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In F1, in order to slow down cars, some tracks have some sort of gravel, such as the German Grand Prix, while some tracks have red and blue strips, such as the French Grand Prix.

The gravel is a far more 'dangerous trap' for drivers since it can completely stop the car and force it to retire, unless the driver thinks quickly enough to grab more momentum to get out of the gravel, like Lewis did. The blue and red strip, I think, is far more reliable for drivers since it can stop the car but will not 'trap' the car and cannot force it to retire.

My question is, why do gravel traps still exist in F1? Why haven't they all been replaced with the red and blue strips?

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  • My question is "why shouldn't cars that leave the track be forced to retire"?
    – Philip Kendall
    May 6 at 7:27

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The merits of gravel traps versus tarmac run-offs have been hotly debated for some time. Gravel traps do have a number of drawbacks, most notably, how easy it is to get stuck in them.

However, a lot of fans actually like that. If even the slightest mistake could be punished by getting stuck in a gravel trap and retiring, that makes things more challenging for the drivers, which is something many fans welcome. Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport, and it should punish you for making mistakes - or so the argument goes. Philip Kendall's comment is a great example of that mentality.

Furthermore, one of the main criticisms of tarmac run-off is that, not only does it not punish drivers for making a mistake and running wide, but it can actually encourage them to run wide on purpose, carrying more speed through the corner while completely ignoring the track limits. Of course, the FIA will (usually) punish you for doing that, but if there's a gravel trap there, you can't actually do it in the first place.

There are likely two other aspects to this: tradition and time/cost. Formula One is a very tradition-driven sport, and changes are often met with hostility even if they have net positives. Sprint races are the most recent example, but the halo, the switch from V10s to V8s and then hybrid V6s, and the ongoing debate about scrapping Monaco are also good examples.

As for cost, I don't know how expensive it would be to replace every gravel trap at (say) Hockenheim with tarmac run-off, or how long it would take, but I can't imagine it's quick or cheap to do. And you'd have to close the circuit while you do it, which is a further blow to revenue.

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First of all, gravel traps are fairly effective at slowing down errant cars in the event of an accident in most cases, even if the driver is no longer in control of the car as in the example of a brake failure where tarmac runoff may not slow the car down at all before it hitting a wall.

Beyond that, I think the most important argument for gravel traps in recent years is that they remove ambiguity regarding track limits.

If the bounaries of the track are defined by white lines, but running wide doesn't lose a driver a lot of time and doesn't come with a high risk of retirement, then the onus is on the stewards to decide whether a car has left the track, and whether or not a car that was off track should be penalised.

This can involve questions including but not limited to:

  • The car ran wide, but did it gain an advantage?
  • Was the car pushed/forced off track?
  • Did the driver only go off track to avoid an accident?
  • Is there clear video evidence of whether or not a tyre was still in contact with the white line? Not every corner can generally be policed with sensors.
  • What is actually the track limit? In the past, this has been white lines, kerbs, secondary kerbs etc., often different from corner to corner.

Keep in mind that from year to year, both the actual rules and their enforcement change quite a lot, which doesn't help clarity in the eyes of the audience.

As a result, track limit penalties are rarely black and white and can take time to decide upon and enforce. This leaves fans wondering about the outcome, for many laps or in some cases for long after the end of a race or qualifying session, which is clearly not ideal. Even if a decision is reached relatively quickly, it may still be controversial, and there can be an impression that rules are not applied consistenly or equally because human judgement is involved.

In contrast, gravel traps are clear and immediate. If you touch one, you lose a lot of time and risk getting stuck and/or damaging parts of the car. The outcome cannot be argued with. It may not always be fair in the sense that a driver may be penalised even if they were forced wide, or for some other reason were not at fault for ending up there, but the outcome is fair in the sense that gravel traps do not have any biases.

It is worth pointing out that they have signifcant drawbacks as well, some of which are

  • They can flip a car quite easily if it enters the gravel trap sideways
  • They are expensive to maintain
  • Tarmac runoff usually makes it easier to slow down a car if the driver is still somewhat in control
  • A penalty may be preferable from a spectator point of view to a long delay and safety car period if a car gets stuck in the middle of a gravel trap and need to be recovered
  • Cars taking trips through gravel traps can drag stones back onto the circuit which can then cause punctures or can be thrown up towards the cockpit of following cars, both of which are safety concerns
  • On track days or test days, when the track is not used for racing, gravel traps can cause unnecessary damage to cars (which is a key argument at Paul Ricard as it is primarily a testing circuit)
  • They can make rollover protection of open cockpit cars less effective if the roll hoop digs into the gravel

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