Opinion F1 Unlocked
PALMER: We need a re-think on the penalty for passing a driver off track – here’s what I’d do…
Track limits have been a major talking point over the last couple of races, with a litany of penalties being handed out in the Qatar Grand Prix, before Max Verstappen had his pole time deleted in Friday’s qualifying at COTA for crossing the white line at the penultimate corner.
With the line being thickened for Saturday, lap time deletions were no longer a major problem into the weekend in Texas, but track limits were still the cause of a five second penalty and a wider debate, as George Russell passed Oscar Piastri with all four wheels off the road in the Sprint (as you can see in the video above).
Piastri was struggling in the early stages of Saturday’s 19-lap dash and was dropping through the field with an obvious lack of grip. As Sergio Perez passed the Australian, he dropped right into the clutches of Russell heading into the fiddly Turn 13-15 section.
Piastri defended the inside line against the Mercedes, and on that corner it’s nigh on impossible to go around the outside without running out of space on the exit, but as the room was running out for Russell he kept his foot in, ran clearly off the road on the exit and kept the place.
This was one of the more blatant cases of overtaking off the circuit we’ve seen for a while. Russell was entirely behind Piastri coming into the corner, barely had an overlap even at the apex of the corner and therefore had no right to space on the exit as Piastri claimed the racing line, forcing Russell to go off or to back off.
Sometimes in that moment once you are given the opportunity to make a pass it’s a racer’s instinct to take the place, but for the second race in a row it has turned out to be a mistake.
Pierre Gasly had a great view of the action, following in his Alpine as Russell made his move and immediately called it in on his team radio.
Of course, this move was closer to the front of Gasly’s mind than most after he was pinged for exactly the same transgression in Qatar, as he swept around Lance Stroll off the track.
Gasly eventually gave the place back in Qatar but it cost him position to Sergio Perez as well, as the Mexican was tucked in behind Stroll by the time Gasly tried to right his wrong.
Once Russell’s incident had been referred to the stewards, Gasly had passed Piastri as well and the McLaren driver had already dropped to around five seconds back – the moment had gone for Russell to give the position back on track.
Both George and his Mercedes team argued the case that he was forced off, but it took no time at all for the stewards to hand out the inevitable penalty. Russell eventually took the penalty on the chin and it ended up costing him a position at the chequered flag to Gasly, but it was no consolation to Piastri who had lost the position in the first place.
It begs the question, is a five second penalty for a clear cut case of passing off the track tough enough? Certainly Piastri thought it wasn’t.
Fernando Alonso had the exact same feelings as he vented on the team radio after I passed him by cutting a chicane back in Monza in 2017.
I remember being stuck behind Fernando for a few corners, tried around the outside and was given no space, so chanced my arm by keeping the position off the road.
What frustrated Fernando that day, before his infamous “karma” radio message, was that I had pulled away by more than the five second penalty I was awarded – much like Russell did on Piastri on the weekend in Austin. The penalty then became no consolation to him.
My gain and pain was short lived in 2017 as I retired with a gearbox issue not long later, whilst for Russell on Saturday he didn’t lose a huge amount, falling behind Gasly, but only losing one point – the difference between seventh and eighth in a sprint.
The bigger question is, what happens if this was deciding a battle for the lead?
Verstappen has shown so much race pace this year and hasn’t needed to pass anyone in particularly contentious moves, but if he had then in 10 of his 15 wins this season he’d have been able to swallow a penalty, with more than a five second margin of victory. Often comfortably more.
If a car is significantly quicker than another car but can’t find a way past, going off track to do it in a hopeful manoeuvre like Russell’s doesn’t seem like a terrible idea if you have time to blast out the five second penalty, as both Mercedes did in Monza for their various offences.
We all love watching Formula 1 for the wheel-to-wheel action. The Circuit of The Americas is a track that can provide plenty of it, and it did through the field on both Saturday and Sunday, but overall I sympathise with Piastri’s point of view, having been on both ends of it myself.
A better rule might be to enforce drivers to give the place back where at all possible, no matter whether the driver in question has lost further position or not.
That would incentivise quicker decisions and actions from the cockpit of the offending driver, which not only maintains fairness, but should help to provide a better show as well.