So far in our flag discussions, we've covered two of the more commonly seen flags during a race: the green and the yellow. There are many situations that can arise on track, though, and there seems to be a flag for just about any of them. This month we'll look at the black flag.
Generally, the black flag is not a good thing if it is intended for you. It can be used as a warning of sorts, or it can be a call into pit lane for a penalty or stern talking to-or both. In some series the black flag, when it is presented at the main flag station and at stations around the circuit, is used to call a premature end to a driving session and is intended for all cars.
For our discussion this month, we're going to look at the black flag and how it relates to single cars during a practice session or race. The black flag can be displayed in one of two forms: either furled or rolled up and pointed at the driver in question, or open and then pointed at the offending car. In the event of what appears to be confusion as to whom the flag was intended for, most sanctioning bodies, especially in pro racing, will simply go to the team with the driver that has performed the infraction and have the team call that driver on the radio. I have also even seen the flag marshal at the main starter's stand resort to throwing the black flag and a car number. I recall that instance rather well, because it was my car number!
A furled or rolled-up black flag pointed at the car in question is typically a warning. Those good people running the event are saying to you, in not so many words, "Hey, we saw what you did, we think you know what you did and we think you know it was wrong, but it didn't appear blatant. Don't do it again!" Hopefully, as a driver, you know what it is that the flag marshal was referring to, and you can refrain from doing it again. If you continue, there's a good chance that the next time you come by the start/finish, there will be an open black flag waiting for you.
Of course, it would be nice to know what exactly it is that can get you a furled black warning. Warnings are typically given for actions that are a matter of perception. For example, was that contact that you made with the back of the #33 car something you did with the intent of moving him out of your way, or did you close the distance to that car under braking quicker than you thought-did you misjudge it? And what was the outcome? Subtle contact or did you drill his right rear corner panel?
The thing is, no one can tell exactly what you're thinking in that race car (hell, sometimes I'm not sure what I'm thinking in the car) and all they can do is go by your actions. As such, a couple of little nudges on the car in front will likely only earn you a furled black.
Another classic example of using the furled black is if you make a pass under a local or full course yellow flag. Most stewards will offer you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you passed under yellow by mistake. Upon receiving that furled black, you have two options: choose to ignore it (bad choice), or you can relinquish the spot you gained under yellow and then continue with the rest of your race (good choice).
If you decide to take option 1 or you continue with the actions that you have been warned not to do, the open black flag will be displayed and directed rather pointedly toward you and your car. You are required at that time to report directly to pit lane and you will be told to either continue (drive through) or go to your pit stop for a defined period of time (stop and go). In drastic cases, the chief steward may even choose to take you out of the race. Either way, getting black flagged can ruin your race strategy!
Aside from the example of a driver ignoring a furled black flag, the reasons for throwing an open black are relatively straightforward. Blatantly driving another car off course, exceeding pit lane speed limits, excessive blocking and passing the pace car under a full course caution are all examples of infractions that will earn you an open black flag and the requirement that you come to pit lane.
Now, while I wouldn't advocate ignoring the black flag, there's a strategy that is often played out-this, of course, is for when you're higher up the ladder and there is more at stake. Many drivers will call in to their teams and have their crew chief talk directly with the course officials before making the decision to come in. Maybe they can appeal the black flag before serving the penalty. There is a certain risk to that action, though. And waiting too long before coming in can really backfire on you in more ways than one.
There is also the idea of risk versus reward. If you get the black flag five laps into a four-hour enduro where you are running 25th in a field of 30 cars, then it is a no-brainer to come into pit lane and serve the penalty. Seriously, at that point, what have you got to lose? On the other hand, if you are leading the Indy 500 with only 10 laps to go, and you get the black flag for a questionable pass on the pace car then it might make sense to stay out. If you come in with only 10 laps to go, you're going to end up a lap down and out of the hunt regardless, so you might as well stay in there. Even though I'm pretty sure that's never going to happen to me, it might happen to one of you readers out there, just like it did to Scott Goodyear in the '95 Indy 500. Did they give him, Honda and the newly returned Firestone the win that so many of us think he and the team richly deserved? Google it. It's a great story, and it had everything to do with a black flag.