Last month we covered the green flag and what it means in racing. This month, we come to quite possibly the most commonly thrown flag during a race: the yellow or caution flag. Clearly obvious in their meaning, yellow flags signify some type of incident on track and as such suggest that speeds be reduced, but the reduction is somewhat ambiguous and changes dramatically as you move up the racing ladder. Finally, yellow flags often present some of the most strategic situations in the sport and can be played to great advantage, or they can cost a team an apparently well-earned victory.
Again, as with our previous discussion, in the interests of simplicity we will focus on the flags as they pertain to road racing. There are basically two types of yellow flags that can be thrown: 1) corner or local yellows, and 2) full course yellows. The basic rules are similar for the two scenarios that include suspension of any passing, slowing the pace and increasing the level of awareness for emergency vehicles or corner workers in the area in question. There are, however, some notable differences between the two flags.
During a corner or local yellow, the majority of the track is typically still at race velocity with a corner or short series of corners under yellow. This can be due to a spun or crashed car that appears to be able to continue on its own and will soon clear the area. Or it may be due to a crashed car that is off circuit enough to not be considered a danger and doesn't need to be moved.
With on-track incidents, ideally there is a path that can be taken to avoid a spun car, although it may briefly be on the racing line and special care should be taken. On proper road courses where it's usually easy to look into corners, a spun car on the racing line is easier to pick out and prepare for. However, a local yellow thrown at a street circuit, with its vision-impeding walls, can present a unique challenge because drivers often don't know what lies beyond the turn-in point of the corner.
A single yellow flag in the hand of a corner worker often means that the yellow is restricted to a local caution. A wise driver can often glean much-needed information from the way with which the corner worker is waving the flag. A standing yellow or slightly waved flag, typically indicates a car spun or car pieces off the racing line with a clear path through. Exuberantly waved yellows can mean something else entirely, however, with the potential of a car parked on the racing line or corner workers potentially out helping a car get going. Either way, extreme caution should be exercised in that area when a waving yellow is displayed.
There should be a dedicated thought process in the driver's mind during these scenarios with regard to safety. After all, if cars have spun in a particular area, there must be a reason as to why. If someone had blown a motor and dumped the circuit with fluid you could well find yourself facing where you came from just as quickly as the driver that brought out the initial yellow! But overdoing it by parking the car in a yellow situation can be just as dangerous a problem as carrying a little too much speed. Ultimately, the driver must learn to drive to the situation, and in this respect drivers with more on-track experience often have an advantage.
Once drivers are clear of the area of a local yellow, they can then work back up to race pace. Of course, everyone is trying to get up to speed the quickest and take advantage of those who play the yellow flag area too conservatively. Just keep in mind that sanctioning bodies do not take it lightly when a driver is too aggressive in yellow flag areas, and the pass that you may have made exiting the yellow area could well be reversed by the course marshal. Also remember that the next lap around you should be especially aware in that part of the circuit as it may still be yellow, or the trouble may have been cleared.
For problems of greater urgency, the course marshal may choose to call a full course caution period. A full course caution is typically signified by two yellow flags waved by each of the corner workers, as well as a yellow flag at the main starter's stand or yellow lights at some circuits. A full course caution will often be associated with emergency vehicles on track and is the signal of an incident deemed serious enough to place the entire track under caution conditions. A full course caution period also involves the deployment of a pace car to gather or bunch up the field before a restart.
As with corner or local yellows, speed should be reduced, and there's no passing permitted anywhere on the circuit. Drivers should be prepared to drive off line as the problem area may block much of the circuit.
The problem with full course cautions is in fact the bunching up of the field. Especially for the driver who was running away with the event! While it certainly is a mandatory part of the full course caution and subsequent restart equation, it often forces cars that are caught just in front of the pace car to have to hustle to catch the group before the restart.
At a long circuit like Road America in Wisconsin or VIR in Virginia, it might mean having to drive near race pace to catch the group. At the 24 hours of Le Mans, the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France, is so long that two pace cars are deployed during full course cautions to allow cars the chance to catch the group without having to turn qualifying times to get there.
That, in a rather small nutshell, is what yellow flags are about. It is, of course, the drivers' responsibility to slow to a prudent and safe speed without becoming a rolling chicane. Spotters aside, it is also the drivers' responsibility to see the yellow flags and interpret the situation for what it is.
Yellow flags also offer strategic opportunities to pit for fuel and tires in races that require such stops. Many a race has been won or lost based on a particular race team's strategist. The irony is that under full course caution, when the cars are running at their slowest speed, some of the fastest decisions need to be made regarding pit stops and overall pit strategy.
And finally, as SPEED commentator, veteran Skip Barber instructor and multi-time championship race driver Dorsey Schroeder so often says, "Yellows breed yellows," and few statements are as true. So often, yellow flags interrupt the rhythm and flow of a driver, and the slower speeds allow the various components of the car to cool and at times fall out of their optimum operating temperature range. Track surfaces may also change as a result of crashed cars and the lightly perceptible introduction of fluids such as a light haze of oil from engine or gearbox. Sure enough, when cars are then released-again in tight formation with questionable handling characteristics-mistakes are made and another yellow is likely to be thrown.
For those of you new to the sport, be sure to make yourself very familiar with those yellow flag rules and especially how they are set up for your particular series. To those who have a few races under your belt, maybe this discussion can help you to become more strategic in your races, making the most of those performance mods by driving the car that much better.