The 2021 Formula 1 season started off controversially after confusion over track limits overshadowed the epic wheel-to-wheel battle between Max Verstappen and race winner Lewis Hamilton. Despite the Brit putting on a masterclass to defend against the Dutchman, it was Turn 4 of the Bahrain International Circuit that stole the limelight from the seven-time world champion's performance.
With four laps to go in the Bahrain Grand Prix, Max Verstappen completed an overtaking maneuver on race-leader Lewis Hamilton. However, the Dutchman had all four wheels outside the track when trying to pass the Brit. Moments after the overtake, Gianpiero Lambiase - Max Verstappen's race engineer - instructed the Dutchman to give the place back to Hamilton, who subsequently went on to take the checkered flag.
What are the Formula 1 regulations on track limits?
The cause of the controversy lies in Formula 1's regulations surrounding track limits. The rulebook has two separate cases of track limits, Section 21 and Article 27.3.
According to Section 21, track limits are only applicable to practice sessions and qualifying. The regulation states:
"A lap time achieved during any practice session by leaving the track and cutting behind the red and white kerb on the exit of Turn 4, will result in that lap time being invalidated by the stewards."
This caused multiple laps to be deleted over the course of the three practice sessions and qualifying. This section of the rulebook does not apply to the race.
The rule that is relevant for the race is Article 27.3 of Formula 1's Sporting Regulations. The article states:
"Drivers must make every reasonable effort to use the track at all times and may not leave the track without a justifiable reason. 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."
Why were Hamilton and Verstappen treated differently?
On Sunday morning - before the Bahrain Grand Prix race - drivers were informed that breaching track limits on Turn 4 would not be sanctioned. Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc confirmed this in a post-race interview with F1 TV.
Based on a viral social media video which looked at Hamilton's on-board camera throughout the race, it was found that the seven-time world champion went off-track at Turn 4 on 29 occasions without receiving a penalty. However, midway through the race, Hamilton's team engineer Peter Bonnington advised the Brit to stay within track limits, saying that the FIA were getting "grumpy."
On lap 53 of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Max Verstappen made a move on the outside of Hamilton to overtake the race leader, but in doing so, the Dutchman had all four wheels outside the track. Article 27.3 was enforced in this situation as Verstappen gained a "lasting advantage" over Hamilton by going off-track. The Dutchman was immediately asked to return the position to the race leader.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was understandably frustrated by having two outcomes for the same rule and suggested there shouldn't be any gray areas in regulations dealing with track limits.
After the Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula 1 Race Director Michael Masi denied any inconsistency with the track limit regulations and said that the rules weren't changed mid-race. According to Masi, Hamilton going off-track while driving alone and Verstappen doing the same to overtake are two different situations. Max gained a lasting advantage which could have changed the outcome of the race. Masi clarified that he instructed Red Bull to give up the position they gained because of exceeding track limits.