F1 drivers were left fuming at a mid-race rule change that Lewis Hamilton said was ‘very confusing’, and which Mercedes boss Toto Wolff labelled the reason his driver beat Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a gripping season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The ambiguities of policing ‘track limits’ – how far drivers may run wide of the track to gain an advantage – has proved a sticking point for the sport for some years.
The issue reared its head again in Bahrain, as Verstappen was forced to hand back first place to the Mercedes star with three laps remaining after overtaking Hamilton by running outside the limits on turn four.
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Both drivers – and their respective team directors – were left confused by the inconsistent handling of the rule across the weekend. During practice two and three, and during qualifying, drivers were not allowed to exceed the track on turn four – or else have their lap time deleted.
But during the start of the race, drivers were not penalised for deliberately running wide there, so long as they did not overtake while doing so. But then things changed midway through the race, with drivers suddenly informed to stick to the track.
“I think it is very confusing,” said Hamilton. “There are most tracks we’re not allowed to put four wheels outside the white line, but this weekend and that particular corner, we weren’t allowed to on Friday. In actual fact, you could go two wheels outside the line, but you can’t go past the blue and white kerb. But in the race you can, and that was what had been written.
“So when we go into the race, then you can. But it’s quite a different corner when you have to do one or the other in terms of approach. And it is faster when you can go out …
“Halfway through the race they basically changed their minds. And all of a sudden you’re not allowed to go outside that white line … And ultimately it meant that Max wasn’t able to overtake off track.”
Hamilton repeatedly ran wide at turn four during the start of the race. That led Red Bull to instruct Verstappen to copy their approach.
“Both Lewis and Valtteri [Bottas] using the exit at turn four, so feel free to do the same until we’re told not to,” he was told.
“Yeah how is that legal, man?” he replied. “The whole weekend we couldn’t do it.”
But midway through the race stewards told teams that they could no longer exceed the limits on the corner, something which was passed down to Verstappen and Hamilton via race radio.
“We could see as soon as Mercedes started to push, they just used that part of the track,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “We questioned with race control: If that’s the case, can we do this? Because when you’re in a nip-and-tuck battle, there’s a two-tenth advantage using that part of the circuit. So they did it lap after lap. The race director then asked them to respect the limits, otherwise they’d get a black-and-white-flag [for unsportsmanlike conduct].”
Ahead of the race, it had been made clear to drivers they could not overtake outside the limits on turn four.
That situation arose when Verstappen finally passed Hamilton for first place with three laps remaining. He was ordered by race control to immediately give up the position, which he did. In that process, Hamilton pushed out the gap and Verstappen lost his fresher-tyres advantage.
“Max made a tiny mistake there and he had to give the position back,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “We were told suddenly during the race that track limits were imposed – and that is what won us the race today.”
Verstappen had fumed at his team’s instruction to immediately give back the place.
“Why couldn’t you just let me go?” Verstappen asked on team radio. “I could’ve easily pulled the five seconds. I prefer we lose a win like that than be second like this.”
He was referring to a potential five-second penalty for overtaking outside track limits. But stewards had ordered he give the place back, and a greater potential penalty was on the cards if he refused.
“There’s no guarantee we could have got the five seconds, if that had been the penalty,” said Horner after the race. “So he did the right thing.”
Verstappen said after the race: “Throughout the race I was told that people were going wide, so they told me to do the same because you do gain lap time doing it. So I did. And at one point they told me not to do it any more. So I don’t know.
“In qualifying, of course, it was not allowed, your lap time got deleted. And so I don’t know how it got to the point where people were doing it without getting warnings.
“But at the end of the day when I was fighting Lewis, I went outside of the track limits. I think quite quickly the race director was onto us to tell me to give the position back, so that’s exactly what I did.”
His team boss Horner made a strong call for consistency with the rules: “With these track limits things, they are always going to be contentious. But we do just need to have a consistent situation.
“You can’t say ‘it’s okay to use it in a race, but you can’t overtake out there’. They should be black or white, they shouldn’t be shades of grey.”