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It’s time for “electronic gravel traps” to save F1 from itself

A painted curb at a race track, with a gravel trap immediately to its left
Enlarge / Track-edging red, white, and green painted curbs at the exit of the Variante Della Roggia chicane next to the gravel trap during practice for the 2012 Italian Grand Prix on the Monza Circuit, Italy.

On Sunday, under floodlights in Abu Dhabi, the 2021 Formula 1 season came to an end. The most electrifying championship fight in many years came down to a last-lap pass after a dominant Lewis Hamilton got caught out on old tires after a very late caution let rival Max Verstappen pit for much fresher rubber.

Partially due to Netflix’s Drive to Survive show, the sport has reached levels of popularity not seen since the 1980s, even here in America, so many people have opinions about the role that F1’s race control officials have had in influencing the title fight.

However, I’m not here today to dissect the confusion of the last five laps. Instead, I have a bee in my bonnet about an incident that could have decided the championship that happened just a third of the way around lap 1.

Verstappen, on supposedly better tires, was left in Hamilton’s wake when the lights went out. Verstappen went for a gap at turn five, knowing his only real chance of victory would be to get ahead early. He made the apex, running Hamilton wide on the teal-painted tarmac runoff. Hamilton kept his foot planted and rejoined the track further up the road, then was deemed to have returned that time advantage by the end of the next lap, at which point the officials said, “No harm, no foul.”

Max Verstappen's 2020 Tuscany Grand Prix ended up in the gravel trap, something the Mugello track still has plenty of.
Enlarge / Max Verstappen’s 2020 Tuscany Grand Prix ended up in the gravel trap, something the Mugello track still has plenty of.


It’s not the first time the pair has raced each other like that. In just the last few weeks, Verstappen ran himself and his opponent off the track in Brazil with no penalty, then again in Saudi Arabia, albeit this time with consequences.

Those are some very recent examples, and just between two drivers on the grid. But the problem affects the whole grid, particularly when race control becomes inconsistent with policing what it considers the limits of the track. Usually, this is the white line that runs around the edge—a car should never have all four wheels on the other side of that line.

But race control is inconsistent, sometimes issuing bulletins and clarifications over a race weekend about which curbs are considered OK to exploit and which ones will result in a deleted time for leaving the track.

This never used to be a problem, because the other side of that white line was usually grass or gravel. Gravel traps are relatively good at stopping a car that leaves the track, but as the second half of the name implies, the cars tend to stay there for the rest of the race.

Race promoters probably don’t love that, since it takes cars out of the show. And teams and drivers surely don’t like it because it ruins your day, whether you’re racing on a weekend or testing mid-week.

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