Are tarmac run-off areas ruining F1 tracks?

The Autodromo Carlos Pace in Interlagos, Brazil, has undergone several changes ahead of this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, which of course hosts the finale to this year’s gripping title battle.

However, those changes include a complete neutering of the classic “Senna S” – otherwise known as turns 1 and 2. In short, the grass to the right of turn 1 has been replaced with tarmac run-off, allowing displaced cars to re-enter the track easily.

The problem with this is that is shoots down most chances of a dramatic start to the Grand Prix. Any cars that make a mistake at turn 1 will be easily able to rejoin the action with little to no penalty.

More modern F1 tracks are lambasted for having too much run-off area, so are these tarmac car parks dampening the appeal of F1 circuits?

The argument for tarmac run-off

To start, tarmac run-off isn’t in any way the death of Formula 1. While it comes with its disadvantages, there are several aspects that have led to its widespread introduction.

Safety, as always, is key in F1, as the sport continues to excel in protecting the lives of its drivers. Gravel traps are notorious for causing F1 cars to flip, as their centre of gravity is too low. In other cases, the car will not slow down enough before it hits a barrier.

Grass features in nearly every F1 circuit (real or artificial), but it too comes with its dangers. In the wet, grass turns into a complete deathtrap, as drivers will find themselves helpless as they aquaplane straight off the track if they make a single error. Where grass features next to the white line in the braking area of a corner, it can completely spin a car if a wheel leaves the track.

Tarmac run-off eliminates all of these issues. In situations where a car snaps sideways, the driver would be able to correct a potential spin, and rejoin the track without too much lost time. It tends to slightly reward “enthusiastic” driving, as drivers won’t be punished as much for pushing hard during a stint.

Damaged “purity” of Formula 1

Irate nostalgic fans will be quick to bemoan new tarmac run-off areas, complaining that they dilute F1’s appeal, are too accommodating to mistakes, and don’t punish the drivers enough.

It is a fair point. With too many run-off areas, we wouldn’t have as many dramatic exits from Grand Prix, or near-crashes, such as Lewis Hamilton’s close shave with the barriers in the dying laps of Belgium 2010.

The legendary circuit of Spa, while still incredibly challenging, has had its appeal reduced somewhat, with many corners now supporting huge run-off areas for the sake of promoting better racing. Pouhon is the best example, with the run-off area even bigger than the area of the entire corner sequence itself. It’s disappointing to see drivers make an error in the corner, slip wide, then rejoin a few seconds later as if nothing had happened.

This isn’t restricted to just old circuits. The Shanghai International Circuit hosts enormous run-off sections at every single corner, and it shows. They’re ugly, over-effective, and push the fans away from the track itself. On television, newer viewers will struggle to locate the actual racing line itself, with vast expanses of tarmac in every direction.

Does this mean that it’s a bad racing circuit? No, but it does it no favours.

A possible compromise? Abrasive surfaces at Paul Ricard

The Paul Ricard circuit uses abrasive metallic strips to slow down cars - the future of F1?

The Paul Ricard circuit uses abrasive metallic strips to slow down cars – the future of F1?

With the New Jersey Grand Prix delayed until 2014, rumours have surfaced that the Circuit Paul Ricard in France is to host a once-off F1 race next season. I had a look at the circuit in detail, and noticed how the designers had compromised between run-off areas and punishing drivers.

Paul Ricard features visually distinctive red and blue abrasive run-off zones, which punish mistakes dearly, as well as preventing cars from heavy crashes. In the picture to the right, the blue-striped area will slow the car down moderately, allowing the driver to rejoin the track with little danger. However, small tungsten strips in this section will also damage the user’s tyres as a result, providing a deterrent to leaving the track.

The red-striped areas behind will destroy any set of tyres, providing the maximum level of grip to slow a car before an impact with the barrier. Any F1 car that ran over this section would immediately be forced to pit for a new set of tyres, similar to how gravel traps will ruin the rubber on any set of Pirellis.

Is this the compromise that F1 may be forced to make? It’s certainly a good idea, but I can’t see it being implemented into every circuit – the cost of the tungsten run-off is apparently too high for most tracks to utilise.

However, it appears to pose an excellent balance between punishing mistakes and allowing drivers to race aggressively.

What do you think? Should abrasive run-offs be implemented to appease both sides of this argument?

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