Peter Windsor on blue flags
I have to admit that I’ve been in two minds about the blue flag situation, ever since they came up with that rule requiring a blue-flagged driver to move over within three corners. Or, to be more specific, due to the savage penalties incurred by the slower driver for not doing so.
Those of us who were at Zolder in 1982, when Gilles Villeneuve lost his life because a slower driver didn’t move over for him in qualifying, have, I think, always been very pro-blue. On the other hand, as you will read on page 106 of this issue, ‘using the traffic’ is to some extent a part of the racing driver’s lost art, which is right up there along with heel-and-toeing, judging gaps and distances, noticing photographers near the apex, and braking to within a millimetre from any given speed.
Stirling Moss could do all that and so much more, and he won the Monaco Grand Prix in 1961, against all the odds, in part because of his perfect ‘use of the traffic’, by which I mean his innate feel for when to put a back-marker between himself and Richie Ginther, how to wake up said back-marker in the first place – and exactly where to pass him even when the slower driver was asleep.
That’s a lost art, as I say, because these days, all the drivers are spoon-fed down to the lowest common denominator. Now, if you’re about to be lapped by Lewis Hamilton, it makes no difference at all whether you are a Sauber driver on the wrong tyres in 18th place or Fernando Alonso doing valiant battle somewhere in the midfield with a Force India and a Williams. The leader’s behind you! Move over! Ignore him at your peril!
I’ve lost count of the number of decent mid-field scraps that have been dissolved by the blue flags induced by a solitary race leader – and all this happening at a time when we need as much racing as we can possibly create.
I mention the lowest common denominator factor simply because there is an enormous difference between a lazy, unaware, slower driver who is suddenly going to move across on you, and a proper racing driver who shouldn’t be expected to come right out of the throttle, or put himself on the marbles, just to let the leaders through. Because of the occasional appearances of the former, the latter are now savagely strait-jacketed.
That sort of thing isn’t right and it isn’t, as I keep saying, good for the show.
The whole situation is further complicated by aerodynamics. In the days of Stirling Moss – pre-wings, in other words – you could run as close to another car as you dared. Today, as Max Verstappen so vociferously informed us in China, where he couldn’t get within two seconds of Romain Grosjean because of the understeer that would ensue, it’s a much more awkward story. An obvious step forward would be a complete wing/aero ban – something I would absolutely love to see, but presume will never happen.
Option two, we all hoped, was that the new F1 chassis regulations would enable the cars to run closer to one another: that was what the new rear wing, running in more ‘benign’ air, was all about.
So much for the experts. Benign or not, the wider, more draggy 2017 F1 shapes are actually worse than last year’s cars in terms of turbulence. If Max Verstappen couldn’t handle the wake of a Haas around the Shanghai International Circuit, then all bets are off. Having said that, Daniel Ricciardo didn’t appear to have too much trouble sitting closely behind the rear wing of his team-mate, which suggests that the turbulence varies from car to car… or from monkey seat to monkey seat, if you want to put it that way.
Option three is to go wild with the blue flag rule. Why three corners? Why not three laps? So what if it bunches up the racing. Isn’t that what we want?
I italicise this because I’m actually paraphrasing the words of a significant Formula 1 official who wishes to remain nameless. Me? I’m not so sure. I do think that Lewis Hamilton, for example, is better in traffic than Nico Rosberg was, and that it would have been nice to showcase that difference from time to time. And I love watching Lewis thinking his way through the lap, be it slowing down by just the right amount before his pole attempt or, when he is given the chance, by weaving his way through the jam when he happens to make a slow start.
I would enjoy a three-lap rule in this respect but then the downside would be the danger. As Mark Webber will tell you a million times over, the most treacherous thing in racing is speed differential, and there’s no doubt that giving a slower car
three laps of leniency will induce the drivers of the faster cars to make a wrong pass at the wrong place or time. That’s part of the art – or non-art – of being a racing driver, you might say, but then the whole business of artificially bottling the blue-flag zone is in itself contrary to what the 1961 Monaco GP was all about. Stirling’s ability in traffic was about choosing the right moments. His finesse was in the timing as well as the execution.
Option four? Accept the shortcomings of the wider cars and open up the blue flag to a two- or three-second gap (rather than just one second). That’s basically what the Max rant in China was all about: one second of turbulence in the old cars equates to two or three in the new ones.
Me? I still miss Gilles Villeneuve; his was a needless accident. I still thirst for everything I can learn about Moss. I have total respect for Max Verstappen; I love watching Lewis, and Max, in traffic.
So, yes: I think the time is up for wings on Formula 1 cars. Let’s get rid of ’em. Let’s go back to racing – with and between the back-markers.
Exciting midfield battles are all too often ruined by blue flags, which ensure that the race leaders can pass through traffic unscathed
Stirling Moss on his way to victory at the 1961 Monaco GP, his success largely due to his ‘use of the traffic’