Following some of the incidents at the Belgian GP at Spa, and ahead of the Italian GP at Monza, it is worth considering the ‘cause and effect’ of chicanes and tarmac run-off areas, as there are sure to be numerous “incident under investigation” bulletins as the Italian race unfolds.
In an attempt to make racing safer and reduce cornering speeds, chicanes have been introduced over a number of years at many circuits including Spa and Monza.
More recently the proliferation of tarmac run off areas, particularly at chicanes, has seen an acute rise in the abuse of these areas for those who run out of skill. The rationale behind tarmac areas is totally logical as they minimize disruption to the racing activities but unfortunately, a bi-product of this initiative is that it has escalated the erosion of driver discipline. The modern racing car, in almost every category, and modern circuits provide a very high level of safety. This “perceived” level of safety tends to generate a false sense of security, and reduction in respect in many drivers’, perhaps more so with successive generations. The combination of diminished driver discipline and reduced ‘natural’ penalties continues to be a negative aspect of modern racing wherever there are tarmac run off areas.
There was a time when penalties did not need to be applied for a transgression of track perimeters, as more often than not, the ‘natural’ track perimeter environment inflicted a time and position penalty, or, in more extreme circumstances, retirement. Therefore there was no need for an arbitrary judgement by Race Stewards. While motor racing today is undoubtedly a great deal safer than at any other time in its history, there will always remain an element of danger while you have an irresistible force (a car travelling at speed) and immovable objects (barriers, pit walls, etc).
Prior to the sanitization of circuits, there was a natural consistency in penalties incurred as the drivers knew the consequences of over-stepping the mark. Today’s decisions, are subject to ‘he said, she said’ and whatever video evidence may exist. The end result is a ‘nanny’ mentality and inconsistent interpretation and application of the rules. A good example of mis-interpretation and inconsistency was seen last weekend at Spa in two separate incidents, the first between Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, and the second between Nico Hulkenberg and Jean-Eric Vergne. The two incidents were almost a carbon copy of one another, where Perez and Hulkenberg were each being challenged under brakes for Les Combes, at the end of the straight. The track position of Perez and Hulkenberg’s cars were virtually identical, as was the reduced space and position left for Grosjean and Vergne each to deal with, but the end result was vastly different for the two Frenchmen.
Vergne showed presence of mind and emotional control to still challenge Hulkenberg as they turned into the corner, where as in Grosjean’s case, he speared down the escape road. Perez was given a drive-through penalty for “forcing another driver off the track”, because of the dramatic impression created by Grosjean’s reaction/decision making. Grosjean was able to continue with only a minimal delay, by cutting across to the exit of the right-left “S”. It would be reasonable to expect that the same conclusion and penalty applied to Perez would be applied to Hulkenberg as he had squeezed Vergne in an almost identical manner, but no penalty was given.
The Steward’s decisions are ultimately subjective, but the facts suggest that either both Perez and Hulkenberg should have been penalised, or both should have been exonerated. Similarly disconcerting, is that fact that Vergne having displayed skill and clear thinking to hang on around the outside of Hulkenberg in the right hand corner, then ran Hulkenberg wide through the left, so that Hulkenberg exceeded the track limits. If the regulations were applied consistently, and the same rationale used as in the Perez-Grosjean ‘incident’, it would be logical to assume that there would be a penalty either for Vergne, for not leaving room, or one for Hulkenberg for exceeding track limits. Neither was considered to be guilty of any transgression by the Stewards, and neither was penalised. Grosjean and Hulkenberg could both have avoided their off-track moments if they had recognized earlier that they were not going to win their individual battles but re-grouped to attack over the ensuing laps. Discretion is often the better part of valour.
It is difficult to rationalise the need for tarmac run-off areas, when you consider that at Monaco the circuit is lined with barriers and has few tarmac run-offs. The notable exception at Monaco being at the exit of the tunnel; the one area where there is constant abuse and a regular lack of discipline. Because of it’s confined spaces, Monaco rewards precision and discipline. It is living proof that where a circuit has a higher demand for discipline, skill and precision, we can expect a lower number of transgressions and more respect for the dangers involved and for other competitors.
With tarmac run-offs, unfortunately the opposite will more often than not be the case, and it is symptomatic of the unconscious erosion of driving standards.