Formula One Still Can't Get The Checkered Flag Right

Daniil Kvyat at the 2019 German Grand Prix.
Photo: Mark Thompson (Getty Images)

Oh, Formula One. One year, officials are cheering for a computer to toss a digital checkered flag in attempts to eliminate human error and confusion—you know, showing a flag too soon and ending a race early. The next, people want to bring back the power of the real checkered flag, because, wait for it: The computer ended the race too soon.

The pattern? That F1’s relationship to the checkered flag, no matter what form it’s in, is baffling. The showcase of global motorsport technology can host teams that spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to finish in second, but still can’t figure out how to stop a race.

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The topic came up yet again this past weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix, when F1’s new digital checkered flag waved on the wrong lap and ended the race early. While Valtteri Bottas still won the race and his Mercedes team still took the constructors’ title, ESPN notes that the early finish allowed Sergio Perez to keep a points finish despite wrecking out at the end.

Last year, a miscommunication with temporary local officials in how F1 counts its laps ended the Canadian Grand Prix two laps early, prompting F1 to mandate a digital checkered flag for 2019. F1 said the physical flag would stay around but that it wouldn’t mean anything, and that if the checkered lights weren’t on, the race wouldn’t be over.

The idea with computerized checkers was to give the role of signaling the flag to an automated system in order to prevent blunders like that, which F1 has from time to time—take Canada last year, or the 2014 Chinese Grand Prix. But at the Japanese Grand Prix Sunday, it was the computer’s turn to mess up, signaling the flag one lap earlier than it should have.

Thus, the race was official after 52 laps instead of the scheduled 53, and runner up Sebastian Vettel wasn’t too thrilled about the computerized mistake rolling the results back by one lap. Here’s what he said, via Motorsport.com:

Vettel said the chequered flag is the “ultimate signal” for drivers and that should be the case with the rules too.

“We had an issue in Canada [last] year where the chequered flag was waved too early.

“Now as I understand it the timing [system] is the more decisive one. Whereas I think it should still be the chequered flag as well.

“So if you get one of the two wrong, it doesn’t matter which one, for us drivers it matters if you see the chequered flag you shouldn’t continue.

“With the current rules, had they shown the chequered flag a lap too early the race would have still continued. That’s wrong I think. We can do better overall.”

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What Vettel seems to be arguing is that with two checkered flags, even if F1 ruled the physical one to be just for show, it’s confusing. If the digital one is thrown early by mistake, it’s over, but if the physical one is, you’d better keep on trucking or risk losing finishing positions.

But while Vettel’s argument sounds well and good, and is probably better than what F1 has now in the case of occasional mistakes, using a physical checkered flag as the signal doesn’t make things crystal clear either.

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Let’s revisit a report from after the physical flag waved early at the Canadian Grand Prix last year, when it was still the definitive signal. From Autosport, emphasis ours:

Safety concerns were raised after the Montreal incident, with fears marshals could have gone onto the track believing that the race was over as well as the possibility of some drivers cruising while others were told to race on by their teams.

Whiting said that he will now consider having the official signal for the end of the race shown on the light boards above the start/finish line, which would over-ride any issues with the actual flag.

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Basically, it’s better to just not mess up the flag in the first place. But if you are going to mess it up, which F1 manages to do every once in a while, it’s probably better to only have one medium through which to do so.

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About the author

Alanis King

Alanis King is a staff writer at Jalopnik.