Flags have been used in motorsport for decades. In Formula 1 we often see all kinds of flags being used, but there are many more that we don’t often see being used. This can leave fans wondering what the different F1 flags mean, and why they’re still used at all.
Flags in F1 are used to communicate with the driver. Marshals will use different colored flags to convey different messages, and it’s important for a Formula 1 driver to know what each of these flags means. Some flags are waved every session while others are rarely used.
New technology has made its way into F1, and the sport has developed new ways to communicate the track conditions with the drivers. However, the age-old use of flags still remains today as it is one of the most reliable ways to communicate with drivers. Below, we explain what every flag in F1 means.
Why Are Flags Used In F1?
Flags are used in F1 to communicate to the drivers while they are out on track. It’s important that the marshals are able to convey a message – such as there being a crash up ahead – to drivers. This helps the drivers to understand that they need to slow down and be more cautious going forward.
Formula 1 drivers are isolated in their cars when they’re out on track. Inside the cockpit, and underneath all of the safety gear, they are traveling at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. At these speeds, it becomes incredibly difficult to react when something suddenly happens in front of you.
Formula 1 tracks are often narrow, and if something goes wrong there’s a good chance that there could be a car or debris on the track and reacting to a crash in front of you while traveling at full racing speed is not easy at all. Marshals are placed at various points around the circuit with a set of flags to update drivers on track conditions ahead.
Flags are mainly used for safety in Formula 1, but in some cases, they can also be used to communicate with a specific driver if they are being given a warning or if they need to get out of the way of a faster car. Flags have been used as a communication tool in motorsport for decades, and are still used today even alongside more technologically advanced systems (more on them later).
The green flag in F1 means the track is safe for racing. It’s also used to signal the start of a session. The green flags are waved after there has been a safety car or yellow flags to signal to the drivers that they can once again go racing, and it may be used at the end of yellow flagged sections.
We’ll always see the green flag being waved at the start of the Grand Prix. While it doesn’t indicate that the race has started, it is instead used to inform the race director that everything is in order and all the cars are in position, which is why we see the green flag being waved from behind the cars on the grid.
You may also see the green flag being waved at a specific point out on track. This is usually done after a yellow flag – which we’ll cover next. When the drivers see the green flag, it means that they have passed the danger on track and can accelerate back up to full race speed and they are allowed to overtake one another again.
In the event that a full course yellow track condition is activated – also known as a virtual safety car in Formula 1 – the green flag will indicate that the VSC period is over and that the pack can reuse racing back at full speed. In other words, the green flag signifies that the race has restarted.
The yellow flag in F1 means that there is an incident up ahead and that the cars need to reduce their speed and proceed with caution. Drivers will slow down by lifting off the throttle, but they don’t need to stop. Drivers are not allowed to overtake during yellow flag conditions.
When a driver sees the yellow flag, they must lift off the throttle and stay behind the car ahead of them. They can only speed up again and resume racing once they have seen the green flag being waved. Yellow flags are often mostly used for the portion of the track where an incident took place.
The yellow flag is used for incidents and crashes as it is a bright color that is easy to spot, especially when the driver is traveling at 200 miles per hour. Drivers only need to slow down for a yellow flag until they see the green flag, and they are allowed to complete the rest of the lap at full speed.
Drivers may come across both double and single yellow flags. Single yellow flags are usually used for minor incidents such as a car going off track. Drivers must slow down when they see a single yellow flag. Double yellow flags are waved for more serious incidents and drivers must slow down and be prepared to change direction or stop.
The red flag in F1 is used to indicate that the track is no longer safe for racing, due to a crash or heavy rain, and the session has been stopped. As soon as drivers see the red flag it means that they must slow down immediately and return to the pits in a safe and controlled manner.
Red flags are used for bigger crashes and incidents where marshals, cranes, or tractors, need to go out on track to clear the car out of the way and clean up any debris that has been left from the incident off the track. Whenever there are people or other vehicles on the track, there is a dangerous situation for Formula 1 cars.
Red flags are often also used when the track itself is not in a safe condition to be raced on and needs work to be done. This can often happen after a crash when the marshals need to repair the barriers, or even on street circuits such as Monaco when manhole covers come loose and need to be fixed in place again.
Races and sessions can also be red flagged and stopped in Formula 1 due to weather conditions. Even though Formula 1 cars do race in the rain, they can only displace as much water because of how low they are to the ground. When there is too much standing water and puddles around the track, the session will be stopped with a red flag.
Blue flags in F1 are used to tell a driver that another car is approaching and that it is faster than them. The blue flags are used to warn the driver to move out of the way of the faster car. If the driver does not move out of the way of the faster car, they may be given a warning or a penalty.
Blue flags are used during the race to inform drivers that the cars on the lead lap are approaching them to lap them. Drivers being lapped must move out of the way of faster drivers approaching them, and they are not allowed to block or impede the lead cars in any way. They have to move over off the racing line, even if they are racing closely against another car.
During practice and qualifying the blue flag is also used to indicate that a faster car is approaching, and the driver needs to move off the racing line and out of the way. Drivers who block other cars during these sessions can be given grid penalties for the race.
It can be difficult for drivers to get out of the way of other cars during practice and qualifying sessions because they never know which drivers might be on an out lap, in lap, cool down lap, or a flying lap. This is why it’s so important for them to pay attention to blue flags.
The black and white flag with the diagonal line is used as a warning flag in F1. Drivers are shown the black and white flag as a final warning before they are given a penalty. This flag is often shown to drivers for repeat offenses such as weaving on the straights or exceeding track limits.
The black and white flag is one that is not seen as often in Formula 1. The flag was used for many decades in the past, but it fell out of use when the teams started using radios to communicate. Teams were able to communicate directly to their drivers before the black and white flag was needed to be shown by the marshals. We do still see it used in modern Formula One though.
The black and white flag is usually accompanied by the driver’s number on a pit board. This is to indicate which driver the black and white flag is being given to. Unlike the yellow flags and blue flags mentioned above, the black and white flag is not shown to every driver, but rather to one specific driver.
If a driver ignores the black and white flag and continues to breach the rules that they have been warned against they will be given a penalty. The teams will also be on the radio informing their driver of what they have done wrong and that they need to be careful about the infringement going forward or they will be given a penalty.
The black flag with an orange circle in the middle is also known as the “mechanical flag” in F1 and is used to inform the driver that there is an issue with their car and they must return to the pits immediately. Drivers are shown this flag if the fault on their car poses a danger to other cars.
The black flag with an orange circle is another flag that you don’t see very often in modern Formula 1. In fact, this is one of the rarest flags to see during a modern Formula 1 session, but it is an important one that the drivers need to know about. This flag, just like the black and white flag, is accompanied by a pit board that has the driver’s number on it.
If the driver does not comply with the mechanical black flag they will be penalized or disqualified from the race. As soon as the driver sees the flag they must head back into the pits, but it does not necessarily mean they need to retire from the race. If the team is able to fix their car, they can continue to complete the Grand Prix.
Some of the examples of when a driver might be given the mechanical black flag is if their car is spewing oil onto the circuit or if they have a wing dragging underneath their car dropping pieces of carbon fiber along the way. This creates a dangerous scenario for other cars and the driver needs to get their car off the track as soon as possible.
The black flag in F1 is used to signal to a driver that they have been disqualified from the race. If a driver sees the black flag accompanied by their race number, they must return to the pits immediately and park their car. They will not be classified as a finisher for the race.
Drivers are disqualified from a race if they have broken the rules multiple times and have been given multiple black and white flags. Drivers can also be disqualified from the race if they do not comply with the rules that they need to follow during a Grand Prix.
If a driver chooses to ignore the black flag that is being shown to them, they will still not be classified as a finisher at the end of the race, and they will land in even more hot water with the stewards and the race director afterward. It’s highly likely that the driver will receive a race ban if they ignore the black flag.
The black flag can also be used during a practice or qualifying session if the driver has broken the rules. For example, if the driver has exceeded track limits multiple times despite receiving warnings and black and white flags for the incident, the stewards might take action to disqualify them from the session.
The white flag in F1 means that there is a slower car ahead on the circuit. It is seen often during practice and qualifying when there can be lots of cars on track doing very different speeds. It is particularly useful on circuits with lots of blind corners or tracks that are very narrow.
This flag is usually used on tight street circuits where the drivers cannot see what’s ahead of them. As drivers head into blind corners, they could be surprised and caught out by slow moving cars who are on out laps, in laps or cool down laps. This could result in a ruined flying lap or even a massive crash.
The white flag will help the faster drivers to get an idea of what to expect around the next corner, as they will then know that they can expect to find some slow-moving cars up ahead. The drivers ahead of them will still be shown the blue flags, but using the white flags helps to get all the drivers on the same page.
The white flag is also used at the end of the session on the last corner of the circuit. This is to indicate to the cars that there are practice starts taking place on the grid. This will prevent drivers from going too fast around the final corner and getting caught out by cars that are stopped on the main straight, which could result in a dangerous crash.
The red and yellow striped flag in F1 warns the drivers that the circuit ahead of them is slippery. Drivers need to be aware that the track surface is less than ideal, and they can expect to struggle for grip at a section of the track ahead of them. It is rarely seen in modern F1.
The slippery surface can be caused by a variety of factors, including oil that has spilled from another car’s engine or even some rain that has caused the surface of the track to become damp and slippery. Oftentimes as drivers are traveling at 200 miles per hour, it’s too late for them to notice the lack of grip when they get to the slippery surface.
It’s important that the drivers are warned in advance about a slippery track as it could cause some serious accidents. If there’s a group of multiple cars heading for the same piece of track, it could end up in a nasty crash as they all lose grip on the slippery track surface.
The checkered flag in F1 is used to indicate that the race is finished and is probably the most famous flag. All drivers need to slow down and return to the pits. The top three drivers head to the podium parking and the rest of the cars go into Parc Fermé where they will be investigated by the FIA.
The checkered flag is also used to indicate that a session has ended in Formula 1. This means that the flag can also be used during practice and qualifying. As soon as the session time reaches zero, the checkered flag will be waved, and no lap times can be started by any car that crosses the start/finish line while the checkered flag is waving.
However, a driver can still start a flying lap and complete it as long as they cross the starting line before the checkered flag comes out. In other words, if a driver crosses the line with just one second to go in the session, they can still complete their flying lap uninterrupted.
F1 has started using light panels because they are easier for the drivers to spot. While the flags have been useful over the years, a bright yellow flashing light panel can catch a driver’s eye much faster than a flag can, and it immediately informs the driver of what they need to do.
Formula 1 has started using light panels to communicate with the drivers while they are out on track. These light panels can flash in different colors, and they are extremely bright. This allows the marshals to show whichever flag they need to show to the drivers while they are speeding around the track.
Light panels have also been helpful at venues that host night races, which have only started becoming a staple of Formula 1 calendars since 2008. Even with the bright flood lights that light up the circuits, light panels make it much easier for the drivers to spot a yellow or a red flag, especially at racetracks such as Bahrain where the walls and marshal posts are far from the circuit itself.
Light panels have revolutionized the sport somewhat, as it has also helped the stewards to closely analyze whether a driver is right or wrong when setting faster laps under yellow flags. Stewards can analyze onboard footage to see whether the driver had enough time to react to a light panel or if they ignored the light panel and carried on as normal.
Modern Formula 1 cars are extremely advanced, and all of them come with state-of-the-art steering wheels in their cockpits that can cost $100,000. These steering wheels are essentially the computer inside of the car, and they control almost every aspect of it. Most importantly though, they also contain the digital dashboard, which is a vital piece of equipment that the driver needs.
The digital dashboard can do many different jobs, but one of the primary roles that it has is to inform the driver of the track conditions. The digital dashboard can tell the driver about the track conditions up ahead and whether there’s a yellow flag that they need to slow down for coming up in front of them.
The digital dashboard is incredibly important because it allows a driver to understand what is going on out on track no matter where they are. Gone are the days of having to wait for a marshal post to come for the driver to see that the race has been red flagged. The driver will instantly be informed on their digital dashboard.
Even in previous decades, this warning system has existed to some extent. While not as detailed as the digital dashboard found on the cars today, cars in the 2010s were also able to warn their drivers of the track conditions by using different colored lights on their steering wheel and inside the cockpit.
Formula 1 teams have been using team radios for many decades now. When they were first brought into use, they were unreliable and the audio quality was so bad that the drivers and crew often could not communicate with each other anyway, so it was not as helpful as it was meant to be.
Over the years though, the team radio has only improved, and the radios in modern Formula 1 cars have crystal clear quality and fantastic range. They also have the ability to transmit messages through buildings and tree lines, which was not always possible even in the early 2000s.
However, the team radio brought with it a direct line of communication between the team and the driver, and ever since it has been used to inform the driver of the track conditions. For example, the team is now able to warn a driver about yellow flags coming up on a specific section of the track, or a faster car approaching from behind them that they need to move out of the way.
Perhaps the most helpful form of communication between the team and driver is to do the job of the red and yellow striped flag. The team can monitor the track, as well as other drivers, and keep their driver updated on any areas of the track where they might struggle with a lack of grip or a sudden gust of wind that could throw them into a spin.
Flags are still used in F1 as they are reliable. Technology can fail at any time, no matter how much research and development has gone into it. Failures in the light panels, digital displays, and radios would leave the drivers in the dark without flags being waved at the side of the circuit.
There are also some flags that cannot be put onto light panels. For example, the red and yellow striped flags or the mechanical black flags. Light panels are often only used for yellow, green, blue, and red flags.
Racetracks need to have flags. They might be the oldest form of communication between marshals and racing drivers, but they have proven to be the most reliable over the years. Marshals will always have their flags at the ready when it comes to any form of motorsport, and Formula 1 is no exception to that.
There are several different flags that are used in Formula 1, and every driver must know what they all mean. Each flag has an important meaning, and it’s the main form of communication to the drivers. Though some are rarely used, it’s vital that drivers know what they mean.