Dulling Down the Sport: FIA Considers Digitized Checkered Flag After F1 Mishap

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Over the weekend, model Winnie Harlow mistakenly waved the checkered flag a lap early at otherwise dull Canadian Formula One Grand Prix. While not the first incident of its kind, the error has pushed the FIA into considering the adoption of a digitized checkered flag, leaving the black-and-white banner to serve in a more symbolic capacity.

Apparently, Harlow had been informed by an official that the race was ending and prematurely flew the flag — an understandable mistake on her part.

Sebastian Vettel still nabbed his 50th career grand prix win, despite the confusion. However, there are dangers stemming from accidentally calling a race early that the FIA wants to address. With drivers perpetually plugged into their team via radio headsets, it’s unlikely most would automatically assume the event was over. But risks remain if the pilot of a lead car suddenly assumes victory has been cinched. Bleeding off speed for a victory lap could result in pursuing cars passing or even striking the vehicle.

The real danger exists in the possibility that track marshals could return to the field prematurely. F1 race director Charlie Whiting said safety is a chief concern, adding that the FIA is considering the implementation of an automated system that would be incorporated on the light boards above the start/finish line.

“I think we’d need to probably think about having a better end of race signal,” Whiting told Autosport in an interview. “The checkered flag is traditional, but it’s something that, as we’ve seen, is prone to mistakes. You could, and it would be quite straightforward for us, make the big black panel show a checkered flag at the appropriate time. But if you’re going to do it automatically, then you’ve got to think about exactly when you’re going to do it, when you’re going to activate it. It’s not completely straightforward, it needs a little bit of thought.”

Whiting said the FIA will have to assess the best way to ensure such a system works. “We need to try and get to the situation where drivers only look at the checkered flag on the light panel. If they don’t see that, then the race hasn’t ended.”

While the need for safety in racing events is understandable, human error is one of the main reasons people like watching motorsport. As evolved as we’d all like to pretend we are, there aren’t a lot internet video compilations of drivers posting stellar lap times without incident. There are, however, countless examples of near-misses and horrific crashes waiting just a click away. People love the sense of risk that racing entails.

That’s why Group B is looked back upon with such reverence. It was a wildly dangerous division that made the rest of the already risky rallying scene look like child’s play. Unfortunately, it flew too close to the sun. Despite becoming insanely popular almost immediately, the FIA ultimately decided Group B was too dangerous to continue. That decision also contributed to its now mythical status.

It’s definitely a balancing act. On one hand, you want to ensure people aren’t being killed or injured. But you don’t want to dilute your events into mistake-free zones where nothing truly exciting happens, either. Honestly, with the exception of an ugly off into the gravel, the flag mishap at the end of the race was the most exciting thing that happened in Montreal over the weekend.

The automated flag isn’t a sure thing. For now, Whiting only mentions it as a possibility. “Whether we need to go to that length to rectify a situation that happens every 10 years is arguable,” he said. “But it’s something that I’ll certainly be looking at.”

It actually happens a little more frequently than that (and typically involves a celebrity), but F1 says it has no intention of stopping the use of high-profile flag bearers — even if the piece of fabric eventually becomes a meaningless prop.

[Image: FIA]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 9 comments
  • JMII JMII on Jun 14, 2018

    Talk about an over reaction. I believe this only happened ONE other time in F1 history. So 2 times in 983 races since 1950. Yep the system is clearly broken and needs to be fixed.

  • Lon888 Lon888 on Jun 15, 2018

    Any time there's human involvement there will be human failure. Just live with it...sheesh

  • Vulpine My first pickup truck was a Mitsubishi Sport... able to out-accelerate the French Fuego turbo by Renault at the time. I really liked the brand back then because they built a model for every type of driver, including the rather famous 300/3000GT AWD sports car (a car I really wanted, but couldn't afford.)
  • Vulpine A sedan version of either car makes it no longer that car. We've already seen this with the Mustang Mach-E and almost nobody acknowledges it as a Mustang.
  • Vulpine Not just Chevy, but GM has been shooting itself in the foot for the last three decades. They've already had to be rescued once in that period, and if they keep going as they are, they will need another rescue... assuming the US govt. will willing to lose more money on them.
  • W Conrad Sedans have been fine for me, but I were getting a new car, it would be an SUV. Not only because less sedans available, but I can't see around them in my sedan!
  • Slavuta More hatchbacks