What are F1 track limits? Rules, penalties and what is changing


Here's everything you need to know about track limits, including what they are, the penalties drivers can receive, the controversy it's caused in the past and the improvements that are on the way

Ferrari Austrian Grand Prix

Will track limits continue to plague the Austrian GP?

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F1 drivers have always pushed the track limits in pursuit of a faster lap time or a better position on track.

But while riding the kerbs, or putting a wheel on the grass is accepted, cutting a corner or powering through an asphalt run-off areas is not. Between them is a line that divides the acceptable and the illegal: the track limit.

In most cases, that limit is a painted white line, and it can pay to drive as close to the edge as possible, to preserve momentum or take the shortest possible route in a corner. But doing so runs the risk of a slight misjudgement that could cost drivers their fastest qualifying lap, or an in-race penalty.

Both sanctions have becoming increasingly common at several circuits, particularly at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, where more than 1200 separate incidents of a car going out of the track limits were investigated — followed by a flurry of penalties.

But determining who has broken track limits and who hasn’t is far from a perfect science — leading to moments of confusion and controversy. Even with some potential fixes on the way, they are likely to continue causing headaches for drivers and fans alike.


What are F1 track limits?

At the majority of F1 circuits, the track limits are defined by a white line which marks the outer limit of the racing surface — the line itself is classed as part of the track.

F1’s sporting regulations state that drivers must keep at least one part of their car on the track — so it’s acceptable to have all four wheels mostly outside of the white line, as long as a sliver of the tyre remains on the white line. If all four wheels are off the track and outside the white line, then this is a breach of the regulations.


Drivers will often test the very edge of track limits in order to find additional lap time

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However, due to the sheer size of modern grand prix circuits and the number of drivers on track, monitoring every metre, in real time, is almost impossible. So prior to each race, the racing’s governing body, the FIA, will assess specific corners either where track limits have been an issue in the past or where drivers could theoretically gain the most time.

Simply going off doesn’t automatically incur a penalty in races — especially in situations where a driver is avoiding a collision, has lost control of the car, or was pushed off.

In addition, drivers who don’t get a lasting advantage from going off the track won’t normally get an instant penalty. So if a driver cut a corner and caught a car that they were chasing, dropping back to re-establish the previous gap would be looked on favourably. That would also apply if a driver passed another car off track and then gave the place back.

“Should a car leave the track, the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage,” the sporting regulations say. “At the absolute discretion of the Race Director, a driver may be given the opportunity to give back the whole of any advantage he gained by leaving the track.”

But should a driver gaining a lasting advantage, or repeatedly drive off track, they will be penalised accordingly depending on the session they’re in.


Track limit penalty system 

During qualifying, any breach in track limits results in an automatic lap time deletion. Drivers are told as soon as possible, which gives them the chance to prepare for another lap or return to the garage quickly — possibly for a new set of tyres or to refuel.

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During a grand prix, the penalty system works a little differently. The first two times that a driver runs off track, the FIA and race control will notify their team with information on when and where they went off track — which is then relayed via the race engineer back to the driver as soon as possible. This gives them the opportunity to avoid making the same mistake again and receiving a penalty.

But on their third violation, they will be shown a black-and-white flag — which acts as their final warning. On the fourth infringement, they will then receive a 5-second time penalty and on the fifth, they will receive a 10-second time penalty. These penalties are either taken at their next pitstop or added on at the end of the race.

This system will then repeat for every subsequent violation of track limits. For example at the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix, Esteban Ocon received 30 seconds worth of time penalties after breaching track limits on 10 separate occasions.


Track limit controversy 

The most recent crackdown on track limits began after a season of inconsistency in 2021, where they were only enforced at certain corners on certain tracks.

The worst of the controversy arguably came at the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, after race director Michael Masi had issued revised notes ahead of free practice on Friday stating that during Sunday’s Grand Prix, “the track limits at the exit of Turn 4 will not be monitored with regard to setting a lap time, as the defining limits are the artificial grass and the gravel trap in that location.” As a result, multiple drivers carried more speed through the corner during the race and purposely ran wide — including race-leader Lewis Hamilton, who abused track limits 29 times at Turn 4 before being given an official warning.

But when Max Verstappen committed the same violation when passing the Briton for the lead, he was ordered by race director Micheal Masi to give the place back, as this was considered a lasting advantage. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner later stated that Hamilton’s consistent breaching of the track limits would have given him a 0.2sec advantage per lap.

Masi later added in a post-race press conference that the rules had not been changed mid-race and that there had no special treatment of one driver over another.

“With regard to tolerance given with people running outside of the track limits during the race,” he said, “it was mentioned very clearly in the [drivers’] meeting and the notes that it would not be monitored with regard 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.

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In 2022, track limit monitoring became stricter but it often took officials too long to decide which cars had breached track limits and who hadn’t — resulting in lap times being deleted and some even reinstated after sessions had been completed

During qualifying for the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix, Sergio Perez initially breached track limits at Turn 8 in Q2 but stewards decided to investigate the incident after the session. In the meantime, the Mexican competed in Q3 and qualified fourth. But soon after the session had concluded he was later demoted to 13th as he had all his Q3 and his Q2 time deleted. The delayed decision had a domino effect on Perez’s entire weekend, as after using up additional tyres in Q3 meant he was limited when it came to developing a good race strategy.

At the same race the following year, officials handed out 12 penalties to eight different drivers — who were all charged with breaching track limits — several hours after the event had concluded.

Lewis Hamilton 2023 Austrian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton was one of 6 drivers to receive 10-second post-race penalties at the 2023 Austrian GP

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Further refinements including the addition of a semi-automated system — which alerts race officials when a car has potentially breached track limits via a static camera — has made the decision-making process much quicker so far in 2024. For example in China, Lando Norris set a lap time quick enough for sprint race pole but had his time deleted for a track limits violation. However, after a short review, the McLaren driver was found to be within the boundaries and had his lap reinstated, allowing him to retain pole.

The current system is still far from perfect. Kevin Magnussen recently showcased just how the current penalties for track limit breaches can be abused, as he consistently skipped and cut corners — and kept faster cars behind him as a result — in order to protect his Haas team-mate Nico Hülkenberg from being overtaken in the Miami GP sprint. The Dane received 35 seconds worth time penalties which later dropped him down the running order, but Hülkenberg still finished in a points scoring place.


A new system

Drivers and team bosses have suggested many different ways for track limit breaches to be more successfully monitored: from lasers mounted on the cars to tried and tested gravel traps. A version of both will be adopted at the 2024 Austrian Grand Prix in an effort to reduce investigation waiting times and avoid a repeat of the confusion that has plagued the event for the last two years.

Gravel trap added to Red Bull Ring ahead of 2024 Austrian GP

Sections of gravel will penalise drivers who run wide in Austria, while the blue line makes infringements easier to detect

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New AI software will analyse live footage from multiple hotspots around the circuit where track limit breaches are common and flag any potential violations. These can then be acted upon in real-time by track officials. The introduction of a blue line (inside of a white one) at Turns 9 and 10 should also make it easier for the AI to spot when a driver has crossed it.

There will also be two small gravel trap strips (as seen in the photos below), located at the same corners, which will aim to punish those who stray a little too wide. Should a driver make contact with them, they should slow significantly, meaning that there should be no need for further penalties.

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