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What Are Lapped Cars In F1? Do They Finish The Race?

If you’re watching an F1 race, its inevitable that there will be talk about lapped cars, backmarkers and blue flags. What exactly lapped cars are in F1, and whether or not they finish the race, are useful things to understand as an F1 fan.

Lapped cars in F1 are at least one full lap behind the leader of the race. The leader has physically passed them on track, but their position does not change, they are one lap behind. They do finish the race (as they are classified in the race results) but they don’t complete the full race distance.

There are several nuances about these rules regarding lapping and unlapping cars, so let’s get into the details and see some practical examples of how the regulations and their interpretation can affect races. But first, let’s discuss what backmarkers are in F1.

What Is A Backmarker In F1?

A backmarker in F1 is a car that tends to consistently race towards the back of the field. These backmarkers are not able to keep up the same lap times as the leading cars, and so fall progressively further back along the track.

Eventually, the lead cars will have raced far enough ahead on the circuit that they come up behind a backmarker. When they pass that backmarker, that backmarker car is then lapped.

There tend to be two or three teams in each F1 season whose cars consistently make up the backmarkers. If a team’s cars are towards the back of the pack at the start of the season, it is quite difficult to significantly improve the pace of the cars relative to the rest of the field. This is because all the other teams are also continuously improving their cars.

Why Are There Backmarkers In F1?

Backmarkers occur in F1 because there is a fairly wide disparity in performance between different teams on the grid. This disparity is due to each team needing to independently design and construct most of their vehicle according to a set of regulations.

This is different to a “spec series” where each car in a race uses the same chassis and engine. In a spec series, with the cars being so similar, the field is generally very close, with the range from the fastest to the slowest car being relatively narrow.

The 107% Rule

In F1, this range between the fastest and the slowest car tends to be larger. However, there is a rule to limit this spread and to prevent vastly uncompetitive cars from participating. Each car must qualify for the race with a lap time that falls within 107% of the fastest car, which takes pole position.

However, for a car that is just 3% slower than the lead car in the race, it will take only around 33 laps for the slower car to find itself a full lap distance behind. At this point the lead car can overtake and lap the slower car.

The lead car is then physically ahead of the slower car on the track. The classification of the slower car has not changed, it is still in the same position of the race that it was in before it was passed.

What Do Blue Flags Mean In F1?

Blue flags are used in F1 to tell backmarkers a faster car is approaching. When a faster car is approaching a backmarker and will soon lap that car, blue flags are waved as a signal to the slower car in front that they are about to be lapped. They then need to make way for the faster car behind.

This is to avoid accidents, and also to prevent backmarkers impeding the frontrunners and potentially interfering with the battle for the lead.

When a blue flag is waved during a race, the slower car must find the earliest opportunity to move off the racing line and allow the faster car to pass. If the slower car does not manage to do so, additional blue flags will be shown. After three blue flags, the car may incur a penalty for holding up another car.

Do You Get DRS Behind Backmarkers in F1?

You do get DRS behind backmarkers in F1. This is true even if the backmarker is being shown blue flags in order to move over and allow the faster car to pass. This makes it easier for lead cars to get past backmarkers so they don’t interfere with the race.

DRS is the Drag Reduction System that was introduced in the 2011 season, to facilitate easier overtaking. When DRS is activated, a flap in the rear wing of the car temporarily lifts up, reducing the drag created by the rear wing and allowing the car to drive faster on straights. This increase in speed allows the car with DRS to more easily pass the car ahead of them on the track.

Do Lapped Cars In F1 Finish The Race?

Lapped cars in F1 do finish the race, as they are included in the final race classification. However, they do not complete the full race distance, as they complete at least one lap fewer than the race winner. Their race ends the first time they cross the start/finish line after the race leader.

The classification of these lapped cars shows that they finished 1 lap or more behind the winner. In order to be classified, the lapped cars must have completed at least 90% of the race distance. For instance, in a 60 lap race, any car that manages to complete 54 laps or more before the lead car finishes the race is included in the race classification.

What Does It Mean To Unlap Yourself In F1?

A lapped car is allowed to pass any car that is ahead of them on the track, even if that car is on a lap further ahead (i.e. the lead lap). In passing that car, the lapped car then unlaps itself, and is on the lead lap once more.

It is not very common in F1 for a car to unlap itself, as it has usually been lapped because it is significantly slower than the rest of the field. However, one instance that may result in a car unlapping itself is if it pits for fresh tyres.

On new rubber, a lapped car can show pace that is faster than that of the cars ahead, if they are on older, worn tyres, or if they’re conserving their tires and therefore not driving to their true maximum pace. The pace difference between old and new tyres is significant, particularly with the current Pirelli tyres which have been designed to degrade in order to force the strategy of pit stops.

In rarer cases, a car could also have been lapped due to a temporary engine or transmission problem, which could then be rectified while on track. The car could then potentially be able to unlap itself once it is operating at peak performance again.

F1 Safety Car Unlapping Rules

The rules for unlapping under a safety car are given in the F1 Sporting Regulations, which are available publicly on the FIA website. There are a number of detailed rules under safety car conditions, but the most important one is that there should be no overtaking. Another rule that is clearly seen is that cars are to keep within 10 car lengths of the car ahead (or the safety car for the leader).

This means that, when the safety car comes out, lapped cars will remain in their relative position on the track, but that will likely be out of position in terms of the race classification. In other words, even if a car is last in classification, it could be caught up in the middle of the pack. Also, the entire field bunches up closely behind each other.

Safety Car Unlapping Procedure

The cars continue circulating around the track behind the safety car without overtaking each other. The rules then say that, once it is considered safe, a message will be sent to the competitors that lapped cars may now overtake. At this point, the rules state that “any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.”

These lapped cars are then allowed to drive around the track at a reasonable pace to join up at the back of the pack again. At that point, they will be in the correct track position to reflect their classification, and also – crucially in some cases – no longer one lap down.

Further, once the last lapped car has overtaken the lead car, the safety car will go in to the pits at the end of the next lap. So, in summary, once the track is safe, the lapped cars are allowed to overtake and unlap themselves, and proceed around to the back of the pack. Then the safety car comes in to the pits on the next lap and it’s time to race again!

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Lapped Cars Fiasco

However, one of the most contentious applications of the safety car unlapping rules was at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The race was the title decider for the 2021 championship, and saw the two contenders, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, going into the race with equal points. It was simple – whoever finished ahead on the track would win the World Drivers’ Championship.

Hamilton was in the lead of the race with Verstappen in second. However, on lap 53 of 58, backmarker Nicholas Latifi had a crash into the wall and the safety car was brought out. Verstappen pitted for fresh tyres (expecting that the cars behind him would do the same), but Hamilton stayed out on his old tyres as the team felt it was too risky to potentially lose track position.

With only 5 laps of the race to go, it was questionable whether Latifi’s car could be cleared in time. The lapped cars still needed to unlap themselves before the safety car could be brought in and the race allowed to proceed. It appeared that the title deciding race was to end under a safety car. If this happened, Hamilton would be the race winner and the 2021 World Champion.

Masi’s Twist On The Safety Car Unlapping Rules

However, the desire has always been that a race should not end under a safety car. The Race Director, Michael Masi, then made the unexpected decision to allow only the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen on the track to unlap themselves.

He did not give the instruction to the other lapped cars throughout the field to overtake and to unlap themselves. This was to save time so that the safety car could be called into the pits with one lap still to go, to allow the race to end under racing conditions. However, this decision practically awarded the race win to Verstappen.

He had brand new soft tyres whereas Hamilton had very worn hard tyres, and due to the safety car, Verstappen was just behind Hamilton when the final racing lap started. He overtook Hamilton early in the lap, and despite Hamilton’s efforts to retake the position, the fresher tyres won out – Verstappen was crowned the 2021 World Champion.

Mercedes lodged a complaint, saying that the safety car overtaking rules for lapped cars had not been followed. Red Bull said that they rules had not been broken, they had only been applied in a new way. Eventually the decision was upheld due to another regulation that states that the Race Director has overriding authority over the use of the safety car.

Final Thoughts

Lapped cars in F1 are cars that have been lapped by one or more of the lead cars, and they may be lapped multiple times. These lapped cars still finish the race, but in fewer laps than the lead car. The rules aim to limit the impact of lapping/unlapping cars on the outcome of the race.