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

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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]

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