F1 Fan’s Injury From Flying Debris Is Why We Have Red Flags

The red flags in Australia drew a lot of heat from fans, but that misplaced anger misses the real issue.

byLewin Day|
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The Australian Grand Prix set a new Formula 1 record as the first to feature three red flags in a single race. The repeated stoppages drew plenty of criticism online, but listen: the officials actually made the right call.

If you didn't watch the Australian GP, it was a wild one. The first red flag flew on lap 8. Officials needed to give marshalls time to clean gravel off the circuit after Alex Albon's Williams hit the wall. The second was on lap 55 after Kevin Magnussen's car crashed after touching the wall at Turn 2. With just two laps to go, the field lined up for a final restart and a dash to the finish. Instead, more carnage ensued at the first corner, leading to the third red flag of the race. A farcical stoppage period ensued where officials scrambled to figure out how to end the event. The cars eventually filed back to the chequered flag under the safety car to finish the race.

After the race, officials were criticized for throwing red flags unnecessarily. In past years, we might have seen marshalls on track clearing up debris as the cars filed by under the safety car. However, processes in F1 have changed, and for good reason. Past tragedies have demonstrated the dangers of having recovery vehicles on track with cars circulating. These days, if recovering a car looks difficult, a red flag is often the safer option. Ditto if there's excessive debris on the circuit. Nobody wants to see marshalls scattering like Skittles as the pack comes rolling through.

The past weekend demonstrated just that. Albon's crash had strewn gravel across the circuit, with a small army of marshalls deployed to sweep it up. Magnussen's crash was worse. As covered by Motorsport.com, debris actually flew over the fences, hitting spectator Will Sweet in the arm. Thankfully, his injuries were minor. That's despite the size of the debris, as captured by Sweet in his Instagram photos of the incident. It's something that should never have occurred, to begin with.

This latter incident wasn't obvious to viewers but was a clear justification for throwing a red flag. When such a dangerous event happens, it's important to bring the race to a halt for a safe and complete clean-up operation.

Speaking on the issue, commentator Martin Brundle defended the officiating decisions during the race. "Back in 2009, Felipe Massa nearly died with a piece of someone else's car coming through his cockpit," noted Brundle, adding "If there are pieces of debris on the track, you can't have them flying through the air at a couple hundred miles per hour."

In reality, fans aren't upset about red flags because they hate safety. They're upset because of their impact on the race. In this case, the first red flag spoiled the race for drivers who had dived into the pits for a tire change under the safety car. This is because red flags give all drivers a free tire change. Similarly, the standing restarts added a hot dose of chaos that jumbled up the order.

If red flags were simply treated as a pause, there'd be less frustration for fans. This would only require a change to rolling restarts and the elimination of the free tire change.

Overall, officials shouldn't be criticized for prioritizing the safety of drivers, fans, and marshalls. Instead, the focus should be on making sure that red flags can be called when needed without ruining the sport. Officials should also have clear and straightforward rules in place to end a race properly. Fundamentally, lessons need to be learned from this race if F1 is to avoid such silliness in the future.

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