Last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix controversially ended behind the safety car, with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen winning his fifth consecutive Formula 1 race. A series of unfortunate events meant that the removal of Daniel Ricciardo’s stranded McLaren and the safety car procedure both took longer than expected. Many, including Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, insist that the race should have been red-flagged to ensure fans an exciting ending. However, when given the opportunity, Formula 1’s team principals can’t agree on a method to eliminate safety car finishes. And that’s a good thing.
While the safety car regulations were followed to the letter at Monza, the situation provoked memories of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The 2021 finale saw the safety car protocol overridden by race director Michael Masi to create a one-lap sprint for the world championship, instead of a safety car finish. The finale’s aftermath saw a full investigation by the FIA, a complete overhaul of F1 race officiating and the removal of Michael Masi as race director.
McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl recently revealed to Autosport that there was a concerted effort to amend the regulations to ensure a green flag finish at every F1 race after Abu Dhabi. While the FIA and Liberty Media were entirely behind the idea, the teams could find a consensus on a single proposal.
“After what happened last year in Abu Dhabi, there were a lot of discussions between FIA, Formula 1 and all the teams involved in order to see how the rules could be modified in order to make sure that races never end under a safety car. But despite FIA and Formula 1 really pushing us all to find solutions, it was down to us as the teams, and pretty much to all teams not agreeing to any change because we couldn’t agree on any better solution, which is then also still a fair solution in terms of the sporting outcome.”
The most commonly discussed proposal is an immediate red flag for any incident requiring a safety car after a predetermined point in a race, similar to the informal practice used in IndyCar. NASCAR used this method to ensure green flag finishes until 2004, when it introduced the green-white-checkered finish, or overtime. Overtime means any yellow flag period that stretches beyond the scheduled race distance leads into a two-lap sprint finish, lengthening the races to ensure a competitive finish.
I’ve always despised the term overtime because it conjures comparisons to overtime periods in other sports, where overtime is required to determine a winner after the regular periods of play end in a tie. Races are never red-flagged on a tie. There’s always a leader when the race is stopped, and their position is jeopardized because of the red flag. Red flags are meant as a last resort measure to ensure the safety of competitors and spectators, not to create entertainment.
After the Italian Grand Prix, F1’s teams met with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem to discuss potential wholesale changes to the F1 Sporting Regulations. Safety car finished undoubtedly were discussed. I hope the teams keep in mind that while it is vital to provide an entertaining racing product for fans, the FIA Formula One World Championship also needs to be a fair sporting competition.