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Many things change in Formula 1, either due to technological developments or new rules and regulations, but one constant for many decades has been the flags and their meanings. A way they have developed is the use of LED monitors around the track displaying the flags the marshals show to the drivers in their physical form, as well as a system that displays them on the steering wheels of the cars.
So, let’s have a look at all flags displayed by the marshals and the monitors, explaining what each one means.
One of the most commonly used flags, as well as one of the most well-known, is the yellow flag. It is used to warn drivers of an impending hazard in the next section of the circuit, be it a stopped car, debris or someone going off the track for example. The way the flag is displayed comes in two variations:
- Single waved: All drivers must reduce speed in the upcoming section of the track and overtaking is not allowed there. It is shown for a small or temporary hazards.
- Double waved: A pair of yellow flags being displayed signifies a bigger danger. In this case, something may block the track or marshals are on the scene, so drivers must slow down even more and be prepared to stop, with overtaking prohibited too.
In either case, drivers are expected to not set quick laptimes and even abort flying laps during practice and qualifying, and failing to follow the rules usually leads to grid penalties for the race. Overtaking is strictly prohibited during the race and time penalties are a common penalty applied by the stewards.
The flag may also be accompanied by a board with the letters “SC” on it, notifying drivers about a Safety Car intervention in more serious cases.
This is a flag that is usually seen immediately following the yellow flags by the marshals and means that normal racing conditions are in effect again. It may come at the end of a section where a yellow flag is applied to notify the drivers where they can start pushing and overtaking once again. It is also displayed at the start of the race and the safety car restarts.
A flag we do not see as often as the aforementioned two is the red flag. It is displayed in more extreme situations, either when the weather is too bad or a serious incident. In contrast to the yellow and the green, it is not displayed at the discretion of the marshals, but following a command from the race director, who notifies marshals all around the track to show it.
In practice or qualifying, drivers must immediately reduce their speed and return to their garages slowly, without overtaking. In practice sessions, the countdown timer to the end of the session is not stopped, so other activities at the track are not affected too badly. For qualifying though, due to its importance, the timer stops and is resumed when the circuit is cleared.
For the race, all drivers slow down immediately and proceed to the end of the pitlane, as the action stops. After that, the race may resume or may not. In the first case, depending on the condition of the track, the action may resume as a standing start from the grid, or a rolling restart, just like after a safety car period. In the second case, drivers score reduced points if the race stops before it reaches 75% of the originally scheduled distance.
Another commonly-used flag is the blue flag. It is displayed to either a slow-moving driver or one about to get lapped, notifying him that he must move out of the way of faster cars approaching. If a driver goes by more than three marshal posts displaying a blue flag and ignores it, a penalty may be applied. Although their usage is crucial for the safe running of a session, drivers are usually notified of approaching cars by their teams via team radio.
Here is a flag that we do not see as often. Despite it being used to indicate the start of the final lap in other racing series, like NASCAR or IndyCar, in Formula 1 it has a totally different meaning. It is displayed to drivers to notify them of slow-moving drivers ahead. In rare occurrences, it may even indicate that another vehicle, like the medical car or an ambulance is ahead.
Yellow and Red striped flag
This is a flag that warns drivers of hazard related to the track surface. Sometimes it is used for debris, but its use is more prominent in cases like a slippery surface, regardless of whether it is due to oil on track or rain falling on track.
These are the flags that are displayed on marshal posts all around a circuit. The next four are only shown to drivers from the post on the start-finish line.
Black and White flag
Do not get confused with the chequered flag; this flag is divided diagonally, with one half being black and the other white. Although it is given by race control, it is rarely displayed physically. It refers to a specific driver, to warn them of unsportsmanlike conduct, which could lead to a penalty if repeated. In case it is displayed, it is accompanied by the corresponding driver’s number.
Black and Orange flag
Like the previous flag, this one is rarely displayed physically and it also isrefers to a specific driver. It is a black flag with an orange circle in the middle and is used to notify a driver and his team of damage that must be repaired as soon as possible. Nowadays, it is usually communicated via a message from race control.
Here is another rare flag nowadays, and the most severe, as it means disqualification from the race. While we have seen disqualifications in recent years, they usually come after the conclusion of a session. The last time the black flag was displayed in-race was in the 2007 Canadian GP, when Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella were disqualified for exiting the pitlane while the red light was on.
It is only fitting we conclude this feature with the chequered flag, one which has a meaning that is known even to people who are not racing fans. It signifies the end of a session. For practice or qualifying, once it has been waved, drivers cannot start a new timed lap, but they may finish their current ones if they wish so. As for the race, it is waved to all competitors, with the ultimate goal being to reach it first and win the Grand Prix!
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