Why F1 can’t have a repeat of Bahrain’s nonsense rules

Lewis Hamlton getting chased down by Max Verstappen in the closing stages ofh the Bahrain GP

Lewis Hamlton getting chased down by Max Verstappen in the closing stages ofh the Bahrain GP

F1 can’t allow a repeat of the needless track limits arguments that have detracted from how great the season opener was. There have been several complaints about Max Verstappen being made to give up the lead for passing Lewis Hamilton off-track, when Hamilton had no punishment at all for going wide of the track limits at the same corner for at least half the race.

I know Janne’s already written about the rules and I completely agree with his take. They were needlessly ambiguous and created this whole situation. So I thought it would be worth explaining in a bit more detail why that was the case, and what the bigger problem is. Because what matters is the fairness and consistency of a world championship, and the rules at the weekend were not good enough.

Before the event started the plan was to run it to the same rules as last year. And those rules were that at Turn 4 the track limits would not be monitored. That’s how this year’s event started as well. Then after the first Friday practice session, this changed. For the rest of practice and for qualifying track limits would be monitored at Turn 4. And if anyone went four wheels off the track there, they would have that laptime deleted.

But in the same instruction the officials told the drivers, and then reiterated this separately in the drivers briefing, that the rules would be different again for the race. Track limits would not be monitored at Turn 4. So already we had a situation where the rules were changing within the weekend. This kind of inconsistency is unusual and not good.

For the race, the usual ‘three warnings and then a black-and-white flag’ rule for repeatedly going off-track would not be implemented. But the sporting regulations still had to be followed – and this includes the part that says drivers must make every effort to stay on track, and that they could not gain a lasting advantage by going off-track.

Now, some people have rightly pointed out that you gain a lasting advantage if you gain two tenths of a second by going faster through the corner. And if like Hamilton you do that 30 times, that adds up to several seconds over the course of the race. But crucially in this case, a lasting advantage was specifically defined as overtaking someone or defending a position by going off-track. The drivers were told this in the briefing.

So in the race several drivers went four wheels off the road at Turn 4, including Hamilton. He did it most often and also went aggressively far off track. Red Bull were not happy with this and they questioned it. They told Verstappen to go four wheels off at Turn 4 as well because Hamilton was doing it and getting away with it.

But at some point after Red Bull questioned it, the FIA told Mercedes to tell Hamilton to stop running wide otherwise he would get a penalty. This is what made Hamilton say afterwards that the officials changed their mind mid-race, as they’d obviously looked at what Hamilton was doing after it had been raised, and decided that that was too far of an interpretation of the rules.

Personally I think Hamilton was right to do that as much as he wanted until he was told otherwise. It was the officials’ fault they weren’t clear – several drivers and team bosses I asked said they thought you could go as far out as you wanted at Turn 4. It’s just the others weren’t choosing to go as far as Hamilton did.

Frustratingly, race director Michael Masi insists that the rules weren’t changed during the race like Hamilton and others thought. So the only conclusion is that they weren’t actually enforcing it properly in the first half – or didn’t consider Hamilton to be a problem until it was highlighted. It’s a ludicrous situation to have developed. It was not good enough. There’s so much inconsistency and needless ambiguity from start to finish. I think the FIA didn’t want to admit that they’d got the rules wrong to begin with, or admit that they had been vague. We saw this a few times last year as well

One final thought is that even if we can assume the rules were properly policed and followed, would those rules have been good enough? No. Going faster is an advantage. You can’t be allowed to use a piece of track to go faster but not be allowed to use it to overtake. That’s silly. I’m mainly annoyed because it tainted the first race of the season, which was absolutely brilliant. This was a season opener that we should be talking about with such excitement and how much we’re looking forward to the other races, how we can’t wait for Imola and how we’re finally getting this battle between Mercedes and Red Bull, between Hamilton and Verstappen. Instead we’re having a moan about track limits, which has been something that the FIA and F1 hasn’t been able to get a handle on for years. It can’t be allowed to happen again. It would be a huge shame if the best on-track product that F1′s had for years gets undermined by stuff like this.