What are all those flags for?

With only one week to go until the Monaco Grand Prix, it’s time to talk about flags – you’re bound to see lots of them on the tight, twisty streets of Monte Carlo.  Today, we are going to focus on two of the most common flags you will see during a Formula One race: yellow and blue (you should probably already know what the chequered flag means).

In F1, like on a regular traffic light, yellow is a warning.  In case of an accident, or a car spinning or leaving the track, approaching drivers will see either one or two yellow flags being waved by the marshals.  Marshals are situated all along the outside of the circuit and are responsible for the safety of the cars and keeping the track clear.


Photo credit: beggs via Flickr

Whether one or two yellow flags are waved, drivers must reduce their speed.  This is monitored electronically by the officials at race control, and drivers who fail to slow down in a sector of the track with yellow flags can be penalized.  There is also no passing allowed under a yellow flag – once again, failure to comply can result in a penalty.  If only one flag is waved, drivers are expected to slow down, but if two flags are waved, they should also be prepared to stop (this is often the case when marshals are on the track to recover a stopped car or two remove debris, although this also usually results in the safety car being deployed – more on that in a future post).

Blue flags signify that a faster car is approaching behind a driver.  They are usually used when one car is lapping another (i.e. they are a full lap ahead, rather than passing for position).  In this case, the car being lapped must move over and let the faster car through.  If they do not, passing three blue flags before letting the faster car through, they can be penalized.

Race FlagsPhoto credit: osmosis.it via Flickr

To help drivers distinguish between a car coming up to lap them and one racing them for position, their race engineer will often tell them over the radio that they should be ready to move over.  The team can see a full circuit map, with the position of all the cars, from the pit wall.

In the past, drivers had to pass cars they were lapping (often referred to as back-markers) the same way as those they were fighting for position.  However, this could lead to accidents when groups of faster and slower cars came together.  In the interests of safety, and ensuring the leaders were not held up by lapped cars, the current rules were introduced.

There are two other times blue flags will be used: first, when a car is leaving the pit lane and a car is approaching behind them on the track at full speed, whether lapping them or not – if they are on the same lap, the car in front does not have to allow the approaching car to pass; and second, during qualifying, when a car on a warm-up or cool down lap is approached by a car trying to set a qualifying time (often referred to as a flying lap) – in this case, the slower car must move out of the way.  Recently, penalties for holding up cars during qualifying have become very common.

In addition to the flags waved by the marshals, drivers are also alerted of blue or yellow flags flashing lights around the circuit and by lights on their steering wheelsalthough not so much, lately.

We’ll be back this week with a post about the Safety Car (also a Monaco fixture) and maybe a little something on what, exactly, makes the Monaco Grand Prix so special.  As always, send any questions to theparadelap@gmail.com.


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