Graham Keilloh  |    3 October 2017

Why Formula 1 should get rid of blue flags


The Malaysian Grand Prix may not have been thrill a minute, but it provided plenty of discussion points. And one late in proceedings got my attention in particular.

No, not that one. It was with a few laps remaining. That, shock horror, Fernando Alonso waited two or three corners before letting Sebastian Vettel by to lap him.

Seb’s reaction was like Pavlov’s dog. “Come on Alonso,” he said immediately on his radio. “I thought you were better than that.”

He took the subject up afterwards too. “Fernando decided to jump in the middle [of his fight with Daniel Ricciardo],” Seb continued. “I think he said when he left Ferrari that he was a Ferrari fan but today he didn’t act like one.”

Nando observed however that it’s not the first time Seb’s mounted this hobby horse. “For me it looks OK but we’ve heard ‘blue flags, blue flags’ from him before so it was just one of those,” he said.

Indeed it’s far from a new subject, and in fairness to Seb he's far from the only one to refer to it. It is part of F1 architecture and felt unarguable in large part – those being lapped are to jump aside pronto at the sight of a blue flag.

But, nothing personal, any driver complaining about delays picking through tail-enders gets no sympathy from me. I’d like F1 to lose the sanctions for backmarkers not getting out of the way. Keep the blue flags in a physical sense by all means, but only as advice. Don’t punish non-compliance, aside from egregious tactics such as weaving.

I’d like F1 to lose the sanctions for backmarkers not getting out of the way. Keep the blue flags in a physical sense by all means, but only as advice

If this seems unthinkable then remember that in American series, where ‘staying on the lead lap’ is a key facet, leaders get almost no help from officialdom in lapping. They don’t at Le Mans either. It’s worth reflecting also that until relatively recently F1 was pretty much identical. And working your way through lapped ‘traffic’ was part of the game.

Sanction almost never followed any baulking, even in extreme cases lasting several laps. There were only isolated exceptions – Clay Regazzoni got a black flag in the 1975 Watkins Glen race for seeking to help his leading Ferrari team mate Niki Lauda by staying in front of his pursuer Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren for longer than felt fair. And the subsequent pitlane kerfuffle concluded amusingly with then Ferrari boss Luca Montezemolo – yes, him – landing a punch on a race steward…

Eddie Cheever also got a black and white ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ flag waved at him in Spa in 1989 for lingering in the leaders’ way (not so much due to carelessness rather that little could be seen in torrential rain), but it didn’t amount to anything more.

Otherwise it all was much more commonly honoured in the breach. Even Andrea de Cesaris holding up Keke Rosberg for what seemed like an age in Dijon 1982, and Rene Arnoux doing similar to Alain Prost in Monaco 1989, didn’t elicit a peep from race control.

Some backmarkers moved graciously to one side; many would not. A few were notorious. De Cesaris, Arnoux and Philippe Alliot not least.

In American series, where ‘staying on the lead lap’ is a key facet, leaders get almost no help from officialdom in lapping. They don’t at Le Mans either. Until relatively recently F1 was pretty much identical

Come 1995 though lapping was transformed – suddenly any driver not leaping out of the way pretty much immediately (within three marshals’ posts) could rely on getting a penalty.

This was not at all controversial at the time of its introduction, as Alliot and his ilk were long since figures of derision (some of James Hunt’s commentaries were particularly scathing). It was considered basic fairness that the leaders are allowed to get to with it. But perhaps it’s a case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. Or of the law of unintended consequences.

‘Fairness’ cuts both ways. Even those being lapped have to drive their race, and you’ll know from watching F1 live timing that midfield and tail end battles are at least as close and frenzied as those at the front. In Malaysia indeed 10th through to 16th home were covered by a mere 14 seconds.

Yet they’re expected on pain of ruinous sanction to get off the throttle and pull off line, losing them seconds at a stroke, whenever one a lap ahead gets near. They’ll probably ruin their tyres in so doing too. Hardly seems fair.

“They’re equally frustrated,” noted Martin Brundle in Suzuka last year when a similar issue flared. “Their entire race is wrecked, they’re having a good fight for what to them is a world championship as it’s a world championship point, and they’re in a close fight. If they go really off line their tyres get really dirty and it takes two or three laps to clean them up.

It cuts both ways – we don’t get radio messages [on TV] from drivers [being lapped] saying ‘that just cost me ten seconds’ - Martin Brundle

“It cuts both ways – we don’t get radio messages [on TV] from drivers [being lapped] saying ‘that just cost me ten seconds’.”

And more generally much has been lost with the current practice of drivers leaping aside upon glimpsing a blue flag.

“It used to be a core skill, of managing the traffic,” Brundle went on. “But then cars had the aerodynamics of a double-decker bus and it wasn’t so difficult to follow another car and pass him.

“Unfortunately it’s a problem of the aero age we have now, you can’t unlearn what they’ve learned about making these cars so fast.”

He has a point. With the by now chronic problem of ‘dirty air’ perhaps necessity was the mother of invention with the strict enforcement of backmarkers clearing out of the way. Possibly this needs to be resolved before we turn to blue flag practice. On the flipside however drivers these days have DRS to assist them.

Whatever though such thoughts of F1’s ‘lost art’ in traffic drift almost inevitably to Ayrton Senna, a master in this craft.

The late great Brazilian’s modus operandi in winning races he had little right to was to claim pole with his other-worldly qualifying skill, and then blast off at the maximum at the race start – as if someone flicked a switch – to establish a gap immediately. Then once his opponents started to claw his advantage back they’d soon meet the backmarkers, when Senna’s skills really set him apart.

It’s not exaggeration to say that with the current practice you likely would take away ten, perhaps more, of his 41 Grand Prix triumphs. Michael Schumacher too, before the game was neutralised, was well on the way to establishing a similar reputation.

Thoughts of F1’s ‘lost art’ in traffic drift almost inevitably to Ayrton Senna, a master in this craft. It’s not exaggeration to say that with the current practice you likely would take away ten, perhaps more, of his 41 Grand Prix triumphs

Some of the lapping then in an F1 race, and not just by Senna, took your breath away. Darting into gaps; shut-your-eyes chances taken. Would this be the time such-and-such keeps coming and turns in? The trouble was usually you couldn’t afford to hang back just in case…

The modern practice also has a negative impact on the racing entertainment more broadly. Traffic provided a clear additional variable, often closing up leaders and the like. The importance of variation is under-mentioned in debates about how to make F1 racing cars race each other – as with the quickest guys starting at the front and the slowest at the back if all cars run interrupted at full pelt then why would we get racing? They’ll simply move apart.

Variables of the synthetic variety – DRS, gumball tyres, ‘success ballast’ – grate. But negotiating backmarkers was the best of both worlds – a variable that also is absolutely part of the racing game. Something drivers could influence. And great drivers would benefit from.

Many iconic moments resulted from a leader being ‘baulked’. Nigel Mansell’s opportunistic pass on the self-same Senna to win in Hungary in 1989 likely would never have happened without Senna’s almost infinitesimal breath on the throttle when Stefan Johansson’s Onyx got in his path.

And as David Croft noted during the same Suzuka debate outlined doing away with blue flag sanction also would head off much (tiresome) argument.

It provides a lot more entertainment. When people get held up gaps start to be reduced a little bit and then we can see maybe the leaders getting a bit more overtaking action as well. Let’s just try it for a couple of races, shall we? - David Croft

“At least you’ve got consistency,” he said of a world without them. “If you’ve got no blue flags, everybody knows exactly what’s going to be going on out there – if you get held up you get held up, it’s just part of racing. You’ve got to use your racing skill to overtake, haven’t you?

“And it provides a lot more entertainment. Let’s face it when people get held up gaps start to be reduced a little bit and then we can see maybe the leaders getting a bit more overtaking action as well.

“Let’s just try it for a couple of races, shall we?”

I’m sure that Ayrton Senna for one would have approved.


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