The time gained by exceeding F1 track limits: is it worth the risk?


Penalties rained down on drivers for exceeding track limits at the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix. Project F1 asks how much drivers actually gained — and whether it was worth it

Sergio Perez on the kerb in 2023 Austrian GP qualifying

Getty Images via Red Bull

After more than 1200 track limit infringements, virtually half the grid penalised and an overwhelming sense of the absurd, F1 arrives at Silverstone still reeling from the Austrian Grand Prix.

Some aspects still remain a mystery such as, what were drivers thinking when they repeatedly drove outside the lines despite warnings, flags and penalties? Were the extra millimetres of kerb ever worth it?

We’ve deployed our data analytics to get to the bottom of that question: to examine how much time drivers were gaining by pushing to the very margins of the circuit and beyond; and whether such an approach can ever pay off.

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It was clear that, at the end of the Red Bull Ring lap, the wider drivers went in Turns 9 and 10, the faster they would be on the pit straight. In a simplified version of their judgement call, drivers could take a cautious approach, leaving plenty of their car on track and avoid the risk of a penalty, or try and judge it to the millimetre, keeping just the required two tyres on the asphalt and gaining valuable time, but with no margin for error.

Making that decision trickier was the difficulty in seeing the white line from the cockpit and the cars’ tendency to drift to the outside.

Some indication of the best route to follow comes in the fact that the top five finishers managed to find a happy medium, running at the front without receiving any penalties.

But did pushing the limit pay off for any driver? And how much did they stand to gain from an aggressive approach?


The cost of breaching track limits in qualifying

Chart 1 Classified vs fastest times per driver

Qualifying track limit deletions from 2023 Austrian GP

The first chart plots the fastest lap time set by each driver in qualifying, irrespective of whether the lap was deleted, and — in orange — their qualifying time. The lines diverge where a lap time has been ruled out for exceeding track limits.

Drivers with deleted laps did go faster when they went out of the white lines (mostly at Turns 9 or 10), although taking a wider line may not be the sole reason — subsequent lap times may have been affected by a more cautious approach or tyre degradation.

However, the time gained on the deleted laps doesn’t appear to have been worth the risk for many drivers. If we reinstate all deleted laps, Pierre Gasly would still have started ninth and Esteban Ocon would still be 12th. Most drivers would have only gained or lost one or two places. Sergio Perez clearly lost out by pushing his car to the edge of the circuit: his fastest time would have seen him starting eighth, rather than 15th after failing to complete a competitive lap in Q2.


The time gains available by exceeding track limits

Chart 2 – Alex Albon lap comparison

Alex Albon track limits comparison

It is clear that there was significant time to gain by running wide through the final corners and having a better run onto the start/finish straight. Chart 2 illustrates this by comparing telemetry from two of Alex Albon‘s qualifying laps: the legitimate lap 17 and the deleted lap 20, which was almost half a second quicker. It’s a huge advantage in qualifying, and the reason that we’ve picked this example.

The gain through Turns 9 and 10 is notable (it is the single largest gain across the whole lap), but skirting the edges of the track is a risk that doesn’t pay off and the lap is deleted.

It wasn’t just a question of gaining time through the final section, however. Had Albon taken exactly the same approach as his previous attempt, he would have still bested his laptime by about 3-4 tenths. The overextension through the final complex of corners threw away the gains across the whole lap.


The closely-fought race

Chart 3 Cumulative delta plot

cumulative delta austrian Gp 2023

It’s natural for qualifying to feature a few track limit penalties, when drivers are giving it their all for a single flying lap. But they are usually less of an issue in the race, let alone the 1200+ infractions recorded at the Red Bull Ring.

Given the multiple warnings before penalties are handed out, what was going on?

The push to flirt with track limits during qualifying is generally down to the pursuit of peak performance. During a grand prix, individual laps may be less critical, but drivers are still straining for every advantage in the heat of battle — then there’s race strategy, tyre wear, fuel burn, DRS and more to consider.

In isolation, it’s difficult to see why it’s worth the risk of a 5sec or 10sec penalty by skirting the edge of the track just for an extra few tenths on the pit straight, but if it appears to be the difference between retaining or conceding a position then it becomes a lot clearer.

Chart 3 shows the cumulative delta for the race, plotting each driver’s average lap time, updated for every lap of the race, and set against an average 1min 11sec lap time.

The closeness of the lines reflect the tight nature of the race: those of Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, as well as Albon and Ocon almost converge at points, showing the intense competition.

By taking a closer look at these battles, with a focus on the impact of Turns 9 and 10, we can begin to understand why drivers pushed limits to such an extreme.


The battles that provoked track limit breaches

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The charts in the gallery compare the performance of Hamilton and Norris. The brighter dots represent lap times that were deleted, while the faded ones were valid.

The first of three charts shows full lap time, while the second focuses solely on sector three, which includes the contentious Turn 9-10 sequence. Finally, we look at the speed of each car over the finish line, offering a glimpse of the extra performance that may have been gained by running wide in the previous corners.

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Hamilton’s infringements are clearly concentrated in the early part of the race where he had passed Norris but was under pressure from the McLaren, which wasn’t just looking faster, but was highly competitive in the final sector where he had the benefit of DRS.

The cluster of Hamilton’s deleted laps were his fastest in that period of the race, suggesting that there was time to be gained by pushing — and exceeding — the track limits, at a point where defending against Norris was critical.

But to what end? The repeated transgressions earned Hamilton a 5sec penalty and it left the Mercedes stationary during its second stop, as Norris hared away into the distance.

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Sainz’s off-track excursions, shown in comparison to his team-mate, follow a similar pattern to Hamilton’s but for the opposite reason. Tucked behind Leclerc and urging his team to swap the cars around, Sainz was pushing to get ahead and keen to show his pace.

Unlike Norris in the earlier example, Sainz appears to struggle running in the dirty air of Leclerc’s car and with less downforce, is more inclined to drift wide in Turns 9 and 10 before he gets the benefit of DRS on the pit straight, helping him to close on Leclerc.

In this example, track limit breaches are down to Sainz’s attacking approach. Once again they fail to pay off as he receives an in-race penalty that makes it easier for Perez to pass him for third. Then an additional post-race penalty for track limit infringements drops him to sixth.

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The contest between Albon and Ocon shows a situation lies somewhere in the middle of the previous two examples. This battle happens in the middle part of the race where Ocon is stuck behind Albon until the next pitstop at around lap 40.

The lap times are tight, with neither car having a clear advantage in sector 3. Track limit violations occur by both drivers for both defending and attacking purposes. In general, the deleted lap times are among the fastest recorded by each car during that period of the race — again illustrating the genuine time gains to be had by running as wide as possible.

Both drivers are penalised, but it’s Ocon who gets the heaviest sanction of all, with 30sec added to his time at the end of the race for multiple breaches (not just at Turns 9-10).fl

We again have to ask whether it was worth the risk at all, for Ocon in particular, who lost three places in the final classification.

In all the above examples, track limit violations never seem to yield an outcome that’s anything like advantageous. Instead, the incremental gains of a few tenths of a second, as drivers focus on the ‘in the moment’ battles, typically manage to ruin their races as a whole.

Perhaps more will take a leaf out of Lando Norris’s book in future: his race engineer instructed him to keep within every white line and (despite a few transgressions), he managed to remain penalty-free and was classified fourth in a welcome boost for the team.

Alternatively, Austria may find a gravel trap-type solution that instantly penalises drivers who run off. In that case, who would bet against drivers suddenly being able to stay within the limits?

Project F1 turns data into graphics that uncover race pace and strategy
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