Lewis Hamilton’s Turn 4 run-off use in the Bahrain Grand Prix was legal while Max Verstappen’s pass off-track was not because of a key distinction in what was deemed ‘gaining an advantage’.
Verstappen overtook Hamilton for the lead of the Formula 1 season opener with an around-the-outside move at Turn 4 that he completed by running wide off the kerb on the exit of the corner.
He was instructed by Red Bull to give the place back to Hamilton almost immediately, following an intervention from FIA race director Michael Masi, which allowed Hamilton to win the race.
Hamilton admitted post-race he was repeatedly using the run-off behind the white line denoting the edge of the track as he understood that to be the correct application of the rules for the race, then stopped doing it when his Mercedes team was informed during the grand prix that it was wrong.
It prompted confusion and criticism from various parties after the grand prix, as while Verstappen’s pass was a clear violation of the rules there was uncertainty over why using the run-off repeatedly was allowed, but then appeared to not be later in the race.
Verstappen and his engineer had also complained over the team radio earlier in the race about Hamilton repeatedly extending the track on exit seemingly without consequence.
The Turn 4 track-limits rules changed after first practice. In second and third practice, and qualifying, drivers were not allowed to cut behind the kerb on the exit of the corner. But in the race, track limits would “not be monitored” there.
This was communicated in Masi’s event notes and also to the drivers directly in Friday evening’s drivers’ briefing.
Several drivers and team personnel have suggested post-race that the instruction was that track limits not being monitored at Turn 4 in the race meant drivers could go beyond the white line unless they gained a lasting advantage – which in this case has been defined as gaining a position.
Masi said that Hamilton’s repeated off-track use and Verstappen’s first-time offence were “very clearly specifically different” and also consistent with the rules that had been outlined.
He said it had been discussed with drivers that “if a overtake takes place with a car off-track, and gains a lasting advantage, I will go on the radio and suggest to the team that they immediately relinquish that position”.
“That was made very clear,” said Masi.
“With regard to the tolerance given to people running outside of the track limits during the race, that was mentioned very clearly in the drivers’ meeting and in the notes that it would not be monitored with regards to setting the lap time.
“However, it will always be monitored in accordance with the sporting regulations, being that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained.”
While various teams and drivers agreed that instruction was clear when asked by The Race, most did not believe the rules themselves were simple or consistent enough.
Masi said that the rule was changed for practice two onwards and qualifying based on what was being observed in opening practice.
The situation was also complicated by some, including Hamilton and Verstappen, suggesting that the rules were changed mid-race as well.
That appears to be supported by Mercedes being told that Hamilton needed to stop using the run-off at Turn 4, and relaying that instruction to its driver.
But Masi claims that “nothing changed at all” during the race itself.
“We had two people that were looking in that area, at every car every lap, and pretty much every car bar one was doing the right thing within what we expected in a general sequence,” he said.
“There was the occasional car that had a bit of a moment and went out there or whatever it was, but it wasn’t a constant thing.”