Soapbox: The Blue Flag Debate

Posted on | Author Clive Allen

David Coulthard, Lewis Hamilton, Monte-Carlo, 2007Regular commenter Clive Allen has something to say about the blue flag rule. Got a gripe of your own? Get in touch and tell us what you want to write about.

Anthony Davidson’s penalty at Monaco this year highlighted a problem with the rules governing blue flags.

“Three strikes and you’re out” has been the FIA’s position over the last few years – fail to move over and let the following car through after three waved blue flags and they’ll ruin your race with a drive-through penalty.

That seems clear enough until tried in reality. Davidson maintains (and he is supported by video and lap time evidence) that the flags were waved too early, that Massa was too far behind to pass him immediately and that he was getting ready to let Massa through when the drive-through was imposed.

Some have argued that the blue flag is only a warning that a driver is about to be lapped but that has not been true for a number of years.

In researching this article, I came across a quote from Stirling Moss in which he states that, in his day, a waved blue merely advised a driver that a faster car was right behind him – there was no obligation to move over, although it was gentlemanly to do so when being lapped.

It was a sensible rule since the mirrors on an F1 car are not much good for looking behind the car and serve far better as a way to check on the condition of the rear tyres.

The need for a clearer definition of the blue arose in the ’90s, when aerodynamics began to have such an influence on performance that it became much harder for cars to pass each other. Many drivers’ races were ruined by back markers getting in the way of the leaders, effectively defusing some exciting contests.

Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda, Hockenheimring, 1990Senna didn’t help with his uncanny ability to intimidate other drivers into letting him through at first asking, while those chasing him had a terrible time trying to get by a tunnel-visioned plodder, blissfully unaware that a race was happening around him.

Something had to be done to preserve what close racing remained in a sport that was already suffering from a dearth of overtaking at the front.

The FIA acted and brought in the amendment to the rule that we now accept as the norm: three waved blues, get out of the way or you’re dead. It has been effective in scaring the pants off the back markers and we often see them going to extreme lengths to move over when the leaders approach to lap them.

So has it been a good rule? In some ways it has and it is rare now for front-running battles to be spoiled by interference from a back marker. But it must also be admitted that it can ruin a good fight further down the field, often when there is nothing much happening at the front.

Who cannot feel sympathy for the guy who dutifully moves over to let a leader through, only to see his hard-won 14th place stolen by the man behind slipping though in the leader’s wake? Okay, it’s only 14th and carries no points, but it might have been the only serious battle in the whole Grand Prix.

As long as overtaking remains so difficult, it is hard to see how a better rule could be made.

Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, Monte Carlo, 2007, 2Taking Monaco as an example, without the blue flag rule, we could have seen Alonso tearing up behind a back marker only to be thwarted at every attempt to get by. Hamilton would have been right with him in seconds and, a little later, Massa would have joined the train. Pretty soon we would have had a procession of the entire field, all being held back by one obstinate tail-end charlie. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it?

So the rule must stay for the moment. It’s weakness is that marshals tend to be more enthusiastic about waving blues for one driver than another, as pointed out by Davidson. In his case, the flags were waved long before Massa was in a position to pass and, since he was already way behind the McLarens, there was no urgency for them to be shown at that stage. Massa may complain that he was held up for three laps but he knows, too, that it made no difference to the result at all.

Only Davidson suffered in the end. The lesson is: no matter how unnecessary it may seem to comply with prematurely-waved blues, better do so or the powers that be will stomp on you!

Clive Allen

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