One of the most important aspects of Formula 1 is the safety of the drivers. With cars travelling at speeds in excess of 190 miles per hour, there needs to be a safety element to slow the car down when something goes wrong. This is where gravel traps come in.
Gravel traps on F1 tracks are sections made up of small rocks and pebbles that can be used to drastically slow a car down to prevent it from hitting the barriers at high speed. Gravel traps can be found between the circuit and the barriers at many corners on F1 racetracks.
With the ongoing debate on track limits in modern Formula 1, many fans have called for gravel traps to be used more often. As it is now, gravel traps are not used on all circuits, and there are several reasons for this, which we will explore in more detail down below.
What Are Gravel Traps In F1?
Gravel traps are areas that are placed in the run-off of a corner between the circuit and the barriers. They’re filled with sand, rocks, and pebbles, which will slow a car down once it enters the gravel trap. Gravel traps are important for the safety of the sport.
They are often used when there is not a lot of distance between the track and the barriers. This causes a dangerous situation where the car might not slow down enough before it hits the barriers in the case of an accident.
This system has been used in Formula 1 and other forms of motorsport for many years. There have been countless scenarios where drivers’ lives have been saved by a gravel trap, and it has been a huge improvement in safety for all forms of motorsport.
While it might seem like a simple concept, the gravel trap has become an essential part of a modern FIA Grade 1 circuit. It has been so successful at stopping fast-moving vehicles in fact, that they are sometimes even used on public roads at the bottom of steep declines in case a vehicle, such as a truck, has a brake failure or doesn’t slow down in time for the corner.
Are Gravel Traps Safer Than Tarmac Run-Offs?
Gravel traps are safer than tarmac run-off areas, as they do a better job at stopping the car when it goes off the track. A car heading into a gravel trap will decelerate to a stop much quicker than if it were to go onto a tarmac run-off.
Tarmac run-offs do not slow cars down in any way. Instead, they give the driver time to regain control over their vehicle and re-join the track in a safe manner. Drivers will have less grip on a tarmac run-off than on the circuit as these areas will be “greener” than the circuit that has been rubbered in.
Tarmac run-offs are mostly used on tracks with a lot of space between the circuit and the barriers. This means that the driver will have enough time to regain control of their car. Tarmac run-offs are also used in street circuits such as Baku and Monaco, as this allows the driver to get onto the track rather than leaving a beached car in a dangerous area.
The Rare Occasion Where It’s Not Safer
On some rare occasions, we have seen gravel traps make an incident worse than it needed to be. This is extremely rare, and it’s not often that we see incidents like this happen, especially with modern Formula 1 cars.
During the 2016 Australian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso was heading into turn three looking to overtake Esteban Gutierrez. Alonso’s McLaren collided with Gutierrez’s Haas, ripping one of Alonso’s right wheels clean off.
As Alonso’s car veered toward the barriers on the side of the circuit at 190 miles per hour, the car suddenly began to rotate 90 degrees after colliding with the Armco barrier on the left-hand side of the track. Alonso’s McLaren, still moving at an incredibly high speed, caught the edge of the gravel trap sideways.
The side of the car dug into the gravel trap, sending it into a barrel roll. At this point, there wasn’t much any gravel trap could do to further slow the car down, and eventually the car came to a stop at the other end of the gravel trap.
Thankfully, Alonso was out of the car within seconds, completely unhurt. It’s possible the car wouldn’t have rolled had there been a tarmac run-off, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been safer either.
Do All F1 Tracks Have Gravel Traps?
Not all Formula 1 circuits have gravel traps. In fact, they are becoming much less common than they were in the past. Despite many fans asking for more gravel traps to be brought back, it’s unlikely that this will ever happen, for various reasons.
Gravel traps can mostly be found on larger and faster circuits such as Monza and Spa. Street circuits such as Monaco and Baku do not use gravel traps, since these circuits are specifically built for the Grand Prix and serve as public roads for the rest of the year.
Some of the latest Formula 1 circuits, such as the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, do not have any gravel traps and only use tarmac run-offs. This is becoming more common in modern Formula 1, and there are some important reasons as to why this is happening.
Why Aren’t Gravel Traps Used At All F1 Circuits?
The main reason F1 circuits are removing their gravel traps and replacing them with tarmac run-offs for the commercial aspect. Purpose-built racetracks such as Abu Dhabi are open year-round, and they don’t exclusively host Formula 1 races.
Many racetracks are open for business throughout the year in the form of track days. Anyone can bring their own car and drive it around the track. These drivers are often inexperienced when it comes to driving their cars fast, which means they are prone to making mistakes.
Having gravel traps around the circuit could cause damage to the cars that people bring to track days when they go off track. Using tarmac run-offs prevents this from happening while keeping the drivers safe at the same time.
If amateur drivers that are just looking to enjoy their day at the track were constantly beaching themselves in gravel as a result of small mistakes, they’re unlikely to return to the track in future. This harms the commercial aspect of the circuit, and so gravel traps become unfavorable.
Why Do F1 Cars Get Stuck In Gravel?
Formula 1 cars become stuck in gravel traps because gravel traps are designed to stop a car completely as quickly as possible. A Formula 1 car’s tires are unable to find any grip in a gravel trap, so accelerating often simply spins the wheels, causing them to become beached.
The only way that a car can be moved out of a gravel trap is if the marshals push it out or if the driver maintains enough momentum to avoid stopping altogether. Otherwise, a tractor has to lift it out. In both of these cases, the driver will be out of the race and unable to continue.
Formula 1 cars are rear-wheel drive, and there’s a massive amount of horsepower that is sent to those wheels, making it almost impossible for them to get out once they have stopped. Some drivers are able to escape a gravel trap if they manage to keep the car’s momentum going and skip over the gravel until they reach the escape road, but this is tough to do.
Why Is Gravel Considered Better Than Run-Off Space?
Gravel is better than run-off space because it’s much safer and does a better job at stopping or slowing a car down if it goes off track. Additionally, when it rains, tarmac run-off areas will likely provide the driver with no grip. In some cases, that’s like driving on ice.
We’ve seen many drivers spinning and sliding off the track and through tarmac run-off areas in rain, unable to control their cars. Gravel traps, on the other hand, do much better at slowing cars down in any weather conditions, which ensures that a car’s impact with the barriers will be somewhat cushioned and less severe.
Many fans and drivers have called for more gravel traps to be brought into Formula 1 circuits. This has been the focal point of the track limits debate that has been raging for several seasons. Track limits are one of the most controversial rules on Formula 1 weekends, and they often aren’t policed strictly or consistently.
Drivers will sometimes exceed track limits to their advantage, using tarmac run-offs to increase their speed with little risk and few to no performance penalties as a result. Using gravel traps will prevent drivers from doing this. As we have seen many times in the past, a driver’s entire race can be ruined if they exceed the track limits and dip a wheel into the gravel trap.
There has also been controversy over drivers leaving the track and gaining an advantage during a race, specifically when it involves cutting a corner. Having gravel traps in place will deter drivers from doing so, as it could end their race entirely.
Can Gravel Damage A Formula 1 Car?
A Formula 1 car is extremely low to the ground, and going through gravel too fast can cause damage to its floor. Formula 1 cars aren’t designed to drive through gravel traps, and going through them can cause considerable damage, especially at high speeds.
Taking a trip through the gravel could end a driver’s race entirely if their car gets stuck. Some drivers do make it out of the gravel traps through a combination of luck and skill, but it still comes at a cost to the drivers.
As a Formula 1 car coasts through a gravel trap, many of the rocks and pebbles in the gravel trap will be shot up by the rotation of the tires, causing some of the gravel to be launched into the car’s sidepods, which are responsible for cooling the car.
The car’s tires will also be hot and sticky due to the speeds they are driving at, which means that gravel can sometimes stick to the tires for a short amount of time after the car has been through the gravel trap, causing a loss of grip for the driver until their tires have been cleaned off.
Other Types Of Run-Off Space In F1
There is one other main type of run-off area that is used in Formula 1. The best example of this run-off area is the Paul Ricard circuit in France.
The dizzying painted lines on the side of the circuit have not been put there for decoration. The lines have been put in place with an extremely abrasive surface that grips tires and gives them much more bite than even the circuit’s tarmac would. Driving on these grippy strips will slow the rotation of the tires very quickly, at the expense of rapid tire wear.
You may notice that there are two different colors as well. The blue strips, closer to the track, provide slightly more grip than the tarmac. The red strips, closer to the barriers, provide even more grip to slow a car down. The benefit of using these surfaces is that it can slow down both Formula 1 and track-day cars enough to help them avoid meeting the barriers without damaging them.
Electronic Gravel Traps In F1
To prevent drivers from exceeding track limits, Formula 1 have been discussing electronic gravel traps to slow cars down as soon as they go off the track. Sensors would be placed in the run-offs, and when a car enters this area, its power would be automatically reduced.
When the car returns to the track, it would regain full power after a few seconds, which serves as a penalty for exceeding track limits. The concept is entirely possible, since Formula 1 is constantly on the forefront of technological advancements. Formula E has a similar set up with Attack Mode, which gives a car an extra power boost when they enter virtual gates on a specific part of a track.
Formula 1 already uses timing loops to track drivers through mini sectors, so implementing more sensors in run-off areas would not be an issue if the same system is applied. The only problem would be slowing down the car reliably, and implementing a safe way to do this within the cars. Perhaps this will become a feature of F1 in the future.
Gravel traps serve an important purpose in Formula 1, and they have been used for decades in the sport. They are put in place to slow cars down when they go off track. This is mostly to cushion the impact of hitting the barriers, as the gravel slows the car down quickly, safely and reliably.