests the fake kerbs performed with limited success.
Formula One became obsessed with making run off areas more safe during the rise of the Tilke built new circuits some 20 years ago, and the old fashioned white line then grass or gravel was phased out.
Of course this prevented the teams suffering the embarrassment of seeing their car beached in the gravel unable to continue and averted some of the concerns that the F1 cars ay dig into these traps and flip over risking serious injury to the drivers.
Yet the result has seen drivers not longer respect the natural boundaries that surround the track, always pushing for that extra 10th of a second and creating a headache for track designers and the FIA.
Historic issues between Max and Lewis
The problem occurs even at innocuous circuits like Bahrain where the kerbs are never a safety issue. During the latter stages of the 2021 Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen battled for lap after lap, with Verstappen being forced to give the place back following an overtake which saw his Red Bull leave the track.
Hamilton was then accused of repeatedly doing the same thing to gain time and keep Verstappen behind him.
Helmet Marko believed the corner should not have been policed, given the race director Michael Massi had indicated this would be the case.
Marko says “build a wall”
“We interpreted it too strictly,” Marko told Formel1.de when commenting on Max being forced to give back the place.
“Then we asked the race control: ‘Hello, the Mercedes is driving continuously over [track limits] and have a time gain of two tenths – can we do that too?’
“And then we got a vague answer: ‘Actually, no.’ And then there was also the question of the black and white flag for Hamilton, because he was over it more often.”
Marko went on to criticise the circuit layout and design and with a classic recommendation that would remedy the matter once and for all.
FIA unhappy in Qatar
“It happened, and it’s completely unnecessary,” Marko said. “There’s enough space there. Let’s put up a wall and that’ll be that. If you crash into the wall, you’ve damaged your vehicle.
“I don’t know why we have so much run-off area on the tracks, and why we don’t put a wall in there.”
Of course putting up a wall is always the solution to this debate, but unless Formula One wants to create the feel of American Oval racing this is not the solution.
Following the farcical scenes at the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix, FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem hanse waded into the debate. When asked about the incidents during the weekend, he replied:
“Qatar will be cancelled”
“You’re absolutely right about it, we had the same issue in Austria, it was 1200 [offences there].
“And I have to say, congratulations to the stewards because they spotted it. But is that the solution? No.”
Ben Sulayem makes it clear unless the circuit is improved to prevent the track limits issues, the race in Qatar will be cancelled in future years.
“The solution is to improve the track itself. I know some are resistant to it, but to tell you the truth, if they don’t, there is no race. It is as simple as this. We can’t afford this.”
The problem redefined
Ben Sulayem has started his tenure at the FIA with a no nonsense and no compromise attitude and while this threat will upset the likes of F1 Stefano Domenicali – who has 55 million reasons to want the race in Qatar – unless improvements are made the FIA will strike out the circuits license to hold and F1 event.
“We have to work on a solution,” Ben Sulayem continued. “One of the solutions is to make it slippery when they go off. Nobody can stop the drivers except the drivers themselves.
“We can think of the height [of the kerbs]. Does it damage the cars? Or maybe there is a possibility of putting some gravel, but with gravel, we have to be very careful.
The FIA president accepted there are issues with gravel and the teams complaining about it damaging their cars.
FIA needs more cash
“But I believe now it’s not a matter of: oh, do we do it? We have to do it. And we have to listen to the drivers mainly, to the feedback from them,” he said.
“I will have to make it urgently because it has to be implemented for next year. We cannot afford [for it to continue], especially where we see it all the time.”
The came the political appeal from the FIA president, who believes further technology may help the situation.
“The use of technology should be there,” he said. “It is being used in a lot of areas, but the FIA needs more resources to invest back into the sport.
Dispute with Liberty resurfaces
“I’m not hiding here: we need more resources. I mean, it’s a $20 billion operation here and we cannot run it on a shoestring.”
Clearly this is an appeal to Liberty Media who own the commercial rights to the sport to to up the payments received by the FIA annually.
Further, Ben Sulayem revives the argument with Stefano Domenicali from earlier in the season when he reminds him:
“Our agreement has to be better. You have to remember one thing: we own the championship. I represent the landlord, and we lease it. Our mission is different to Liberty but we are in the same boat.
Qatar poor attendance
“We should not be running this big responsibility with a shoestring. We are transparent.
With teams now valued in the billions, Ben Sulayem is clearly irritated about the lack of resource provided to the FIA.
“[We tell people] this is what it costs. People are bragging about how much each F1 team is worth, but the FIA should be free and have the resources to run it in the best way.
“Every time we are better, we make the teams better and we make the sport better.”
With just 38,000 in attendance on Saturday evening, Max Verstappen was crowned a triple world champion. There are question marks over the popularity of this venue anyway, with the total attendance for the weekend failing to reach that of a Friday crowd at Silverstone.