Let’s go back to the future on backmarkers
F1 got the blues in Suzuka. And I’m not even talking about Lewis Hamilton and his latest trail of shenanigan bunting.
No, plenty others joined in, but for their own reasons. Appropriately their blues were about blue flags. And the response to them. Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen were all heard during the Japanese race complaining about those they were lapping being tardy to clear off. Sometimes in colourful terms. A few onlookers reckoned too that the time lost may have contributed to Vettel losing third place to Hamilton in the final round of stops.
But, nothing personal guys, I’m afraid that any driver complaining about delays from picking through tail-enders gets no sympathy from me.
The sport has changed in this regard, and changed relatively recently. It’s not all that long ago that working your way through lapped ‘traffic’ was part of the game and an important one at that. One that often separated the great from the merely good indeed. And this is one thing that I’d like to see the sport go back to the future on.
The sport generally was different back in the day, so it’s worth a re-tread. Blue flags – advising that someone lapping you is behind – have existed in a physical sense for decades of course but were for a long time almost never backed by any sort of sanction. Sanction didn’t exist indeed more generally in the sport, beyond the ultimate punishment of disqualification as well as that a one minute penalty was applied peculiarly for jumping the start (beyond these there was the occasional fine). The high bar meant little was punished, albeit sometimes rather trifling offences – push starts and the like – got the denouement of being kicked out (bewildering steward calls in F1 are far from new). Mario Andretti once likened such cases to getting the death penalty for a parking offence.
Only egregious cases of blocking by backmarkers, perhaps lasting several laps, would have a chance of being called a foul, such as Clay Regazzoni being black-flagged in the 1975 Watkins Glen race (which resulted amusingly in then Ferrari boss Luca Montezemolo – yes, him – landing a punch on a race steward…). Sometimes not even those acts would result in censure. Some of those about to be lapped would move graciously to one side, but many would not. The likes of Andrea de Cesaris, Rene Arnoux and Philippe Alliot, such were their reputations, always were approached with a certain level of trepidation.
And a lot has been lost with the current practice of all drivers leaping out of the way and applying the anchors upon seeing a blue flag. Lapping is a lost art to the sport, and one that many of F1’s greatest practitioners, Ayrton Senna most notably, were particularly skilled at. The late great Brazilian’s modus operandi, which got him many Grand Prix wins including plenty not in the best car, was to claim pole with his unparalleled qualifying skill, and then blast off at the maximum at the race start – as if someone flicked a switch – to establish a lead as most others felt their way in. Then once his opponents started to claw his advantage back they’d soon meet the backmarkers, when Senna’s skills really set him apart. It’s not exaggeration to say that had the current practice on lapping existed in Senna’s day you would most likely have to take away ten or more of his 41 triumphs.
Some of the lapping in an F1 race, and not just by Senna, took your breath away. Darting into gaps; shut-your-eyes chances taken. Would this be the time such-and-such would keep coming and turn in? The trouble was usually you couldn’t afford to hang back just in case…
More broadly dicing through traffic greatly added to a race’s variation and competitiveness, closing up leaders and the like. Many iconic moments resulted from a leader being ‘baulked’, such as Nigel Mansell’s opportunistic pass on the self-same Senna to win in Hungary in 1989, after Senna had an almost infinitesimal breath on the throttle when Stefan Johansson’s Onyx momentarily was in his path.
Michael Schumacher in his early F1 days also was a master at it, and I recall in 1995 it being estimated that he gained 30 seconds per race on rivals, just in the traffic. What any team would give for a free half-minute today…
But it was in 1995 that the worm turned. F1 had developed an additional, in-between, penalty of a 10 second ‘stop-go’ a few years earlier and come 1995 suddenly any driver not leaping out of the way of those lapping pronto could rely on getting one of them.
The strict appliance of blue flags owed something to the modern and by now chronic problem of ‘dirty air’ in another car’s wake, which meant passing even those several seconds a lap slower without cooperation was problematic (this difficulty was another thing to manifest noticeably in 1995 compared with previous years).
“It used to be a core skill, of managing the traffic” said Martin Brundle in Suzuka. “But then cars had the aerodynamics of a double-decker bus and it wasn’t so difficult to follow another car and pass him.
“Unfortunately it’s a problem of the aero age we have now, you can’t unlearn what they’ve learned about making these cars so fast.”
On the flipside though drivers these days have DRS to assist them.
While even those being lapped have to drive their own race, and as things are many spend much of it with eyes on the rear view. I recall Daniel Ricciardo back in his days at straggling HRT (remember them?) saying that the main thing he had to learn when racing for them was how best to let those lapping him through with minimising the time lost for himself. That, given especially that he was lapped several times, was the chief discriminator of how his races went. And even plenty challenging for points may have to cede to one a lap ahead on several occasions during a Sunday afternoon. It seems no way to go racing, even for one at the tail.
In a point made by Vettel and others in Japan too some sections of track – particularly where one corner follows another quickly – simply do not lend themselves to getting out of the way in any case. There are plenty of these at Suzuka.
“They’re as equally frustrated” added Brundle of those being lapped. “Their entire race is wrecked, they’re having a good fight for what to them is a world championship as it’s a world championship point, and they’re in a close fight. If they go really off line their tyres get really dirty and it takes two or three laps to clean them up.
“It cuts both ways – we don’t get radio messages from drivers [being lapped, on TV] saying ‘that just cost me ten seconds’.”
And as David Croft noted, doing away with blue flag sanction would also head off a lot of (sometimes tiresome) argument. “At least you’ve got consistency” he said of a world without them. “If you’ve got no blue flags, everybody knows exactly what’s going to be going on out there – if you get held up you get held up, it’s just part of racing. You’ve got to use your racing skill to overtake, haven’t you?
“And it provides a lot more entertainment. Let’s face it when people get held up gaps start to be reduced a little bit and then we can see maybe the leaders getting a bit more overtaking action as well.
“Let’s just try it for a couple of races, shall we?”
I’m sure that Ayrton Senna for one would have approved.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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