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Analysis: could electronic detection systems end F1's track limits debate?

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Analysis: could electronic detection systems end F1's track limits debate?
Aug 16, 2016, 5:38 PM

The debate over track limits in Formula 1 hit the headlines at a number of races before the summer break and the FIA installed sensors in the kerbs...

The debate over track limits in Formula 1 hit the headlines at a number of races before the summer break and the FIA installed sensors in the kerbs at some corners at the Hungaroring over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend in a bid to combat the problem.

That system worked by using loops placed 1.6m from the edge of the track at Turns 4 and 11 – where the runoff area was the same height as the kerbs – that alerted race control to any drivers running wide.

That system could yet be introduced at other F1 circuits as the FIA is evaluating how effectively it worked during that Grand Prix.

 Force India Hungaroring runoff

Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button all gave positive responses to the system used at the Hungaroring, but not all the drivers were in favour of adopting the technology.

"It's the FIA to blame for building circuits that make it faster to run off the track than on the track," said Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. "It's quite disappointing. The result is it's faster to go off track than to stay on track.”

But what about tracks used by other motor sport series where wide asphalt runoffs are not an option? In the UK, Jonathan Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision company, which owns several circuits including former F1 venue, Brands Hatch, uses a combination of cameras and sensors to enforce a strict track limits policy.

Brands Hatch MSV track limits

MSV’s system triggers an alert if a driver goes more than a tyre width beyond the back of a kerb at certain corners. At that point the drivers hit a G-sensor that is mounted in the ground that registers the impact. An edited video is then produced using a camera pointed at specific parts of the track to identify which car it was that ran wide and a transponder sensor line across the circuit also records the offender.

“Based on that relatively simple technology, we can see who the culprits are going beyond track limits regularly,” Giles Butterfield, MSV’s Head of operations and engineering told JAonF1. “Then its up to the race directors to impose penalties as necessary.”

MSV installed its monitoring system to help prevent drivers damaging the edge of its circuits – a potential safety effect of track limits abuse.

Brands Hatch MSV track limits

“If you’re dealing with Formula 1 tracks where you’ve got massive tarmac runoff then you, as a circuit owner and operator, can live with that because if people do go off the track it’s not damaging to your circuit,” explains Butterfield.

“Where you’ve got circuits like we, MSV, own that are heritage, traditional circuits, not like Abu Dhabi. We’ve got lots of grass runoffs and if people drive across it all the time, you end up with the equivalent of a ploughed field, very uneven surfaces, [which] can be quite dangerous.

“It’s impossible to maintain – you can’t put the dirt back as quick as cars dig it out and it doesn’t solidify and it just becomes a total nightmare to look after.”

Brands Hatch MSV track limits

Butterfield believes that MSV’s detection system has made a positive impact on the amount of track limits abuse occurring at its circuits.

“Over a couple of years it’s made a massive difference to the amount of abuse,” he says.

“I’m not saying nobody ever goes off, they do and sometimes it’s a genuine mistake, but the systematic abuse of track limits has improved significantly and the damage to the circuits and the costs to us of having to put it all right have become more sensible. And it’s safer as well, there’s nothing but benefits really.”

The track limits debate moved onto the German Grand Prix last time out and it is likely to be on the agenda at the upcoming high-speed venues of Spa and Monza.

Monza runoff

The asphalt runoffs, which are unpopular with numerous F1 fans, are not likely to be replaced as they are considered to be much safer than gravel traps by the FIA. But if the track limits debate continues to rumble on, the electronic system trialled at the Hungaroring could be implemented at other F1 circuits around the world.

Addendum: Australian V8 super car boss Roland Dane posted this comment to us on the topic so we thought it would be useful for readers to add it to the original post:

Roland Dane writes: "In Aus Supercars we’ve used electronic monitoring on some of our circuits for some years now and it’s been successful for the most part. It is especially useful on chicanes with our touring cars but also on exit kerbs. Stops the observer arguments and the drivers quickly get used to staying inside. In the pit box, we can see instantly if the monitor is triggered by any car and we can relay that to the driver straight away – very useful in practise so that lines can be modified. And the same for everyone.

"It has simply ceased to be an issue most of the time for us. In quali the lap is simply disallowed, in the race there is normally a three strikes policy and then a drive through – but if you run through a corner, trigger a sensor and then pass someone before the next corner you will have to redress or risk a drive through regardless of the number of strikes at that point. Having said that, it was entertaining at the start when the powers that be hadn’t enforced a lateral position on the cars (only longitudinal, for the normal timing lines) for the sensor box……but it didn’t take them long to figure out what some of us were up to!!!"

What do you make of attempts to stop track limits abuse using electronic systems? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.
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