The battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen was determined at Turn 4, where the issue of track limits had been debated through the weekend in Bahrain, pointing to a confusing picture over what constitutes the race track.
Bahrain’s Turn 4 has always been one of Formula 1’s contentious corners, with drivers maximising speed by drifting out wide and carrying performance through the exit.
That is because part of the exit features a section of circuit that heads off towards the outer layout, as well as run-off that is beneficial to utilise, before re-joining the tarmac via the wide red-and-white kerb, gaining a strong slingshot on the brief run to Turn 5.
Through pre-season testing, at which usual grand prix rules do not apply, drivers were free to run as wide as they wished, and a similar stance was adopted for the opening practice session.
That was then tweaked ahead of FP2 with drivers informed that if they cut the exit of the red and white kerb they would have their lap times deleted.
It was also outlined that while this would be in force for the remaining practice sessions and qualifying it would not be monitored during the race.
However, as per every grand prix, it was underlined that Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations would still apply – meaning drivers would not be allowed to leave the track and gain any lasting advantage.
Shortly after mid-race a radio communication was played between Max Verstappen and race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase at which he was told to use as much track through Turn 4 as possible.
Lambiase suggested to Verstappen to do so until told otherwise, prompting the response, “how was that legal man? The whole weekend we couldn’t do it?”
A few laps later Hamilton’s race engineer Pete Bonnington informed his driver to stay within the red and white kerb at Turn 4.
A confused Hamilton asserted there were no track limits, with Bonnington concurring, adding “we are getting the messages from race control, they’re getting a bit bumpy about that now,” while pointing out they feared a five-second time penalty.
Hamilton duly obliged for the remaining laps and then expressed his view on the situation post-race.
“Most tracks we’re not allowed to put four wheels outside the white line but this weekend on that particular corner we weren’t allowed to on Friday,” he said.
“In actual fact you could go two wheels outside the line but you can’t go past the red and white kerb, but in the race you can, and that is what had been written so going 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, but then whatever is the boundary when you are overtaking?
“You’re not allowed to overtake off track but halfway through the race, they basically changed their minds and all of a sudden you’re not allowed to go outside that white line, which is fine for me.”
Verstappen concurred with the reigning World Champion.
“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 then at one point they told me not to do it anymore,” he said. “I don’t know. In qualifying 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.”
Speaking post-race several drivers explained that they were free to use the exit of Turn 4 in race trim, but not in order to overtake another driver.
Formula 1 Race Director Michael Masi provided a more detailed explanation as to why drivers were able to exceed track limits while alone but Verstappen had to relinquish a position during a battle.
“It is quite different and clearly specifically different,” said Masi on the two issues. “It is consistent with both [the event] notes and what was mentioned and discussed with drivers in the drivers’ meeting [on Friday], that if an overtake takes place with a car off-track and gains an advantage, a lasting advantage, I will go on the radio and suggest to the team that they immediately relinquish that position, and that was made very clear.
“With regard to tolerance given with people running outside of the track limits during the race it was mentioned very clearly in the meeting and the notes that it would not be monitored with regards to setting the lap time, so to speak, but it will always be monitored in according with the sporting regulations that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained.”
Perplexingly, though, Masi confirmed that “nothing changed at all during the race,” which countered the viewpoint conveyed by both Hamilton and Verstappen. Masi explained the FIA had two personnel “looking in that area at every car at every lap” and “there was the occasional car that had a bit of a moment or went out there, but it wasn’t a constant thing.”
Footage gathered on social media in the aftermath suggested Hamilton ran wide through Turn 4 on 29 occasions while alone on-track before being told to change tact. He had not broken any rule but it points to a muddy situation overall and grey areas on what constitutes a lasting advantage. Passing a rival off-track is clearly a lasting advantage, with an immediate and apparent benefit, but then so is running wide to maximise speed if being done lap after lap. Changing the boundary of a race track mid-event, and indeed having it apply in a different manner depending on the scenario, is also not a good look for the sport. The opaque situation was picked up by both Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, among many others, in the aftermath of the battle.
“[Mercedes Sporting Director] Ron [Meadows] and I were speaking to Michael during the race, that Michael referred to the note saying that, yes [you can run wide], but only if you’re not gaining an advantage and that was in the notes,” said Wolff. “I think the learning of this is it needs to be simple, so everybody can understand it and they don’t need to carry the document in the car to read it and remind themselves what actually is allowed and what not.
“At the beginning of the race it was said track limits in Turn 4 wouldn’t be sanctioned. And then in the race suddenly we heard that if you would continue to run wide it would be seen as an advantage and could cause a potential penalty. Max ran wide in the definition of the race director, gaining an advantage, he had to give back the position and that saved our victory. So we need to be consistent in in which messages are being given. They need to be clear, they need to be sacred and not a Shakespeare novel that leaves interpretation.”
Horner, having instructed Verstappen to relinquish the position even before Masi’s swift radio intervention, concurred with his Mercedes counterpart.
“It was frustrating, we could see as soon as Mercedes started to push they just used that part of the track,” he said. “We questioned with race control if that’s the case, can we do it? In a nip and tuck battle, there’s a two-tenths 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.
“Obviously Max ran wide on the pass there, which had been made clear before the race that if someone got an advantage by going out there, they’d have to give it back. He did that immediately, the team instructed him to do it following race control instructing us. With these track limit things, they’re always going to be contentious but we do need to just have a consistent situation. You can’t say it’s ok to use it in the race, but you can’t overtake out there, it should be black or white, it shouldn’t be shaded grey.”
Ultimately it was a situation that detracted from a titanic tussle between Formula 1’s knight of the realm and the pretender to his throne – a battle which kicked off the season in scintillating fashion.
The next round, at the narrow old-school Imola, should mean track limits are not an issue, but a definitive solution needs to be defined to avoid a repeat of an unnecessarily convoluted predicament at future events.