Japanese Grand Prix: The End of Gravel Traps?

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 Japanese Grand Prix: The End of Gravel Traps?
(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The various accidents over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend at Suzuka—especially those suffered by Timo Glock in qualifying and Jaime Alguersuari in the race—are likely to cause the debate about run-off areas to be re-opened.

It is one of the criticisms often levelled at the new Hermann Tilke "Tilke-drome" circuits (and those older tracks that have been “improved”) that the huge swathes of high grip tarmac that act as run off areas detract something from the challenge of driving a race car round a track fast. There is no (or very little) punishment for running off track.

A driver can simply carry on, maybe flicking down a gear and losing some track position, but carrying on with he and his car none the worse for wear. F1 should be difficult, and gravel traps make it more so, and that’s before you consider that more gravel traps would render the chicane cutting dilemmas null and void.

As you may be able to tell I normally count myself squarely in the group who support the use of gravel traps and walls to stop cars and punish mistakes with retirement.

But the events at Suzuka may have changed that.

The Japanese track has been improved massively since its previous F1 races, new paddock buildings, massive resurfacing, and the addition of concrete run off areas.

In commentary for the practice sessions for the race at Suzuka, former (and probably future) F1 driver Anthony Davidson described how Spoon Curve used to have a vast gravel trap to its outside, that any mistake would send you skipping over at pretty high speed.

A daunting experience.

However, in these days of personal injury lawyers and litigation, “daunting” is not a word people like, along with “risky”, and that gravel trap has given way to another sea of tarmac.

But unlike the new Tilke-dromes, Suzuka has split its run-offs between tarmac and gravel. The turn one gravel where Senna and Prost once came to a halt is gone, the outside of 130R is similarly tarmacked over.

But grass and tyre walls still flank the esses, the Degner curves and the final bend—a location not unknown for big accidents even before Glock’s impact.

But Glock and Alguersuari put a massive dent in any argument for gravel traps.

In both cases the gravel traps did not stop the car. No matter if we want drivers punished for their mistakes, we don’t want them injured.

Even more worrying was the manor in which both cars, most noticeably Alguersuari, were sent airborne by skipping over the gravel or the change in running on grass to gravel. There are all too many accidents where an airborne car hitting the barrier has terrible consequences. Put simply you can design barriers to cope with “conventional” impacts where a car hits at the base of walls, but put a car airborne, even slightly, with all the potential pitching and yawing, and (no pun intended) everything is up in the air.

Now, if you still support gravel traps you can argue that the traps that both drivers encountered were narrow, meaning there was very little room between the track and the barrier. You can also argue that Alguersuari’s crash was an odd place on the track.

And it was.

But perhaps this fluke has shown us that gravel just isn’t the best way to stop a F1 car. Perhaps they are just too fast, and too light, and with the skid plate, tend to skim over the traps like a flat stone over a lake.

Whatever the technical reasons the fact remains that if there was no grass and gravel then the four wheels retain contact with road.

And higher grip levels mean more chance to scrub off speed, or steer way from the worst of the impact, which means fewer injured drivers.

Which we can all agree is good.

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