When is a green flag not a green flag?

Up until yesterday, it had been a good year for F1. The spotlight has been on the racetrack rather than the stewards’ room. It had even reached the stage where some people — including me — were asking if the stewards were being too lenient. Overall, it seems as though the reign of Jean Todt is much less of a nanny state.

Unfortunately, yesterday in Monaco that changed — and for a typical reason. The rules were simply badly-worded and too ambiguous. And that left plenty of room for two interpretations of the situation.

It is not often you will find me on the side of Michael Schumacher — especially since, the longer he continues being average, the more I can say “I told you so“. But I sympathise with him and the Mercedes team in this instance.

What is the new rule for?

The confusion arises from the introduction of a “Safety Car line” for the first time this year. This means that drivers can start overtaking more or less as soon as the Safety Car peels in, rather than having to wait until passing the start line.

I think this has been a slightly under-advertised rule change. I first learnt about it during the Chinese Grand Prix when cars were passing each other into the final corner of the lap during a race restart. So the explanation for the introduction of the Safety Car line is unclear to me.

I assume the idea is just to get the race back under way again as quickly as possible. In that case the idea gets my approval, even though I liked the idea that there was skill involved in timing your restart perfectly for the start / finish line. I remember particularly Fernando Alonso really showing up Jenson Button at a restart during the 2006 Australian Grand Prix — still one of my favourite Alonso moments.

What a good idea, too, it would have been if this rule had been brought in as a result of last year’s Australian Grand Prix finishing behind the Safety Car. Allowing the drivers to race towards the finish line, rather than form an orderly queue towards it, would be a good way of maintaining the excitement of a motor race until the end, rather than allowing it to fizzle out like Australia 2009.

It seems as though article 40.13 is specifically designed to prohibit this though. I would be interested to learn of the rationale for this. It seems to me that it would be a particularly good idea to use a device like the Safety Car line only on the final lap — not on every lap except the final lap!

The return of Formula None

I keep coming back to the concept of Formula None. This is the curious phenomenon whereby the powers-that-be in F1 decide to outlaw anything that comes dangerously close to becoming motor racing.

Michael Schumacher’s move on Fernando Alonso was an incredible piece of opportunistic driving. It brought an exciting twist to the final lap. Then again, it becomes less special when you realise that Alonso wasn’t even thinking that he would have to defend.

I do find it a shame that, in a race which saw no position changes whatsoever in the final 48 laps, the one successful overtaking manoeuvre has been deemed to be illegal — and for slightly unclear reasons.

Differing interpretations of article 40.13

The contentious rule, Article 40.13 of the Sporting Regulations, reads as follows:

If the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.

Looking at the wording of this rule, it is in fact little surprise that it has caused confusion, since it is so badly worded. For one thing, it talks about something that should happen before the end of the race if a particular state is true at the end of the race.

You may safely assume that a race will end under “Safety Car deployed” conditions if the Safety Car is on track for the final lap. But you nevertheless need time-travel skills from the top drawer in order to carry out the instructions in the sequence that the FIA regulations request.

I admit that is a pedantic point. The real issue is in the definition of “Safety Car deployed”. It is clear now that the rules say that Safety Car conditions effectively end when your car passes the Safety Car line on the lap in which the Safety Car enters the pits. For some reason — unexplained — this is seemingly different on the final lap.

We must now turn to whether — theoretically — the 79th lap of this 78 lap race would have seen the Safety Car continue on the track rather than peel into the pits. This is key to understanding whether or not the race finished under Safety Car conditions.

It seems to me as though a message on the timing screens declaring that the Safety Car will pit in this lap, that could seal the deal. However, this may just be a procedural message, notifying teams and television viewers that the Safety Car will pit, even though Safety Car conditions will not technically end.

Perhaps, then, the “Track clear” message will underline the idea that our theoretical 79th lap would run under green flag conditions, and not Safety Car conditions.

If after that there was a shred of doubt, turn your eyes to the marshal posts, where you see a marshal merrily waving a green flag, just next to a big green flashing light (which is operated by Race Control). Surely a green flag always, always, means “racing”.

To me, it is absurd to throw out green flags, and yet prohibit overtaking. Even from a safety point of view, it is contradictory to what drivers are surely always told. Green means you can race safely; yellows mean you must slow down and not overtake. Apparently now green means “cruise to the finish line and don’t overtake — but only if you’re on the last lap, otherwise you can race safely.”

Are the green flags just for show? Surely if the intention of article 40.13 is to prevent racing in the last few hundred yards of a race just after the Safety Car has pulled in to the pits, the flag should still be yellow.

Yellow flags waving for the Safety Car finish in Australia last year

Looking back to that last Safety Car finish in Australia last year, you can clearly see marshals holding out “SC” boards and waving yellow flags as Jenson Button cruises his way towards the finish line. So why has the procedure been confusingly changed this season?

The decision was far from clear-cut

In many senses then, Mercedes and Michael Schumacher has a pretty strong case for claiming that racing conditions — “green flag” conditions — had resumed.

It seems as though their interpretation of the rule was unique. Certainly, Fernando Alonso had been told by Ferrari not to race. Lewis Hamilton was so surprised at Schumacher’s move that he went on the radio to enquire about it.

According to Andrew Benson:

This interpretation was shared by all the team managers bar that of Mercedes – I understand that upon seeing Schumacher’s move every single one of them got in touch with race director Charlie Whiting to say it was not allowed.

But the teams appear to sympathise with the Mercedes team’s point regarding green flags, with Jonathan Legard reporting that Mercedes have “support from other teams” on this issue, and that the procedure may be reviewed.

Some have tried to suggest that the rule is clear. In fact, it is not clear at all, particularly when the procedure — to throw out false green flags — is so confusing.

The fact that it took the stewards approximately two and a half hours to announce their decision denotes that the decision was far from clear-cut. It seems as though there has been a major cock-up in the FIA’s implementation of this new Safety Car system. As they might say in the areas surrounding Jean Todt’s office in Place de la Concorde, plus ça change…


(Image nicked from Alexj2002 at Digital Spy and the short guy in the white shirt.)

14 comments

  1. Part of the reason it took the stewards two-and-a-half hours was because there were multiple incidents to be investigated – the Chandhok/Trulli and Barrichello incidents both resulted in stewards’ discussion. It’s not clear what order they were reviewed because only the penalised incident received a report on the internet. So we can’t assume that the stewards took the whole 2.5 hours over the matter.

    The regulations were not signposted properly – Article 40.7 implies that it covers all situations but it clearly doesn’t – but it is clear to me that Article 40.13 required everything that did happen to happen, up to and including the green flags (even though neither yellow nor green flags accurately describe what Article 40.13 appears to permit – maybe a snot-coloured flag should be introduced?) Even if the stewards had sympathised with Mercedes’ confusion there was nothing they could have done to prevent or mitigate the penalty.

  2. The point of the Safety Car being deployed is to prevent people from racing, because there is some dangerous situation on the track. James Allen is in the opinion that the SC went to pits just for the photo finish, not because the track was ok to race again. I agree with him. Specially because the incident between Chandhok and Trulli happened really close to where the SC line was placed.

    In Melbourne 09, you will see in this video at 2:39 that the message from the race director reads “Safety Car in this lap”, so it seems that they don’t have any other special way to tell the teams that the race will end under SC conditions.

    I agree that the green flags were absolutely out of place. They applied the procedure of the Article 40.11, but penalised Mercedes according to the Article 40.13. So the race direction acted far from perfect.

    But what makes me really uncomfortable about MGP is that, every other single team had the opposite and common interpretation of the situation. It seems to me that they just wanted to get advantage of it. But the stewards surely helped them with those green flags waiving around.

    Greetings.

  3. What I wonder is why didn’t Charlie Whiting just red flag the race when the crash happened? There was no way that debris was going to be cleared in 3 laps, and really, what did we gain from 3 laps of circulating behind the safety car, and then a 100 metre dash for the finish? It was all a bit of a farce.

    I do feel sorry for Schuey & Mercedes, the punishment did not fit the crime, particularly with the mitigating circumstances that occurred. But you do have to wonder why all the other teams were aware not to race to the end. Brawn is a wily old fox, and has previous experience in pushing the boundaries. Perhaps the FIS should just get him to write all the technical & race regs – he’d cover everything off and there would be no cause for confusion then.

  4. Mostly we gain not having to attempt to derive the result on countback and thus having a definite result immediately. We also gained a faster answer on Trulli/Chandhok and Barrichello because they didn’t have to wait while the results were counted back before their cases could be heard. While it wouldn’t have made much difference to the result (only Petrov would have been in a different position because his car failed after the SC was called) but it’s one hassle race control would rather not have, especially since the last two occasions countback was invoked, things got a bit fraught.

  5. Hi Duncan and readers,

    I’m an Alonso supporter, but even under this circumstance i have to agree with you.

    They announced that the SC was going out, they were showing green flags, so racing was allowed.

    Obviously the race direction screwed up the “small” difference with previous SC rules….

    Now i hope all will get clear and straight for next time.

    Schumacher should have been penalized just with going back to his 7th, place, if the rule is not clear you can’t say that someboy broke it…

    Best regards.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone! Sorry it’s taken me a little while to respond.

    Can — I understand that the Safety Car may pit to avoid the ugly photograph (as it did in Melbourne last year), although surely the ‘Track clear’ message suggests that it would have gone in anyway. There is leeway, in the messages Race Control give out on the timing monitors, to say that the Safety Car will come in, but that the track isn’t clear (i.e. yellow flag conditions will continue). That’s what I am confused they didn’t do.

    Pink Peril — I have no issue with continuing the race. I think it is good to complete the full advertised race distance, even if it’s behind the Safety Car. A Safety Car finish may be slightly farcical, but I think failing to the finish the race — and the laborious and (to the layman) confusing process of the countback — is worse in my view.

    Interesting point about getting Ross Brawn to write the regulations though. I seem to recall that he offered to tighten up the regulations surrounding diffusers, but all the other teams refused! Then he just came straight back with his “trick” diffuser!

  7. Actually, Allen says now that, after reviewing the video of the race, all the debris form the Chandhok/Trulli accident was removed, and track condition was ok. I was referring to his opinion in the comments of the first post after the race, that was the opposite.

    Still, I don’t see very reasonable to restart a race just for one corner. But I understand that other people do.

    Anyway, how easy would it have been for the race director to just say something on the radio to all the teams.

    Cheers (not “greetings” this time, my wife just told me that is used only to say hello 🙁 )

  8. Hi Can — I agree, it may have been good for Charlie Whiting to be able to contact all of the drivers to remind them of the protocol. I don’t know if such a system is in place, and it is probably the case that incidents like this, by their very nature, are unforeseen. Obviously it’s difficult to warn drivers about an unforeseen confusion.

    Never worry about your English, Can. 🙂 It is great!

    In fact, I was just thinking today how charming it is that many international commenters sign off with a phrase like ‘greetings’. Although it is not common in English, I rather like it! 🙂

  9. 😉 Duncan!!! you’re getting international 🙂

    You should visit EfectoSuelo, i don’t know if you can read spanish, but google translator should do something….

    BTW, greetings fou us “strangers” is something as regards… so the mistake is quite common as you say.

    So, AVE Duncan, and best regards 🙂

    P.S. What do you think about these rumours linking back Brawn to Ferrari?

  10. Hi EGC — I have had a look at Efecto Suelo before. I know that Google Translate is slightly rusty. 🙂 Wish I had time to persevere with it — I barely have enough time to read even the English language blogs that I like. I’m working on making more spare time for myself!

    I hadn’t heard of rumours linking Brawn to Ferrari! That is very interesting — where have you seen it reported?

  11. Thanks for the links EGC! Very interesting — and the theory that Brawn doesn’t like the working practices of Mercedes sounds plausible. A story to perhaps keep an eye on.

    By the way, sorry it took so long for the comment to appear. One of the anti-spam measures I have here is that any comments with two or more links are added to the moderation queue rather than being published straight away, and I was too busy yesterday to check the queue.

    Many thanks!