Return of the gravel trap: why F1 is welcoming them back


F1 gravel traps are back in favour after years of being replaced by asphalt run-offs, with hope that they'll halt track limit breaches at the Austrian Grand Prix. Here's the story of their rise, fall, and reintroduction

Jaguar gravel trap

Gravel traps have long been a point of both safety and controversy

Once seen as F1‘s universal safety solution, gravel traps were then widely ripped out and blamed for making some accidents worse. Now they are back in fashion having been reintroduced to corners at Spa and Imola, and, this weekend, making a comeback in Austria.

It reverses the long-running trend of gravel traps being replaced by large areas of asphalt run-off, which are less likely to flip out-of-control cars, and offer drivers a better chance of slowing themselves down before hitting a barrier.

But expanses of tarmac allow drivers to get away with running off the circuit with few repercussions, and to push the track limits with little risk — and sometimes significant advantage — if they run too wide.

Nowhere was this more visible than at last year’s Austrian Grand Prix where cars left the track more than 1200 times — frequently in the final two corners where a wider line gave them more momentum to carry on to the final straight.

Austrian Grand Prix 2024

Gravel traps are back at the Red Bull Ring

Tom Clarkson on X

They won’t be doing that this year after strips of gravel were installed at both turns, placed to ensure that they catch the tyres of any car starting to run off track, immediately costing pace.

“I guess that now it’s pretty clear where the track limit is,” said Charles Leclerc. “And we won’t have this type of problem anymore, which is a good thing.”

Racing’s governing body, the FIA, says that it hopes the Austrian set-up can be used at every track where enforcing the limits are a problem, which means gravel is emphatically back in favour after almost being eliminated. Here’s what has changed and why.


Why were gravel traps taken away from F1?

Gravel traps were increasingly used at grand prix circuits from the 1970s as a way of slowing cars that had lost control, either preventing them from reaching the barrier or reducing the energy of an impact if they did.

Typically placed in braking zones at the end of straights, or in high speed corners, they initially worked well. But as speeds increased, drivers often found themselves skating across the gravel, unable to brake and barely slowing, before a heavy collision.

Michael Schumacher’s crash at the 1999 British Grand Prix highlighted the problem. When his Ferrari suffered a brake failure at the end of the Hanger Straight, the gravel trap did little to stop a 180mph head-on collision with a tyre wall. The German broke his leg as a result and he did not return to the cockpit for just over four months.

Despite a 1994 ban on the gravel being raked in peaks and troughs, cars continued to dig into the gravel and were flipped over. This has been a consistent problem, even in the modern area where gravel traps have continued to be used, as Zhou Guanyu experienced at Silverstone in 2022. A collision sent his Alfa Romeo skidding upside down along the circuit, then the gravel trap where his wheels dug in. The car was launched over the tyre barrier and into the catch fencing.

There are also other reasons why gravel traps gradually became less common at circuits. Drivers running off would drag stones onto the track, and cars were regularly stranded. That caused delays and increased the number of retirements.


Why did tarmac run-offs replace gravel traps?

Firstly, tarmac run-offs provided better grip, allowing drivers to scrub off speed with their brakes and reducing the chance of a major crash. If they managed to avoid any race-ending damage, large run-offs also gave them the ability to rejoin the race safely rather than being beached in gravel and forced to retire.

At the 2023 Mexico City GP, the large run-off area at Turn 1 provided plenty of space for the airborne Red Bull of Sergio Perez to land safely and drive away after he made heavy contact with Charles Leclerc.

Circuit Paul Ricard — the last host venue of the French Grand Prix — is renowned for its large striped high-friction run-off areas, designed to slow cars even more effectively than standard asphalt.

Paul Ricard

Is Paul Ricard the epitome of what grand prix venues have become?

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Circuits that also host MotoGP have been particularly vigorous in removing gravel and grass close to the kerb, which have been responsible for causing major accidents when bikes stray slightly off the track.

This does, however, give drivers (and riders) more leeway. Never shy of seeking out a competitive edge, they now push to the very limits of circuits in the knowledge that there is minimal risk from occasionally straying outside of the white line.

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With asphalt now covering both the racing surface and the areas beyond it, drivers have been able to drive to the very limits of circuits, without the risk of being caught in a gravel trap.

“When you’re trying to drive and you’re trying to look where the white line is relative to your tyre and kind of guess, it’s just something we shouldn’t have to think about,” said Lando Norris. “So it’s more down to the driver just taking the risk and committing to corners.”

With drivers often placing wheels within millimetres of the boundary, it has also become very difficult for race stewards to police, with investigations sometimes taking palce after a qualifying session or race.

Oscar Piastri runs off in Red Bull ring gravel trap

Piastri is caught by a new Red Bull Ring gravel trap

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At the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton cut the Turn 6/7 chicane after he was “pushed” off the circuit by Max Verstappen, who was attempting to pass. As the Dutchman kept all four wheels on the racing surface, Red Bull argued that Hamilton should have been ordered to give up the lead of the race, but was instead instructed to give up the entire advantage gap he had gained by breaching the limits of the track.

More recently in 2024, Kevin Magnussen continuously and purposely used the tarmac run-offs at the Miami Autodrome to protect a point-scoring position for his team-mate Nico Hülkenberg from those behind him. The Dane received over 30 seconds-worth of penalties for his “unsporting” actions and his tactics angered many of the teams that became stuck behind him.


Why have gravel traps returned to F1?

While gravel traps have proved unreliable in preventing crashes, they’re still effective in slowing cars down — especially those which are aiming to gain an advantage.

Turns 9 and 10 at the Red Bull Ring are both common sites for track limit breaches as drivers aim to keep their foot to the floor in a bid to gain precious lap time through the final corners of the lap. But the addition of temporary gravel strips — which lurk just beyond the traditional and white kerbing — should deter most from taking an extra wide line and risk losing grip via a trip through the stones.

Beyond both corners still remains a large tarmac run-off, and the gravel strip will be removed so that the circuit can safely host motorcycle racing.


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F1 race director Niels Wittich has described the solution of gravel behind a 1 metre-wide kerb as the “perfect set-up”.

“The hope now is that it can be applied wherever necessary,” he said. “Gravel is not expensive and it is an easy fix for most circuits. For example, I think a month or so after the Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix, MotoGP will be at the Red Bull Ring. As they do not like the transition from kerb to gravel strip to a sealed surface again, they will then put some asphalt back in and just remove the gravel strip and store it. For next year, they’ll just dig out the asphalt and put the gravel back in. Or in an ideal world, they would remove the second kerb and put the gravel close to that.”

In general, drivers welcomed the changes. “It’s interesting,” said Charles Lerclerc in a post-weekend press conference. “I’ve seen pictures. These two corners were quite tricky already before the gravel trap that we have now in those corners, in Turns 9 and 10. But I guess that now it’s pretty clear where the track limit is.

“And we won’t have this type of problem anymore, which is a good thing. But again, I’ve still got to drive the track to tell you exactly what I think of it, but on paper, it looks positive,”

Max Verstappen, a five time winner at the Austrian GP, added: “Here throughout the lap, the tyres are overheating, the front tyres are getting really hot, so you naturally just understeer wide, and sometimes it happens already on the entry of the corner that the outcome on the exit is one or a few millimetres, which then gives you a track penalty.

“I just hope maybe the gravel will stop that a little bit. Naturally, you have to be a bit more careful and be a bit more precise. So, we’ll see if it’s the right way. I think no one has a clear solution at the moment for what is best.”