If there was one way to sum up the Australian Grand Prix it would be red flags, with the chaos that ensued throughout that eventful race it once again brought up the topic of ref flags. Many offered their input, from teams to drivers to fans resulting in a varied array of opinions, some justified the decisions of the FIA where as others questioned the suitability of the red flags and proposed that the introduction of these stoppages skewed slightly in favour of prioritising entertainment over the sport.
In its simplest form the need for a red flag is dictated by track conditions becoming unsuitable for racing. In typical F1 fashion this has been left extremely vague and leaves the door wide open for interpretation, which is what we saw this past weekend at the Australian GP. On the face of it, conditions that necessitate a red flag are usually immediately obvious to anyone watching and at first glance Magnussen’s relatively minor crash looked to be a virtual safety car or full safety car at most, so when a red flag what initiated this led to much confusion as no one really understood why. Drivers such as Verstappen were quick to remark that the second red flag was “really unnecessary”, but on the flip side there were those who defended the red flags and believed that they were completely justified and were not made in the interest of appeasing a newer fanbase that would’ve preferred a more exciting ending regardless of how that impacts the sport.
The debate over whether the red flags were vital or not was not the only point of contention that came up throughout the weekend. When a red flag is declared the cars are allowed to change their tyres and fix any damaged parts on the car as long as it is feasible under the red flag conditions. An interesting talking point that would benefit from being delved into a bit deeper are the possible alternatives that could be implemented under a red flag to make the race more interesting. Some people have suggested that cars/ tyres can simply not be worked on under a red flag as this would in essence mitigate any advantages that could be gained under these conditions. There is also the option of teams being allowed to repair the car and change tyres as long as the tyre compound remains the same. The final proposal that I’ve seen, which could offer variation in the race, would relegate any cars that are altered under the red flag to the back of the grid once the race resumes. Whilst these ideas would bring something new to the sport, are they entirely practical?
In short, no. Altering the red flag procedure may not be as easy as it initially seems, there are many independent variables that could arise during a formula 1 race which could throw a new idea, such as those listed above, into disarray if the process has not been carefully considered. Personally I like the idea of cars being allowed to change tyres under a red flag as this ensures a level of continuity once the race resumes, but what if a team no longer has another set of the same compound? Would they be disqualified from the race for changing to a different compound or would an exception be granted as they have expired all other options? Similarly, the idea of teams being prevented from working on cars under a red flag does seem entirely fair considering teams can gain advantages under virtual safety cars and safety cars by taking a cheaper pit stop. If this rule were to be implemented under red flag conditions would it then have a knock-on effect on virtual safety car/safety car conditions or would they be fair gain? One of the biggest complaints with the sport in recent years has been the lack of consistency and clarity and I think if this idea were to come into play it would give rise to a whole new discussion over what is fair and what is not and why some conditions will allow drivers to benefit by taking cheaper pit stops and why red flag conditions would not allow this.
My personal opinion is that a change to red flag conditions would be beneficial to Formula 1 as the current procedure that we have essentially resets the grid, allowing the fastest cars to eventually return to the front and the slowest cars to drop to the back. Given that F1 is already embracing changes to the sport by incorporating sprint races and possibly getting rid of a practice session if Stefano Domenicali’s recent comments are anything to go by, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to imagine that a change to red flag conditions could be on the horizon particularly after the events of last weekend. It has been pointed out that F1 needs to maintain the integrity of the sport and ensure that they don’t veer to far away from the heart of Formula 1 by introducing a bunch of gimmicks that give the sport and artificial feel. I think the best solution would be to allow cars to be fixed under a red flag, as they currently are, but they should incur a consequence akin to a grid penalty once the race resumes. I think that this would add a bit more jeopardy to red flags whilst not straying too far from the current procedure.