A Meditation on Red Flags for Entertainment Purposes

Three weeks ago, the most important race of the motorsport year was held. The 107th Indianapolis 500 saw Josef Newgarden beat last year’s winner Marcus Ericsson on the final lap to take his premier win at the prestigious race to add to his Indy Lights and two IndyCar Series world titles. However, said Marcus Ericsson was very displeased at the outcome of the race and the way the last fifteen laps were organised. 

On lap 184, a crash involving Felix Rosenqvist and Kyle Kirkwood left debris throughout the entire turn 2, forcing a red flag. As is common in IndyCar Racing, a couple of laps under yellow followed after the red flag. The green flag was shown for the start of the 192nd lap. As cautions beget cautions, another incident came to nobody’s surprise. Ericsson defended aggressively against Patricio O’Ward, resulting in the Mexican retiring from the race. Behind O’Ward, Scott McLaughlin made contact with Simon Pagenaud, a collision that also took out Rookie of the Year candidate Agustín Hugo Canapino. Yet again, too much debris was on the track to enable race control to clean it up without throwing out a red flag. Once again, a couple of laps were left under yellow flag conditions before racing resumed with five laps to spare, and sure enough that period under green did not last. A five-car accident forced yet another caution period. To avoid the race ending under yellow, a third red flag was shown (an Indianapolis 500 race record). Sure enough, IndyCar got their green-white-checkers finish and, as established, got a great fight for the win.

After the race, Marcus Ericsson was displeased with the way race control had handled the issue. He decried the choice to go with a red flag for the last accident. His claim was that the choice was dangerous and that the race should have ended under yellow. Other drivers have rejected that claim: Tony Kanaan in particular pointed out that people were not happy when his own victory in 2013 came under yellow flags.

This topic and the reactions of both drivers and fans to the end of one of the best races of the year so far and arguably the greatest spectacle in motorsport bring to the surface a certain topic that has gotten a lot of mileage over the last few years, but has only been the conclusion of a development that has been ongoing for a much longer time:

The use of safety regulations for the explicit (and in some cases sole) purpose of spicing up racing.

One of the inherent traits of races, not just in motorsport, is that it is functionally impossible to interrupt a motorsport competition without significantly altering the competitive score. If, for example, a soccer match is interrupted because some goofs in the crowd throw flares onto the pitch when it is 2:0 for the away side in the 73rd minute, the game can be resumed with the score remaining 2:0 with little issue. The worst possible outcome is that a single contextual event was interrupted when the game was aborted.

Of course, there are still things that are altered by such an interruption. Teams get a break, exhausted competitors can gather a second wind that they may not have gotten, coaches can go over strategy in a way that normally would not be possible, etc. Famously, first baseman Anthony Rizzo credits the rain interruption of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series as a key moment in winning that game, as Jason Alias Heyward was able to give the Chicago Cubs a rousing speech to get them motivated for the decisive moments of the game. 

Despite that, the previous events of the competition do not become “undone”, a team that has worked hard for an advantage does not find it wiped away by factors outside of their control. Not so in racing. It does not matter how much in control you were, if a race is neutralised, your advantage is gone (there is the possible exception of lapping the field, at which point a neutralisation would not result in that outcome, but given as that is something that never happens in contemporary motorsport, it is not an exception worth paying much attention to).

It was inevitable that some series would figure out that this fact can be used to add additional entertainment value to a race. The idea of a “competition caution” goes back all the way to the 80s, but found increased popularity in the 2010s. After NASCAR introduced the concept, hesitation in other series to follow was limited – in its honesty. Other series have been more and more willing to use the yellow and red flags to improve the entertainment product. One early example of unnecessary red flags for the sake of entertainment was in qualifying for the 2012 British Grand Prix, which was interrupted to give drivers caught out by the arrival of the rain a second shot at making Q3; a decision that helped Fernando Alonso and set the base for a much more entertaining Sunday race, in which Alonso and Mark Webber had a breathtaking fight for the win that most likely would not have happened had Alonso needed to make up ground from the mid-10s.

However, very few series still maintain the honesty of NASCAR and Gerhard Berger, who openly admitted in his function as ITR chairman that he preferred the safety car over all other methods of neutralising racing in a dangerous situation because of its entertainment potential. In particular during his run on top of the DTM, the series was very liberal in its use of the safety car. As the series had a forced pitstop in the race, the safety car would pretty much screw over drivers that had not made their mandatory pitstop by the time it appeared on the track and thus create mixed-up results.

All of this forces a necessary discussion as these safety elements have been misused in ways that not only have created dispute in their necessity – an absolute no-go in terms of safety regulations, especially in a sport as inherently dangerous as motorsport – but also have often resulted in scenarios where more risk is actively created than is prevented. 

However, this is actually not that easy a point to agree on. It is of course easy to say that red flags, safety cars and so on should not be misused to spice up otherwise comparatively dull competitions, but there are a number of reasons this happens and why it is hard to practice what is being preached.

The premier reason is, to be blunt, that the strategy works. For every silly mess in the mould of a 2023 Australian Grand Prix, or every anti-climatic restart like in race one of last year’s ITM Auckland SuperSprint where the order hardly changes despite a late race restart, there are multiple 2023 Indianapolis 500s or 2021 Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, which deliver thrilling last-lap passes and public attention. In a world where competition in the entertainment sector is harsh and broadcasting partners pay more and more money, it is genuinely hard to discard such an effective sports entertainment tool. The author tries to imagine having to justify to the commercial rights holder the choice to actively avoid such decisions, especially in the climax of the motorsport year, and he does not imagine a very pleasant conversation.

The second, and arguably more important point, is that we as fans are, up to a point, willing to accept it. Sure, there are always some complaints – especially when fan favourites are involved and get the short end of the stick – but history is generally quick to forget them and only recall the thrilling conclusion of a race caused by an interruption, whether necessary or not. This applies when, like the Indianapolis 500, it had been a very exciting and great race even before the late red flags; it especially becomes a relevant factor if the race had been extremely dull beforehand. During reviews of the inaugural Miami Grand Prix, for example, the late safety car and the late fights it caused were described by fans as the one saving grace of an otherwise rather boring affair.

Will anyone but Marcus Ericsson and his most dedicated fans still care that the outcome was arguably unfair by the time the next Indianapolis 500 rolls around? For that matter, does anyone care right now? Ericsson himself possibly will have moved on already, since professional athletes are mostly aware that getting hung up on one specific loss, no matter how dramatic, can derail a career. Given as Ericsson is currently second in the championship standings, he will probably instead look at attacking Palou for first rather than continue looking into the justice or lack thereof of a late red flag.

The author himself is no exception to this principle. He has argued for the legality of the final events of the infamous 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and he would stand by that even if the outcome had been different or the roles of Verstappen and Hamilton had been reversed. However, he is not foolish enough to think that it would have been anywhere near as clear a conviction as it is right now. While the argument is born out of cold analysis of the rulebook, its fervor is undeniably driven by Schadenfreude, by seeing the two most insufferable personalities in Formula 1 history (Sir Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff) drowning in despair. 

To pick another example less charged with the emotional discourse current Formula 1 stars tend to provoke: Alessandro Zanardi. During the 2018 season, DTM allowed each of the three manufacturers to enter a guest starter – BMW decided to alter their M4 to enable Alessandro Zanardi to compete. Earlier, the author wrote about the safety car massively influencing racing in DTM during this time period. This came into play at the second race of the 2018 Misano round, shifting the fortunes of the aforementioned Zanardi around. The race started under wet conditions, with a drying track. The majority of the field – but not Zanardi – went onto dry tyres, but immediately after they did, the rain returned with force. This was set to give those who had not yet changed tyres a massive advantage – an advantage that immediately was wiped out when Lucas Auer spun into the gravel trap. However, it was then returned to them because the safety car collected then-race leader Eduardo Mortara with little care towards the order behind them – resulting in all drivers that had pitted, with the exception of eventual race winner Joel Eriksson, being forced a lap down.

This left Zanardi to collect an easy fifth place despite his lack of pace in one of the most heartwarming moments of the motorsport year of 2018. Rationally analysed a fluke result caused by oddities within the safety regulations – but the author will not insult the intelligence of anyone reading this by pretending to care. He smiled when Zanardi crossed the line, he smiled when rewatching parts of the race to retell the story of that race and then skipped towards the team radio at the end and smiled some more. It follows that any argument towards giving the safety car as little influence as possible towards deciding the outcome of a race by the author would be undermined by his hypocrisy. It is a safe bet to say that the person reading this will also have similar scenarios for their favourites.

So with these points in mind, is it any wonder that it is hard for racing fans and racing series to practice what they preach in terms of safety? 

Yet, this is an issue that needs to be talked about and that must eventually see good solutions found. How those solutions are supposed to look is something the author himself has no good answer for. However, some thoughts were shared on this topic in the discussion following the race on the GPR Discord. The most radical idea was to have all interruptions of a race be red flags, i.e. a complete stoppage of the race. While it would cause massive issues in making race duration completely unpredictable among other issues, it would create an environment of fairness because the various methods of race neutralisation and interruption would be gone, everyone would know there is no alternative to get them towards the end of the race with a – for that party – desirable outcome and thus the debate on whether to use them, i.e. end a race under caution, would be off the table forever.

A less radical variation of that idea floated was the concept of a series outright declaring that any incident causing a caution or a safety car period would be red-flagged in the last X laps (for a 200-laps race like the Indianapolis 500, the last 20 laps would seem like a good choice). This does reduce the problem of unpredictable race lengths, but more or less completely removes any facade that sports entertainment is more important than fairness or even safety itself. Plus the finishes would suffer, as while last-lap action can make up for a lot of waiting (it even helped the absolute drag that was the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix into legendary status), if it merely delays the dominant driver getting his dominant win, it will be perceived as very annoying.

Regardless of what the solution is, it must be found and implemented in the majority of motorsports – the consequence of a failure to do so could be terrible. As the common wisdom goes, every action provokes a reaction. It is only a question of time until a series will try to sell itself on not using safety cars, red flags and other options in an inane appeal to traditionalists. Especially in a motorsport world that features more and more otherwise completely inseparable GT3 series, that seems like an inevitability. Once that line has been crossed, safety advancements of the last thirty years could be rolled back. This is an outcome that must be avoided at any cost.

For reasons that have been established, it is impossible to separate safety features from the entertainment side of the sport. Still, it is essential to make the approach to these things coherent, reliable and understandable both to fans and competitors so nobody is tempted to abandon the ever-essential values of motorsport safety for a reactionary response towards the current arbitrary standard.

Governing bodies of motorsport across the planet – you’re up.

Sources: DTM, NBC, racefans.net, RACER, Sports Illustrated, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Image Sources: Dan Smith (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, resized), freepic.com, IndyCar, Morio (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, resized)