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AUGUST 28, 2015

Give them an inch...


Start, Mexican GP 1970
© The Cahier Archive


Give them an inch...and they'll take a mile, I found myself thinking during the Belgian Grand Prix, last weekend. Through the once daunting Eau Rouge/Radillon section, on the exit of left hander before Pouhon or just before the corner now named after Paul Frere, many drivers were going completely off the track to achieve better lap times, from the start of free practice until the end of the race. The FIA had asked the Belgians to place a "sausage kerb" at the top of the Radillon but after many drivers went over it during the two Friday sessions it was removed for being "scary and dangerous" according to some of the drivers we heard on the subject. Going slower and avoiding it didn't seem to be an option they would contemplate though.

Once the kerb was removed, everyone seemed to seize the opportunity to straighten the last and most demanding leg of the Eau Rouge/Radillon sequence, which is now an easy flat section of this great track, but I reckon would still be a very difficult corner if the drivers would have to keep their cars inside the white lines - it certainly wouldn't be flat on cold tyres and full tanks, I can tell you!

What happened in Spa-Francorchamps sums up the current struggle between the push to make the sport as safe as possible and the risk of making it too easy for any reasonably competent driver. Make a mistake and you have a huge run off area with a lot of grip you can use to stay in the race without losing any meaningful time; use the kerbs and the start of the run-off areas cleverly, in some areas of the track, and you may even gain an advantage, seems to be the mantra of these days.

Drivers, quite rightly, keep pushing for safer tracks, bigger run off areas and flatter kerbs to make sure they won't get hurt if they go off because of a mechanical failure and a lot has been done over the last 21 years to accommodate their demands. But this drive for safety has had two negative consequences: it's now far more difficult for a better driver to gain an advantage over the rest of the field than it was 20 years ago because the harder challenges have been removed; and we're now in the hands of marshals reports, TV pictures, the Race Director's criteria and the Race Stewards' decisions as they report and penalise or let the drivers get away as they go over the track limits again and again and again. Warnings, time and drive-through penalties are now part of motor racing because there are no walls or guardrails to automatically "penalise" those who would go over the limit.

I'm not advocating a return to the days where trees and barbed wire were the track limits because you cannot go back in time and what was acceptable 40 years ago is not acceptable now - have a look at how the drivers raced in the 1970 Mexican Grand Prix, with spectators sitting by the kerbs and you'll know what I mean - but the truth is that danger instilled discipline and that doesn't apply only to track limits, it certainly applies to track manners too.

The new generation of drivers lives in the belief they cannot get seriously hurt racing cars and gets a tremendous shock when someone is injured or dies as a consequence of a racing accident. Sadly, we've had two high profile examples of the dangers that motor racing involve over the last couple of months, with the deaths of Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson, but a couple of months before that we had shocking examples of how lax track manners are these days during the Monza and Spa-Francorchamps rounds of the FIA Formula 3 Championship. I don't know how powerful the guardian angels of the Formula 3 kids are, but they certainly were busy during those two weekends as it was a miracle none of them got killed after cutting across the path of other drivers on the straights or high speed corners, going - or sending the others - to barrel roll over guard rails.

It's a bit too late to try and discipline the Formula One drivers the hard way but the FIA has in Formula 4 the perfect worldwide arena to make the new generation of drivers understand racing is done within the track limits and giving the other drivers one inch more than they need to fit their cars.

How difficult would it be to put sensors on the white lines - or use GPS tracking - and in the four wheels of the tiny Formula 4 cars and penalise whoever would go over the track limits on two occasions during a race? But I'm not talking about a 5s penalty, for that would hardly be a deterrent - I'm talking about a drive through penalty that would effectively end the infringing driver's chances of scoring points. Three offs and you're out would be another possible penalty drivers would be keen to avoid, because the unfortunate truth is that while drivers demand as much safety as possible when they are out of their cars, they'll use everything they can to their advantage once racing starts. As they're not able to discipline themselves and it's no longer acceptable to bring serious and permanent danger back, penalties using the technology that is already available - and imposing them from the moment the drivers leave karting and get into single seater racing - seems to be the only way to go.