Soapbox: The Blue Flag Debate

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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6 comments on Soapbox: The Blue Flag Debate

  1. Number 38 said on 3rd June 2007, 17:54

    Number 38 here……..Clive and I have been chating about blue flags for a week now but I’ve been working for a ban on blue flags for YEARS!!!!!! My principle issue is all flags have a specific meaning EXCEPT the blue which can be INTERPRETED by the flagman AT THE TIME and in some cases can have the dreaded effect of “interfering with the results of a race.” Clive, in his article above, twice mentioned
    “about to be lapped” and “when being lapped”, in those cases MAYBE, but there also additional qualifications which are hardly ever considered. In the Davidson/Massa case it was Massa who pitstopped first and put himself behind Davidson, it was not really a case of Massa completing a full lap and catching Davidson. Further, Massa was NOT faster, evidence shows his lap times varied little before or after the imposed pass. Massa showed little evidence of over-taking Davidson, NO blue flags should have ever been shown to Davidson, BUT…..here it comes….. this has been the mentality in F1 for sometime,
    if a PERCEIVED faster car is following a PRECIEVED slower car out goes the flag! I find it interesting that so much has been written about this incident,
    apparently many of us or maybe only a few of us realize the error inflicted by the FIA. No one seems to question why Button
    hasn’t been blue flagged a thousand times in the past few races, he’s be the biggest obstecle out there all season.
    The Stirling Moss quote (in the interest of fairness, I am from the Stirling Moss era) is correct, the blue flag was only a WARNING to look in one’s mirror, it was never an order to do anything. Over time it’s apparently evolved into something it never was and in today’s climate it is frankly being ABBUSED! In the passed week there has been so much written about the McLaren (alledged) team orders and references to FIA rules concerning “interfering with race results”, blah, blah, blah but not all race results are at the front of the field and in some cases the FIA itself with it’s oft and ill placed penalties has “interfered” with results at the other end of the field. And here’s another thought……LACK of flagging can also “interfere” with race results, Sato and the two Spyker cars who were NOT flagged or penalized were given an advantage over Davidson, is that not “interfering” with results?
    If the blue rag is to be used it must be used fairly and evenly, since it’s definition is variable and subject to interpretation it should not be used at all.
    There is an interesting poll running right now on http://www.sofaf1.com/
    What would you change in F1? and not so oddly “NO blue flags” is the most recommended change.
    The bottom line……the blue flag no longer serves it’s original purpose, the flag is being abbused, it’s time to dispose of it.

  2. I’d love to see some of Number 38′s enthusiasm on this subject applied to ridding North America of full-course cautions.

    As a losing competitor, if you saw something like the blue flag come out, would you not take it as a message that you ought to pick up the pace? Why do we want the cars in the back to have even slimmer chances at victory or even reaching points than they already do?

    Having said that, though, I don’t think I’d want to see the field bunched up behind two Spykers any more than I’d want to see full-course safety periods reset the field.

    Is it time for wider tracks?

  3. Like almost everything in F1 these days, it seems to come down to the difficulty of passing, particularly on certain tracks (and Monaco is not the only offender – Barcelona was just as bad). The sooner the governing body act decisively to cut aerodynamic aids on the cars, the sooner we can throw away our blue flags. Now that we have pit-to-car radios, there is no need for them as notification of a car following the driver closely and overtaking should be much easier for quicker cars coming up behind back markers.

  4. Number 38 said on 3rd June 2007, 20:20

    It’s Sunday afternoon, a lot of us are at the keyboard……Mr. chunter ….. I need some help…… “ridding North America of full-course cautions.”
    Is that a reference to NASCAR?
    NASCAR has no blue flag. And F1
    has the same problem every time the Safety Car is dispatched, the field is ‘reset’ as they say. North American full course cautions or F1 Safety car situations are SAFETY RELATED, the BLUE flag is not a safety issue. Alonso’s (or Hamilton’s) McLaren needing help from a blue flag to get by a Spyker…..surely you offer that in jest. Let’s start from the start, the GRID. You’ve qualified 7th, friend you are in TRAFFIC and it’s up to you to get by ME (I’m grided 5th!) Traffic is part of racing.
    “If I were a loosing competitior”, I assume you mean if I were ‘back in the pack’, even way back, and I saw a blue flag, wouldn’t I “get the message and pick up the pace”? HEY! I’m already going as best I can but so are you and you’re still behind me, why should a blue flag give my positon to you? The issue here is the MISS-use of the blue flag, in it’s ORIGINAL application years and years ago it was only a WARNING to look in one’s mirrors, it was never an order to do anything. Over time it’s evolved…..I just wrote about this an hour ago (see above). Your concern about McLarens behind Spykers, well there’s a simple fix for that, tell the Spykers to “pick up the pace”. Now obviously I’m jesting that’s impossible but traffic is traffic and it applies to you in 7th place or Alonso lapping Sutil. If all things were fair Sutil would VOLUNTEERILY allow a pass at some safe place and if he did something unsportsmanlike, shall I say deliberate blocking, etc, then there is the NEVER used BLACK flag !!!!! BAN the blue flag, F1 will be the better for it. While my fingers are flying…….wider tracks? Won’t do a thing to change the apex of a turn, the spot where everyone wants to execute the infamous “inside pass”. And who is going to pay for the “wider tracks” …… the ticket holder and the promoter, those who can least afford it.

  5. Yellow flags on Nascar and IRL/Champ/Indy are just wrong. That’s why I stopped watching Indy back in the day. You can’t really expect it to be entertaining when a yellow lasts 10 laps just because there’s some debris on the track. And then a yellow again 5 laps after that. And what about ending a race in a yellow? Rubbish.

    In F1 there are lots of situations when there are no full course yellows and the drivers just have to DRIVE around debris. That’s how it should be.

    Blue Flags in F1 are also wrong. They have a bloody faster car (the leaders), and are bloody good drivers, so why can’t they overtake a backmarker on their own? I agree to the nice gesture of moving over if you’re being lapped, but getting a penalty for failing to do so is stupid.

  6. Robert McKay said on 6th June 2007, 15:12

    Clive’s right: the problem is almost entirely aerodynamics-related. Fix it so that cars can follow each other closely with little-to-no loss of downforce and then you can remove the blue flags. This problem is still getting worse, as it has started to slip over into qualifying (remember Alonso getting penalised for “affecting” Massa at Monza last year?) – even though he was a decent distance ahead, the aerodynamics are so sensitive Massa actually was being “impeded”.

    But, one thing to remember is that Monaco is always a nightmare for traffic. There’s just nowhere for backmarkers to go when someone comes up to lap them, short of going off line, into marbles and potentially the wall.

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