As the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1 has a strict set of rules. However, one of these rules is often up for interpretation, which means that it can become a bit confusing for many people. The matter at hand is track limits, and many new fans may wonder what track limits are in F1.
Track limits in F1 are defined as the white lines around the circuit, but in the past these limits have varied from the white lines to the edges of the kerbs. Exceeding track limits can give drivers an advantage, so drives are penalized if they exceed track limits in qualifying or the race.
While this might sound like a simple and straightforward rule, it’s not so easy in practice. There are scenarios where the track limit rule is changed from race to race. Below, we take a closer look at track limits in F1 to understand how the system works.
What Are Track Limits In F1?
F1 track limits are defined as the white lines on the edges of the circuit. Technically these white lines mark the area where the circuit ends. In theory, drivers must stay within these white lines in order to stay on the circuit and not gain an advantage, and if they do they are penalized.
This might be easy on circuits like Monaco where there is no room for error, and the edges of the circuit are defined by the walls of the unforgiving street circuit. However, on other circuits, such as Spa and the Red Bull Ring, there are some generous runoff areas, and a lot of speed to be gained by skirting the edges of the track.
These run off areas and sometimes kerbs can be used by the drivers to “straighten” their corners. The fastest line around a circuit is achieved by turning as little as possible. Drivers can use the runoff areas when exiting corners to turn the car less and get a better exit onto the next straight.
Drivers will always use the extra runoff space in order to carry more speed into the corner or get a faster exit out of the corner. This is how they can “widen” the corner to go faster. The only exception to this is when there is a wall, grass, or gravel on the outside of the circuit, but in most cases, beyond the white line there are kerbs or even sections of tarmac.
Why Does F1 Have Track Limits?
Track limits exist in all forms of motorsport. The rule might be defined differently, but each branch of motorsport has an area where the drivers can’t go, otherwise they would be gaining an advantage off the circuit.
The space between the white lines is where the cars should be driving, and if a driver crosses these lines they are technically not on the circuit. In a similar way, if a soccer ball crosses the white line on the edge of the field it is considered to be out of play, even though there is extra grass on the other side of the white line.
The track limits apply to all drivers, and they serve to make the circuit equal to all of them. However, it’s difficult to say that it would not be equal if there were no track limits on the exits of corners, allowing all of the drivers to find their own fastest line through the corners.
However, the argument against that is that drivers should be able to set the fastest lap time by staying within clearly defined limits. On a circuit like Monaco, the drivers physically can’t exceed track limits due to the nature of the circuit (i.e. without hitting the walls), so why should they not be able to stay within the track limits on any other circuit?
What Are The Current Track Limit Rules In F1?
The current track limit rules in F1 are that a car must remain within the white lines around the circuit at all times. As long as one wheel remains inside or in contact with the white line at all times, the car is within track limits. However, this rule may vary from race to race.
Drivers can gain a speed advantage in certain corners by exceeding track limits, so if they are deemed to do so often enough during a race they may receive a time penalty. If they do it on a qualifying lap, they usually lose that lap time, which can prove costly. Drivers may only exceed track limits if it is deemed unsafe for them to remain on the track at that time (e.g. to avoid a collision).
The track limits also apply during overtakes. A driver cannot overtake another car while exceeding track limits, which we saw happen at the 2021 season opener in Bahrain when Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton at the end of the race but had to give him the position back as he had run off the track in the process.
Currently, the track limit rules in Formula 1 are quite vague. Following the controversy of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Michael Masi was removed from his position as race director, and it was announced that the race director would be alternated for each race meeting.
The problem with this is that the track limits rules may change between race meetings. One race director may be stricter on track limits than others. For example, one race director might not accept any lap where a driver let their wheel cross any white line on the circuit, while another may let them off if they deem them not to have gained an advantage.
The drivers are briefed on the track limit rules before each race weekend, and they are all made aware of how strict the track limits will be for a particular circuit. In the past, the track limit rules would often change for specific corners even between sessions on the same weekend. The new rules are designed to improve consistency, but it remains to be seen if this will be the case.
How Were Track Limits Enforced In The Past?
Track limits were often not enforced strictly in the past. We’ve seen the first turn runoff area at Spa being used to a driver’s advantage many times. Turn 4 in Bahrain is another area where drivers would often run quite far outside the white lines to keep their speed up higher than they could if they had to abide by strict track limits.
More recently the FIA has clamped down on specific corners when it comes to track limits. They would take a look at previous races as well as simulations and identify some corners where the drivers would be able to gain an advantage by going off the track. These corners would then be monitored on each lap.
Any driver who put their full car over the white line would be penalized for exceeding track limits. During practice and qualifying the driver’s lap time would be deleted, and it wouldn’t be counted. During the race, they would receive a warning, and after multiple warnings for the same offense, they would be given a drive-through penalty.
Rules Around Crossing White Lines At The Pit Entry And Pit Exit
Formula 1 has extremely strict rules when it comes to the white lines at the pit entry and the pit exit. If a driver crosses the white line that separates the pit lane from the circuit, it usually results in a penalty. However, this only applies if the driver is entering or exiting the pits.
On Pit Entry
This rule is usually used to stop drivers from entering the pit lane and then deciding to leave the pit lane after initially intending to pit. This can confuse drivers around them and could create a dangerous situation on the track. The rule also applies if the driver enters the pit by crossing the white line, as we saw Yuki Tsunoda get penalized twice for doing in Austria in 2021.
The rule only applies if the stewards deem the driver to have intended to pit, and so drivers may cross the white line with one or two wheels while racing or setting a fast lap if that is the fastest line, as long as they don’t show intention to enter the pit lane. This often happens at the pit entry in Austria, as the pit entry white line is on the racing line.
On Pit Exit
On pit exit, the driver must stay inside the white line until it ends. This is because cars will be approaching the next corner at a much higher speed than a car that has just left the pits, and this ensures the slower car cannot interfere with faster ones around them. This would also create a very dangerous situation.
There’s no grey area here either, and it doesn’t matter if the driver crosses the line with one wheel or all four. The penalties for crossing the pit entry or pit exit line can be quite strict, and it can result in a grid drop if it happens during practice or qualifying.
If the driver crosses the white line during the race it can result in a stop and go penalty at their next pit stop, or the time will be added on at the end of the race if they do not serve their penalty. The driver will also usually be given at least two penalty points, the threshold of which is set at 12 before the driver receives a race ban.
The rules about crossing the white line at the pit entry and pit exit are purely focused on safety. It gives the drivers their own area to slow their car down or to get their cars up to speed. It is crucial that drivers stick to these “slow lanes” in order to create a safe environment on the circuit for themselves and all of the other cars.
Track limits in F1 are one of the most debated rules in the sport. Technically the track limits are defined by the white lines on the edges of the circuit. Going over these lines would give the driver an advantage, which is why drivers are penalized for exceeding these track limits during a session.