Flags In Formula 1 Explained

There are only two methods to relay information to an F1 driver reaching speeds over 200mph.  The team can communicate to the driver via the radio or by using a flag that the driver can see as they drive past.  But what do the different flags look like, and what do they mean to the driver?

Ten unique flags are used in Formula 1:

  • Checkered – completion
  • Yellow – Danger
  • Green – Start
  • Red – Stop
  • Red/Yellow stripped- Slippery track
  • White – Slow car on track
  • Blue – Fast car behind
  • Black Flag with Orange Circle – Car Damaged
  • Diagonal Black /White – Driver Offence
  • Black – Disqualified

Read on to discover the types of flags used in Formula 1, their meanings, and some interesting black flag incidents.

The Different F1 Flags And Meanings

10 flags are used in Formula 1.  Even though the F1 cars have a digital display in the cockpit for the drivers to inform them of the current flag condition, the marshals still wave flags.  Below are the different flags used in F1 and what they mean when they are displayed.

The Checkered Flag

The Checkered flag is a flag that is associated with the completion of the race and the one flag that drivers want to see.  The black and white Checkered flag is also waved to indicate the end of a practice and qualifying session.

Though the exact history of the black and white checkered flag is unknown, it is still used to this day.  The first recorded use was at the Vanderbilt Cup in New York in 1906, when it was displayed as the French race driver, Louis Wagner, won the race.

The Checkered flag is a “powerful” flag because if it is waved at any time during the race, it will signal the end of the session no matter how many laps remain.  There are 4 instances when this has happed in Formula 1, causing the race to be shortened.

Formula 1 RaceWinning Driver
1978 Argentinian Grand PrixMario Andretti
1985 British Grand PrixAlain Prost
2014 Chinese Grand PrixLewis Hamilton
2018 Chinese Grand PrixSebastian Vettel

If the Checkered flag is waved prematurely, the race results classifications are taken from the last time the leading driver crossed the finish line.  This would be bad news if a driver took a position in the previous few corners before the end of the race.

The Yellow Flag

The yellow flag represents “Danger” when waved by a track marshal.  There are two variants of the yellow flag, a single waved yellow flag (1 flag), and a double waved yellow flag (2 flags).  Suppose, for whatever reason, a driver fails to reduce speed during a yellow flag period.  In that case, they may receive a penalty or disqualification.

The single waved yellow flag indicates danger next to the track or in the vicinity.  Cars may not overtake and must reduce speed until green flag conditions.  This could be due to a car that has gone off the track or debris that may need to be collected by a track Marshal.

The double yellow indicates danger on the track, which may be on the racing line.  Cars may not overtake and must significantly reduce speed or stop on track if told by a track Marshal.  This could be due to oil, debris on the racing line, or a car that has stopped on the track.

During a Safety car (SC) or Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period, the yellow flags will be waved next to a display board with “SC” or “VSC” on it.  This is due to an incident on track, so the drivers maintain a slower speed, and no-overtaking is permitted.

On the starting grid, there is a Marshal at every grid position with a yellow flag.  If a car fails to start or a driver raises their hand, indicating a problem with the car, The Marshal will wave the flag as this is a dangerous situation.

The Green Flag

The green flag is waved to indicate to the drivers that the track is clear and racing may commence.  The green flag is waved after a yellow flag area to indicate that it has been cleared.  A green flag is used to start any practice or qualifying session.

The flag is waved to start a rolling restart, and on a standing start, the green flag informs Race Control that all the cars are ready and in position at the starting grid. 

The Red Flag

A red flag is waved to stop the session or race at a racetrack.  This could be due to adverse weather conditions such as mist, heavy precipitation, or in the event of an accident on the track.  When the red flag is waved, the gantry lights on the start/ finish straight will illuminate to halt the cars.

There have been a total of 78 race red flags as of the end of the 2021 F1 season, with last year having 5.  These were in Emilia Romagna, UK, Hungarian, Belgium, and Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Striped Red And Yellow Flag

The yellow and red striped flag indicates that the track conditions have become slippery on that particular section.  This could be due to excessive rainfall or an oil spill on the track.  If a car has gone off the track into the sand trap and rejoined the track, there may be gravel on the track surface.  In this instance, the flag will be waved.

When a track Marshal rocks the flag in a side-to-side motion, this tells the drivers that a small animal is on track.  This is commonly used in Canada as the Ground Hogs burrow near the edge of the track, or they just want to enjoy the Grand Prix.

The White Flag

A waved white flag informs the drivers that a slow-moving vehicle is on track.  These slow-moving vehicles may be an F1 car, ambulance, medical car, fire truck, recovery truck, or a mobile crane.  The white flag is treated as a caution, and slowing down is mandatory as it is usually accompanied by yellow flag conditions.

It is common to see the white flag waved at the last corner of the track and on the pit straight at the end of a practice session.  This is because some drivers will be doing practice starts.

In 2013, Sebastian Vettel spotted the white flag being waved on track with no yellow flag (incident).  He slowed down as a precaution and with good reason, as the Race Director released a fire truck on the track before a safety car could slow down the race cars.

The Blue Flag

The blue flag is waved to slower cars on the track, informing them that there is a faster car behind and they must let it past without obstructing it.  This is commonly used on drivers that are a lap down from the leaders (lapped cars).  If a driver ignores three consecutive blue flags, they will receive a penalty.

It was commonplace for the drivers to ignore the blue flags, but the FIA has been strict at enforcing the blue flag rule.  This was noted at the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix, where Nikita Mazepin received a penalty for ignoring the flags. 

Black Flag With A Solid Orange Circle

The Black Flag with a Solid Orange Circle or, as it is commonly referred to, the “meatball,” is waved to inform a specific driver that their car has been damaged.  In this instance, they must return to the pit lane immediately.  If the driver does not return to the pit lane, they will be disqualified.

This flag is often used for damage that is not noticeable to the driver of the car.  This could be damage such as loose/open body panels or any part that may fall off and cause injury to other drivers.

The Diagonal Black And White Flag

The diagonal black and white flag is a warning to a particular driver for un-sportsman-like behavior.  This flag will be waved accompanied by a board with the offending driver’s race number.  If the offending driver continues with the infringement, they will receive a disqualification.

Offenses can be for weaving into the braking zone of another driver, cutting in front of another driver, or deliberately slowing down a faster driver.  Ferrari Driver Charles Leclerc received a diagonal black and white flag during the 2019 Italian Grand Prix for aggressive defense against Lewis Hamilton.

Max Verstappen got the same flag at the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix for the same type of defending against Hamilton.  Max was overheard on the team radio saying, “Yeah, Perfect.  Say Hi!” when receiving the warning.   

The Black Flag

The black flag is a disqualification flag, and no driver wants to see it being waved.  The black flag is waved, accompanied by a board displaying the driver’s racing number.  The driver must return immediately to the pit lane when the flag is waved.  A driver may be disqualified for a breach of technical specification, dangerous driving, or un-sportsman-like behavior.

The FIA does not use the black flag regularly as they have adopted other methods to punish drivers for offenses.  These can be grid place penalties, time penalties, race license penalty points, and race bans.

Editorial credit: Michael Cola / Shutterstock.com

Black Flags Waved In Formula 1

F1 has had its fair share of black flags; below are a few incidents that made the history books.

Juan Pablo Montoya 2004 United States Grand Prix

While the F1 cars were on the grid awaiting the green light to start the formation lap, Montoya’s car did not manage to start its engine.  This prompted the grid Marshals to wave the yellow flag.  Montoya quickly jumped out of his car and ran towards his pit garage, leaving his car on the starting grid.

Montoya jumped over the pit wall and climbed into the spare car.  After leaving the pit lane, he joined the formation lap and started the race from the back.  Montoya fought his way back into 5th position.  On lap 57, the Race Director waved the Black flag to Montoya, disqualifying him.  He returned to the pit the next lap and parked his car in the team garage.

Gilles Villeneuve 1981 Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas Grand Prix

Gilles Villeneuve managed to qualify 3rd in his Ferrari.  The F1 cars completed their formation lap and started lining up on the grid.  Villeneuve lined up his car in the 3rd position, but he had intentionally stopped with his left wheels past the position marker.  This would give him a clearer driving line at the start as he was closer to the center of the track.

The race Stewart immediately flagged this as an infringement and waved the black flag as the race started.  The Ferrari driver did not notice the disqualification and continued the race none-the-wiser.  Unfortunately, Gilles Villeneuve spun off the track on lap 23 and retired from the race.  Later, the result was changed from a “did not finish” to a disqualification.

Filipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella 2007 Canadian Grand Prix

The 2007 Canadian Grand Prix was filled with race incidents, with a total of four crashes during the race.  This was a memorable moment for Lewis Hamilton as this was his first win in Formula 1.  It will also be remembered for a double black flag disqualification.  After an incident on track, the safety car was deployed.  This gave many teams a chance to bring in their cars for a pit stop.

Filipe Massa in the Ferrari and Giancarlo Fisichella in the BMW came in for a pit stop.  During the pit stops, the pit lane exits red stop light came on to keep the cars from exiting due to slow-moving traffic on the straight.  Unfortunately, Filipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella did not stop at the red light and left the pit lane.  Both drivers were black-flagged and disqualified.

Alain Prost 1986 Italian Grand Prix

Alain Prost’s McLaren was unable to restart his engine on the starting grid due to a battery issue.  Prost quickly jumped out of his car and ran to his garage, leaving his non-operational car on the starting grid.  The parade lap (formation lap) started as Prost was climbing into the spare car.  Prost then started the race from the pit lane.

During the race, Prost managed a good pace in the spare car and worked his way up to 10th position.  During the race, Prost was shown the black flag because it was illegal to change cars once the parade lap had commenced.  Prost did not need to return to the pits as his McLaren’s engine exploded a lap later, and he retired from the race.

Ayrton Senna 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna was in pole position on the starting grid, and his McLaren suffered a broken gear linkage during the parade lap.  As he stopped his car on the pole position start line, he waved his hands to signal the grid Stewarts that he had a problem.  But, the race started before Senna could exit his car.

He then attempted to start the race with his damaged car but swerved all over the track forcing the race to be restarted.  This gave him time to climb into the spare car and start the race from the pit lane.  When the race restarted, Senna was in last place but quickly moved up the race order in spectacular fashion into 2nd position behind his teammate Alain Prost.

Unfortunately, Senna was shown the black flag for changing cars after the race was green flagged.  This was similar to the incident that had Prost black-flagged two years prior. 

Elio De Angelis 1981 British Grand Prix

Elio De Angelis battled to get his Lotus F1 cars engine started for the formation lap while on the starting grid allowing all the other competitors to pass him.  He eventually got the engine running and illegally passed the cars to regain his 22nd position.

De Angelis worked his way into 6th position during the race thanks to a few cars being involved in accidents but was shown the black flag by the race Stewarts on lap 18 for not slowing under yellow flag conditions.

A furious Elio De Angelis entered the pit lane on the next lap and parked his car.  He then got into an angry discussion with the Head of the RAC (The governing body of F1 at the time).  This was the first of three black flags Elio De Angelis received during his F1 career.

Michael Schumacher 1994 British Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher in the Benetton qualified in 2nd position on the grid behind Damon Hill in the Williams.  During the formation lap, Schumacher passed Damon Hill twice in an attempt to warm up his tires and prep for the race start.

The Benetton driver received a “Stop-Go” penalty on lap 14 for the formation lap incident.  The penalty needed to be served before the end of the 21st lap, but the Benetton team principal was busy arguing with the race Stewards about the penalty decision.

Lap 21 came, and Schumacher stayed out on track resulting in him being waved the black flag, but he ignored the black flag and continued on with the race.  Michael Schumacher finished in 2nd position and celebrated on the podium with race winner Damon Hill.

The FIA disqualified Schumacher two weeks later for the incident and issued him with a two-race ban.  The Benetton race team received a $500,000 fine for un-sportsman-like conduct.

Hans Heyer 1977 German Grand Prix

The Hans Heyer black flag is the strangest flag incident in the history of Formula 1.  The German driver was unable to qualify for the race in his Penski PC1 F1 car.  However, on race day, he managed to sneak himself and his race car out of the pit lane and into the race.

Hans Heyer managed to complete 8 race laps before a gearbox issue forced him to retire.  The race Stewarts noticed that he was on track and disqualified him.  This made Hans Heyer the only driver to not qualify, not finish, and be disqualified from a single race.

Al Pease 1969 Canadian Grand Prix

Al Pease only raced in three F1 races over his career.  He used outdated car technology and never had the same race pace as the other F1 cars in all three races.  In his first race in 1967, Pease finished the race 43 laps behind the race winner due to battery issues on the car.  In his second race, he was unable to start his car’s engine after the race began.

In 1969 he was involved in several race incidents with the race cars that were attempting to lap him.  He nearly collided with race leader Jacky Stewart which forced the race Stewarts to show Al Pease the black flag.  At this time, he had completed 22 laps while the leading cars were on lap 46.  This placed Al Pease in the F1 history books as the only F1 driver to be disqualified for being too slow.

Nigel Mansell 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix

Nigel Mansell in the Ferrari qualified in 3rd position for the race.  He had a good start and managed to work his way into the lead.  On lap 34, Mansell entered the pit lane for a tire change but misjudged his speed and overshot his pit box.  He promptly put the Ferrari into reverse gear and backed into the box.

Unfortunately, reversing in the pit lane is not allowed, and he was shown a black flag a few laps later.  The Ferrari driver ignored the black flag and continued racing, eventually catching up to 2nd place Ayrton Senna.  The two rivals had a grueling battle for two laps before Mansell collided with the McLaren of Senna, forcing both off the track.

Conclusion

There are ten different flags that are used in Formula 1.  The checkered, yellow, red, blue, white, green, black and white diagonal, black with an orange circle, red and yellow striped, and the dreaded black flag.  Each flag serves its purpose in keeping the drivers safe and informed while driving at high speeds on the track.  

Knowing the different flags and their meaning are essential to the drivers, and it helps the spectators understand what is happening on the circuit.

References

https://www.motorsport.com/f1/news/insider-guide-f1-flag-rules/7088025/

https://f1.fandom.com/wiki/Flag_system

https://www.sportskeeda.com/f1/racing-flags-f1

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