In Defense Of Angry Curbs And Track Limits

[Pete Gorski photo]

Story and Photos by Pete Gorski

Formula One and NASCAR share little space on the Venn diagram of motorsports. Four tires, an “engine”…not too much else. But a few weekends ago, that overlap grew just a little bit, out at the edge of the racing surface where the curbs and the solid white line live.

If you follow F1, you’ve probably seen Mick Schumacher’s accident in Q2 at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Pushing hard, Mick took way too much curb coming through Turn 12 and lost control. The car was heavily damaged and his weekend was over. Many hours later and on the other side of the world, NASCAR, coincidentally enough, was racing at Circuit of the Americas. As an FIA Grade One track, COTA has (what seems like) acres of paved run-off that transitions to gravel, with barriers the last line of defense.

Both series, one unintentionally, the other not so much by design…but kinda…highlighted something about motorsports that has bothered me for years. The racing surface is the racing surface. Not the curbs, not the paved run-off…the part between the solid white lines.

Drivers have been using the curbs as part of the racing surface for decades; it’s nothing new. What is new is the way they’re using the curbs. Used to be, you’d just “kiss” the edge of the curbs. But in the past decade or so, more and more it’s a big slobbery yellow-Lab-style kiss. And I get it. Bounce the car up on the curbs, load up the opposite side, change the arc of the turn a bit, carry more speed…2/10ths quicker! Obviously Schumacher didn’t intend to bottom the car on curbing and lose control. But make no mistake, curb-hopping is now a necessity.

And it’s not just F1. For years Road America had standard curbs at most of its apexes. But not too long ago, taller undulating concrete additions popped up along the outer edge of the traditional curb section. While a means to encourage drivers to stay on the paved surface, the unofficial explanation was that cars were wearing away the ground behind the curbing, causing the pavement to collapse.

Now you may be saying, “Hey, it’s racing, 2/10ths is a lot of time!”, and a quick search on Reddit for “F1” and “curbs” indicates that I’m in the minority here. If anything, people on the internet seem to want less-substantial curbing. Certainly no “sausage curbs” or “sleeping policemen”. And I imagine the teams themselves would prefer curbs that upset the car less, both because of improved lap times, but also, less damage to the car itself. It’s quite common to hear radio transmissions from pit lane exhorting drivers to stay off the curbs please. You’re also probably familiar with rashes of punctures caused by drivers being so far over the curbs that the inner sidewall of the tire is being damaged by the back side of the curb.

It should be clear by now that I’m in favor of curbs, and the “angrier” the better. Curbs that shake your fillings loose, blur your vision, and make you think twice about running wide. To the “let ‘em race!” crowd, I have two responses.

1) If you can see the difference between a 1:20.345 and a 1:20.145, your powers of observation are truly impressive, and you might be a cyborg. Yes yes, over race distance those tenths add up and yes, you can easily see a difference. I don’t care. I want close, competitive racing, and while a solid battle at the front necessarily produces small differences in lap times, the overall speed is less important to me. Ever watch a Formula Ford or Spec Miata race? Those folks aren’t going all that fast relatively speaking, but the racing is fantastic. I’d rather have drivers stay within the track limits than “change” the course in a quest for a few tenths. And if you’re tired of damaged floors and suspensions or cut tires, stay off the curbs!

2) Fundamentally, this comes down to, “Is this what was intended by the track designers?” And that’s a fine segue to the NASCAR part of this discussion. In their second visit to COTA, the NASCAR boys explored almost every inch of pavement available to them. It’s somewhat understandable on the Lap One run up to Big Red; any large field spreads out as the track rises before trying to cram themselves into sharp Turn One. But to paraphrase “Field of Dreams”, if you pave it, they will come. Turn One? Let’s run wide! (So wide in fact that late in the race several drivers managed to make it across the paved runoff and through the gravel on their way to the barriers.) Entering Turn Twelve? Lots of runoff there…it would be a shame to not use it since they paved it and all. The exit of Turns Nineteen and Twenty? Let the car “track out”, but not just to where the white line is…all the way out into the runoff, which is essentially now part of the track.

This phenomenon repeated itself every time the race was restarted, so…often. The only section of the track NASCAR was enforcing track limits on was the Esses — Turns Three through Five. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt Hermann Tilke created this course, with its anticipated racing line, but thought, “Eh, they can essentially turn Nineteen and Twenty into one big medium-speed turn…that’s fine with me.” The paved area between the white lines is the racing surface — what was intended to be.

It’s not just COTA or Jeddah or any place that doesn’t have solid barriers defining the racing surface. The signature feature of Road Atlanta is the plunging Esses. Except, as engineers have gotten better at suspension setups, more and more the Esses are essentially straightened as drivers ride the curbs before rising to Turn Five. If you watched NASCAR’s first visit to the Indy Road Course last year, you saw how the temptation to straight-line the exit of Turn Five through Six and onto Hulman Boulevard caused drivers to repeatedly bash over the large curb placed in the runoff specifically to discourage them from doing just that. Eventually the splitters managed to get underneath it, resulting in a late-race crash that collected multiple drivers.

So what’s the solution? You can’t unpave what’s been paved. At its heart, all this paved runoff is a safety feature. It falls to race control to enforce track limits more aggressively. To everybody who says, “But then they’ll be slower!” see above. Otherwise, this story is going to become a yearly feature, and nobody wants that!

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