Red Flags, Standing Restarts, and Debates: Analyzing the Australian Grand Prix
The 2023 Australian Grand Prix of Formula 1 was marred with controversy, with three red flags and questions about F1’s eagerness to avoid safety-car finishes.
The 2023 Australian Grand Prix of Formula 1 witnessed three red flags and sparked controversy concerning the last two. Some questions that arose were whether Kevin Magnussen’s crash warranted a stoppage and if a complete standing restart after that was a prudent decision.
Others questioned if the prompt red flag demonstrated that F1’s eagerness to avoid safety-car finishes was misguided. Additionally, the unusual delay in obtaining a result, which was eventually “decided” with a reset order and a single safety car lap, also puzzled many.
It was not unexpected for the red flag to be used to guarantee a racing finish in the Australian Grand Prix of Formula 1. F1 has inclined towards ensuring this outcome as safety-car finishes have often been criticized. The appropriateness of this decision, however, depends on one crucial factor – the safety situation.
The FIA indicated that the issue was debris from wheels, and following Kevin Magnussen’s collision with the wall, there may have been enough debris on the track to pose a hazard, even at safety car speeds. A metal shard flung up at a driver following behind is a legitimate concern. Therefore, the red flag might have been a justified call.
However, it is undeniable that the FIA and F1 have established their commitment to ensuring racing finishes whenever possible. This was the primary reason for the controversy at the Abu Dhabi 2021 race. Why not regulate this?
Suppose the regulations specify that a safety car during the closing laps, determined by a percentage of the race distance, will invariably result in a red flag. In that case, everyone will be aware of the consequences, and it will enable fair strategic decisions to be made.
Moreover, it will ensure that the wisdom of having a mini-prix in such situations is thoroughly discussed. Numerous variables can influence the outcome and increase the likelihood of incidents, such as the diversity in available tires and their condition. Hence, this approach must be formalized.
No matter what approach is taken, there will always be winners and losers. However, F1 and the FIA must be explicit about their philosophy. Are late-race red flags only implemented due to safety reasons? If not, what are the guidelines for maximizing the likelihood of a racing finish?
Since many involved parties have expressed a preference for green-flag finishes in recent years, the crucial task now is to establish those guidelines and, ideally, outline them in the regulations so that everyone is aware of the rules.
It is frustrating, not only because Nico Hulkenberg was deprived of a potential first podium but generally speaking, that the late restart has proved to be entirely insignificant in terms of the competitive scenario, except for removing the Alpines. It appears that everyone’s time has been squandered, and that rule evidently requires some modification.
Regarding the late-race restart, why should anyone be dissatisfied? F1 is careening into an utterly dull season, and race control has a chance to create a thrilling finish, which it takes advantage of. It is justified by prior events in the race and a general consensus among the grid that having races conclude under a green flag is beneficial. So, why should this be regarded as negative?
If the argument is that F1 drivers cannot be trusted in a race start situation when the stakes are slightly raised, then let that point be made. However, in that case, rolling starts should be implemented throughout the season. Otherwise, many races on the calendar have limited overtaking opportunities, and a lap one start might be akin to a lap 56 restart.
The 2023 Australian Grand Prix was an example of when F1 appeared to be a nonsensical, Takeshi’s Castle-style, random embarrassment. It seems that F1 is considered a sport only during the two hours of the grand prix, and the rest of the time, it is regarded as a business. But even during the grand prix, the spectacle felt more like a demolition derby cabaret, which should be shameful for all those involved in the event.
The inappropriate use of red flags was the root cause of the problem. Race neutralizations are implemented for safety reasons, which include preparing the track for green-flag racing. This includes sweeping gravel from the racing surface, a common practice in other types of motorsports, but apparently not in F1 anymore.
Following Magnussen’s incident, there were only a tyre carcass and a few carbon parts on the track, which could have been cleared up in two laps under a safety car. Similar to what occurred in Suzuka last season, the communication from race control appeared to be lacking. Other championships, such as Formula E and the World Endurance Championship, have race directors who communicate with teams and drivers to determine the exact location of issues on the track and how clean-up operations are progressing.
Red flags should never be employed for sporting or entertainment purposes. Full stop. Nonetheless, I suspect that this has been a consideration in recent decisions made in F1. Is it a consequence of the “Drive to Survive” mentality or phenomenon? It is possible. As a result, grand prix racing may be forfeiting a significant amount of its discipline and credibility.
Whatever decision F1 makes in these situations, it appears that it cannot please everyone. If races conclude under the safety car every time there is a late-race incident, it will face a backlash. Similarly, if races are red-flagged to increase the chances of a racing finish, as demonstrated in today’s race, it may still not guarantee a satisfactory outcome, resulting in yet another backlash.
F1 and the FIA must establish their priorities and adhere to a consistent position. Is the entertainment value of late-race restarts and green-flag finishes now their top priority? They may contend that they are consistent by only red-flagging races when debris poses a danger to cars (specifically tyres) even when driving through the scene of an incident at slow speed. However, there appeared to be little agreement among the drivers regarding this approach in today’s race.
Even if they commit to a consistent stance, it can still backfire. NASCAR has had a rule called ‘Overtime’ for years, aimed at extending the race distance to avoid races concluding under neutralized conditions. Nevertheless, the merit of the rule is still being debated, as evidenced by multiple chaotic attempts to finish the race on the Austin F1 track last weekend.
This demonstrates that no matter what is done, people will find reasons to complain and argue.
The real issue that requires a fix here was the time it took to clear up, re-form the order, and conduct an unnecessary safety car lap. Prioritizing a way for races to conclude under green-flag conditions is not a flawed concept per se. Perhaps starting from full standing positions invites too much trouble, but sport is also meant to be dramatic, and F1 2023 desperately needs that.
The extensive delay waiting to determine what would happen next, followed by the tedium of waiting for an obvious result to be confirmed with a lap under yellows, could be averted by tightening procedures concerning late stoppages and incidents.
Nonetheless, overall, let us endeavor to have them racing to the flag, and it is up to the drivers to make it function. They understand the stakes involved.
Let’s be honest; if Sainz doesn’t collide with Alonso at Turn 1, and the Alpines evade each other, this would likely be a minor issue that would be forgotten within a few hours. It would not leave some drivers, teams, and fans feeling bitter during the April break.
The drivers must bear some of the responsibility, and it was not an unreasonable request to have a two-lap restart under the circumstances. Race starts are always risky, but there is a reason why standing restarts were added to the rulebook, and they should be utilized.
Whether or not it should have been employed in this specific situation is up for debate, but the drivers, including Sainz, Gasly, and likely Logan Sargeant, must acknowledge their errors.
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