Austrian Grand Prix trips over white line controversy
Racers and managers decry the failure to police limits in ‘most technological of sports’
London — Max Verstappen’s dominance was on full display at Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix, with his fifth win in a row for Red Bull from pole and with the fastest lap, but the white lines painted around the track provided as big a talking point.
The most technological of sports struggled to keep up as the world’s top drivers, including Mercedes’ seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, repeatedly strayed off the strip of asphalt.
“Track limits” are simple words in the lexicon of motor racing: drivers must keep all four wheels within the lines or, if repeat offenders, face the consequences.
On Sunday at Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring the system was overwhelmed. According to the governing FIA, race control had to review more than 1,200 potential breaches of the rule that occurred during the 71-lap race.
The end result was a flurry of postrace penalties and changes to the results, though not the podium finishers, five hours after the race ended and long after television viewers had switched off. In all, nine of the 20 drivers were penalised either during the race or afterwards following a protest by Aston Martin.
Even the most seasoned of paddock insiders, in a sport with a long track record of controversy and confusion, were unimpressed.
“The track limits thing needs to be looked at because it makes us look a little bit amateurish,” said Verstappen’s boss, Christian Horner, Formula One’s longest-serving team principal.
Others questioned why, in a sport measured down to the last millimetre and microsecond and with supercomputers processing vast amounts of data, it took so long for penalties to be applied.
“I’m at a total loss as to why the most tech advanced sport in the world can’t have a tech solution with sensors and transponders so that no-one needs to review anything,” commented former McLaren mechanic Marc Priestley on Twitter. “It’s black & white & instant”.
During Austrian Grand Prix qualifying 47 laps were deleted for exceeding track limits, including those of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, who started 15th as a result and finished third on Sunday.
In the race, drivers were warned after two breaches, and then shown a black and white flag on the third. A fourth brought a referral to stewards and a five-second penalty. Further transgressions meant more penalties. Alpine’s Esteban Ocon ended up with 30sec added to his time after two five-second sanctions and two 10sec ones.
The problem could be largely blamed on the circuit, with large asphalt runoff areas rather than gravel in the last two turns — nine and 10 — on a layout that also has to accommodate MotoGP. Raised “sausage kerbs” used previously have been removed due to the amount of damage caused to cars running over them.
The FIA has also appeared to be stricter in policing the rules, with a remote operations centre to ensure correct procedures are followed. “We will renew our recommendation to the circuit to add a gravel trap at the exit of turns nine and 10,” said an FIA spokesperson.
“We note that while this is not a straightforward solution in relation to other series that race here, it has proved to be very effective at other corners and circuits with similar issues.”
Drivers said poor peripheral visibility made it hard to see exactly where the limits were and following in the aerodynamic “dirty air” of cars in front also had an effect.
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