Martin Brundle: F1 must define its own limits before it goes off track
Sky F1's Martin Brundle reviews an absorbing US GP which saw Mercedes crowned champions, Lewis Hamilton close in on the drivers' title and a huge off-track row about being off track...
Last Updated: 24/10/17 6:48pm
Congratulations to the mighty Mercedes team for their fourth consecutive constructors' world championship, joining McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull in achieving such a feat.
Of course they have a scarcely believable headcount and budget to get the job done in such impressive style, but that's what Formula 1 is all about.
They have committed totally, made best use of the regulations and opportunities, attracted supreme talents in every department, pointed them all in the same direction with structure and cohesion, and beaten the equally mighty opposition in some style. Well done.
Is there a sports person in the world right now who is more serenely at the top of their game in every respect than Lewis Hamilton? I doubt it. He looks utterly and seamlessly comfortable in and out of the car.
He has practice, qualifying and close-combat racing down to a fine art. He motivates and rewards his team. He delivers every day.
I was interested in our Sky F1 post-race interview where he specifically mentioned his new plant-based diet as a key factor along with his general happiness in life, and not least his decision to join Mercedes in the first place.
I really like that F1 is trying new ideas to energise the sport and reach a bigger audience. Austin was heaving with global megas on race day, all of whom were remarkably open and available. It spoke volumes for the sport but I thought the trial pre-race ritual was too much for too long. It must have seriously disrupted the drivers' preparation and it certainly had an impact on trying to make a sharp and structured TV show.
Track limits did I hear you say? F1 and the FIA only have themselves to blame for this mess. It's all so inconsistent and confusing for everyone and can only lead to controversy.
Tracks have evolved this way through practicality and safety. Tarmac run-off areas are much safer than the minimal baked and crusty gravel traps of old, and very much safer than the horrific catch-fence posts and wire netting that I experienced in the mid '80s.
Tarmac run offs mean that a thinnish grid of 20 cars stay in the race much more often, and marshals and their trucks are not needed in a syrupy gravel trap to pluck stranded cars out of the way.
High kerbs can make cars fly dangerously at driver head height and even towards marshals and grandstands. Aggressive kerbs also dangerously damage race cars, and neatly painted low kerbs are much more aesthetic and maintainable too.
A racing driver's job is to shorten the length of every circuit as well as minimising the angle of every corner where possible for best lap times. They must and will take every liberty afforded them.
The wider-tyred higher-downforce 2017 F1 cars compound the issue because they will find sufficient grip on pretty much any surface including dry grass, and they are robust enough to take the punishment.
We have to have a defined sports arena, or pitch if you like; the drivers can't simply freestyle bits of it to suit themselves otherwise it would be an uncontrolled anarchy of cutting corners and missing chicanes. Like any other sport we need rules, and a referee to enforce those rules.
The problem is that our 'pitch' or 'boundary' increasingly lacks definition. There are 'four wheels over the white line' rules and they've also tried to dissuade drivers' antics with a vast variety of kerbs, artificial grass, and slippery paint too, but the cars just make a mockery of that effort.
Let's take the emotion out of Sunday's Verstappen saga for a moment.
Forget which cars or drivers were involved, where they started on the grid, what the race positions were, and which lap it was on. Or what else happened in the same race. Or indeed where the race took place because you wouldn't have different rules at say Anfield to Old Trafford, that would be senseless. All of the above are irrelevant in making a crucial call.
A car entered a corner behind another, and whilst cutting the inside of that corner with all four wheels off the track, then exited the corner ahead. You can't allow that any more than you can allow a car to straight-line a chicane or cut straight across say any of the corners in the dazzling section from Turn Three to Turn Nine in Austin.
By and large for some years now a driver who gained a place by cutting the track has had to hand it back. That is undeniable.
Where the FIA has gone wrong is not strictly administering a track limits policy at all times on all circuits.
Some corners attract attention and a penalty in qualifying and racing and others don't. It just confuses and angers the fans and paddock alike. Carrying speed and staying within the track confines demands extra skill and should be rewarded against those who simply don't have the control and precision. Old-style tracks offering an almost certain accident and/or retirement controlled that in days past.
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We have this ridiculous expression of whether someone gained a 'lasting advantage'. How is that measured and quantified, and by whom except in a situation where a car gains a definitive race position? The drivers wouldn't be off the track unless there was an advantage or they just can't control their cars properly.
Other championships and circuits put F1 to shame in strictly controlling this issue with cameras, pressure pads, GPS, observers, and unrelenting rules and punishment, and it works.
The stewards made a fast decision so that the actual top three stood on the podium. I liked that in a way but Verstappen couldn't make his case for the defence. F1 was between rock and hard place there because of the global TV schedules and sponsorship deals, and common sense, requiring a timely and representative podium.
I've been shown the comprehensive suite of collated information sources which the stewards have immediate and full access to, and it is significantly more than we ever see. It is not just about somebody's instant opinion and judgement.
It would help to have the same stewards at each race to say the least, but case studies and information are shared between them. The ex-driver steward is not paid, it's voluntary, and a thankless task but one which has very much been of benefit to these key decisions. They are unlikely to be able or willing to do 21 or more GPs so it's time to pay somebody properly to consistently do that job.
The passion and competitive spirit of the Verstappens, father and son, is a very welcome force in F1. They have made some strong comments and social media postings about the subject, and under former FIA regimes he wouldn't be sitting in an F1 car for at least the rest of the year.
There will always be differing circumstances in each incident, who shoved who off track, who blocked, and who had to legitimately avoid. That's why we need stewards and race control, and we should take a leaf out of rugby's book and show more respect to the referees.
The FIA can help us all on that by applying the rules properly and consistently.
Talk to you from Mexico.
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