F1's track limits confusion explained after Bahrain Grand Prix

One of the main talking points after the Bahrain Grand Prix focused on why Lewis Hamilton was allowed to get away with abusing track limits at Turn 4 throughout the race yet Max Verstappen's overtake at the same section of track was deemed against the rules by the race director Michael Masi.

A video compilation on social media showed Hamilton's car straying beyond the white line on the exit of Turn 4 on 29 individual occasions before his race engineer relayed a warning from race control telling him to stay within the lines.

Later in the race, on lap 53, Verstappen overtook Hamilton for the lead around the outside of Turn 4, but strayed off the track on the exit, resulting in a message from race control to the Red Bull pit wall ordering him to give the position back.

Although the incidents occurred at the same part of the circuit and are both linked to the abuse of track limits, Masi said they fell under two different regulations.

Hamilton's abuse of track limits was tied to Section 21 of the Race Director's Notes, which are issued ahead of each race and deal with regulations that are specific to each track.

Verstappen's incident was linked to Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations about overtaking off the track and is a blanket rule that applies at every race of the season.

Some of the confusion came from a perceived change in the regulations midway through the weekend.

In the drivers' briefing on Friday evening, Masi had told the drivers that Turn 4 track limits would be monitored during practice and qualifying -- with any lap times in which the driver strayed wide at Turn 4 being deleted -- but would not be monitored during the race in terms of lap deletion. The ruling was written up in the race director's notes on Saturday morning as follows:

21) Track Limits 21.1 Practice Sessions
a) 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. 21.2 Race
a) 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.
b) In all cases during the race, Drivers are reminded of the provisions of Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations.

The key point in relation to Verstappen's move is this reference to Article 27.3, which states:

"Drivers must make every reasonable effort to use the track at all times and may not deliberately leave the track without a justifiable reason. Drivers will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with it and, for the avoidance of doubt, any white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.

"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. 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."

Therefore, Verstappen's overtake was classified as "gaining a lasting advantage", whereas Hamilton's repeated offences were not until he had done so many midway through the race that race control felt the need to take action.

Masi offered the following explanation after the race: "[The two decisions regarding Verstappen and Hamilton] are clearly specifically different and consistent with both notes and what was mentioned and discussed with drivers in the driver meeting, that if an overtake takes place with a car off track and gains an advantage, a lasting advantage, I will go on the radio and suggest to the team that they immediately relinquish that position, and that was made very clear.

"With regard to tolerance given with people running outside of the track limits during the race it was mentioned very clearly in the 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."

Masi denied the rules had changed midway through the race as had been suggested by Hamilton over team radio when he was told he would get a warning flag and a penalty if he continued to abuse track limits at Turn 4.

"No, nothing changed at all during the race," Masi added. "We had two people that were looking in that area at every car at every lap and pretty much every car bar one was doing the right thing within what we expected in a general sequence. There was the occasional car that had a bit of a moment or went out there but it wasn't a constant thing."

However, it was not just fans who were left confused.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff believes the track limits debate needs more clarity in the future.

"I'm equally confused like you," he said. "At the beginning of the race it was said track limits in turn four wouldn't be sanctioned.

"Then in the race suddenly we heard that if you would continue to run wide it would be seen as an advantage and could cause a potential penalty, which we debated with the race director but there's nothing we could have done.

"It was a case of: if he makes that call, then that's it.

"And then at the end that decision actually made us win the race. Max ran wide in the definition of the race director, gaining an advantage, he had to give back the position and that saved our victory.

"So we need to be consistent in in which messages are being given. They need to be clear, they need to be sacred and not a Shakespeare novel that leaves interpretation.

"I think the learning of this is it needs to be simple, so everybody can understand it and they don't need to carry the document in the car to read it and remind themselves what actually is allowed and what not."