Blue Flagging: Art, Science or Trained Specialty?

Blue Flag Marshal is my absolutely favorite role when volunteering a Motorsport event. Recently I have started registering for events specifically where I am most likely to blue flag.  This includes endurance sports car events especially those with multiple classes of cars racing and I’ve excluded Formula 1 from my calendar, I will talk about F1 in detail later.

It has been my observation that like me, pretty much everybody else likes the role of Blue Flag marshal and there’s constant competition for that position. Sometimes you work an event where marshals rotate through various roles giving each person an opportunity to do some blue flag, while at other events that role is specifically assigned to a particular person (for a reason). The trouble is not everybody is qualified to be a blue flagger, and I’ve heard a million excuses used to justify people’s styles, the decisions they make whether or not to blue flag (in situations where it’s not warranted) or how this role is an art.

Here are my 2 cents on the matter.

Blue flagging is not an Art. If you see it as art you should pick up a new hobby, perhaps painting… blue flag marshaling isn’t for you. There’s definitely a right time to display a blue flag, and there’s definitely a wrong time to display the blue flag when it’s not warranted.

When is the Blue flag used correctly?

Blue flag is used to tell a driver (marshals communicate with drivers through the use of color coded flags) that he’s about to be overtaken by a faster vehicle.

Blue flags are used differently throughout the racing weekend. During practice, the fastest car could be blue flagged when the slowest car on the track is on a hot lap and the fastest car isn’t. This means that regardless who is the fastest by the numbers, there are times when one car is going 10/10th’s and another car isn’t. In that scenario it is a legitimate use of blue flag to tell even the pole setter that the potential back marker is about to overtake him and he should not impede that person. Blue flag does not command the driver to move out of the way. On the contrary it tells the driver to watch his mirrors and to not make any sudden movements that would result in a crash. If that means that the slower car sticks to the racing line, than the overtaking car can go around him outside of the racing line. There are times where cars explicitly move out of the way, but again they’re not required to do that, they’re just supposed to not get in the way and impede a car on a flying lap.

Under race conditions blue flag is ONLY used for lapping. This means that the fastest cars of the field have been driving so quickly that they have caught up with the slowest cars of the field and are about to put them a lap down by overtaking. Once this happens Blue flag is more than a suggestion to the back marker, in F1 when a few consecutive stations display blue flags than the back marker must give way or risk a penalty for blocking the leaders. In Sports Car racing especially with multiple classes of cars racing simultaneously the slowest class is typically blue flagged first especially when the faster prototypes catch up, and in an interval of time continue placing the slower GT cars laps down throughout the race. It’s a continuous process and an important one. Properly displayed blue flags prevent yellow flags by making all drivers on track avoid accidents. It’s important to note that fast cars, including prototypes may break down and undergo repairs during an event, they will resume racing and will be faster than some GT cars but because the prototype may have gone down several laps during repair blue flagging GT cars in front of them is not warranted even though the Prototype will undoubtedly pass them. There are times when cars must fight for position without marshals budding in with various flags.

Blue flag is a very important flag.

Blue flag is a role that keeps a marshal completely concentrated on the race, whether it’s a quick 45 minute sprint race, 3 hour race, 6 hour endurance race or a 24 hour race that marshals work in shifts. Blue flag requires the marshal to make quick decisions whether or not to blue flag. It’s easy to make a mistake especially while working a turn where it’s hard to see the on-coming cars. Sometimes it’s best to not flag whenever there is uncertainty or doubt rather than blue flagging the wrong cars. Don’t flag when unsure. Don’t guess! The leaders of the race get pretty pissed off when they are blue flagged with lapped traffic behind them. Or worse, when they are in a close fight with a competitor battling for top position.

I cringe when I see marshals reach for the Blue flag at the start of the race, especially the F1 race. Chances of using a blue flag in F1 are minimal until pretty close to the end of the event, or some time between 1st and 2nd hour assuming there were no accidents in the opening lap(s). I hate watching people blue flag clusters of cars especially when they are all racing for position. Blue flagging one car for the benefit of another is unfairly helping a competitor and that’s not the job of a marshal. It’s not always easy to distinguish cars apart especially with similar liveries, but the job of the marshal isn’t supposed to be very easy. It is meant to be challenging. You have to be able to tell the differences in closing speeds. You have to be able to memorize paint jobs/liveries. You have to remember positions.

During Formula 1 Race Control has started to dictate when stations should blue flag cars in their sections. Blue flagges are issued with radios and Race Control specifically says “Blue Flag Now! Now! Now!” or “Turn 5 Blue Flag the next group of cars!” Race  Control often goes by telemetry, watching the race cars on the screen in front of them and notifying the stations about to be approached. Unfortunately there is a delay between watching what’s on the screen and communicating that information to the station, and then having the Blue flagger actually display that flag, whether by manually waving a cloth flag or by pushing the Blue button on the light panel. Two years ago the F1 light panel had a delay of it’s own between the time you push a button and the time that the light actually starts flashing on the panel. I’ve been in a number of situations at F1 events where Race Control would advise to blue flag when it was no longer necessary, i.e. when the leader passed a back marker prior to reaching the station that was told to blue flag. So even though Race Control tells you in your ear repeatedly to Blue flag, they are wrong… the pass has already happened before they reached your position. Race Control advice though is very helpful in turns where visibility is poor and there is very limited time to react to a situation of overtaking about to commence. So marshal’s reaction time and familiarity with the race cars is crucial in that situation. Mistakes could happen, but this being the highest level of Motorsport – I think it looks unprofessional when mistakes are made repeatedly.

I’ve been to places in the world where Blue flagging is taken very seriously. Ontario, Canada is one of those that treats Blue Flag marshal as a highly specialized role that a marshal must train for in order to be certified as a blue flagger. Furthermore, to work an event as a blue flagger that marshal must request that role during registration, or that role will be allocated to someone else that requested it. Seeing that for the first time seemed like a crazy idea. But after requesting to work that role the following year it made perfect sense to me. There’s a level of accountability created with such a coveted position, one that so many marshals desire. Perform at that job poorly and you are less likely to be given an opportunity to blue flag subsequent events. So naturally marshals work extra hard to justify their selection for this role.

I’ve also received training in several places around the world to know that not all marshal qualify to work all of the positions in a typical marshal rotation in North America. In the US you are expected to rotate from Blue flag to Yellow flag, to Communicator role working the Radio, to a Responder role working as a Track marshal. Often there are visiting marshals from other countries that were not necessarily trained to performed each one of those tasks. When I started marshaling in Singapore I was only trained to be a Track marshal. While I saw other people working as Flag marshals or as Observers, and even though I knew what the flags meant, I wasn’t trained to work as a Flag marshal. I had zero experience waving any of the flags in any of the situations on track, and especially not while Blue flagging. That role requires a certain amount of training, and I absolutely cringe when I see US flag chiefs or local post chiefs put a newbie on the Blue flag role (perhaps for the first time) and expect that person to do a good job. It’s ridiculous. It’s also painful to see the visiting marshal struggle on the new role because they don’t want to admit that they’ve never done it before, they’re caught up in the moment because it is very exciting to be doing something new, and they look absolutely amateurish during a pro weekend. Assigning marshal roles is a very important task and throwing people to the sharks by letting them learn how to Blue flag during a pro race weekend is silly.

Is Blue flagging a Science?

I don’t think that’s the best way of looking at it either. I have noticed working several different posts on the same race tracks that cars perform differently depending on where they are on track. At a small track like Lime Rock during the American Le Mans Series weekend the Prototype Challenge (PC) cars were much faster than GT cars on the main straight or through most of the corners, but GT cars pulled away from them going Uphill. As a Blue flagger you’d be right to blue flag the GT car immediately before a PC car stationed Uphill, but watching that GT car pull away (even if only for a few turns until the PC car caught up on the main straight and ultimately made the pass) Blue flagging is wrong. Displaying the Blue flag in obviously wrong situations lap after lap will result in drivers ignoring your flags as a marshal because they will deem you as using the flags incorrectly or unnecessarily, and when drivers ignore your flags you’re useless as a flag marshal.

northeast gp alms 4

Blue flagging correctly is a beautiful thing because you can see immediate and direct correlation between your action and the outcome of the race, when the drivers see your flag and respond accordingly. There’s no bigger satisfaction when marshaling than knowing and seeing race car drivers obey the signals you send to them, you truly feel like you are part of that race, part of the event. And you feel Good!

I am a super strong proponent of universal training for marshals around the world, so that a blue flag in North America is the same as blue flag in Australia and the same as blue flag in Asia or Europe. And by that I mean that all the sanctioning bodies adapt similar rules, so that you can show an unfurled, stretched out/stationary blue flag and it means one thing (faster vehicle approaching in close  distance but at significant speed), rocking the unfurled flag from side to side, up and down (meaning faster vehicle is right behind you) and vigorously waving the blue flag (meaning that the faster car is passing you right NOW! you are side by side or the pass is imminent). Training is the most important thing FIA can offer the world, and acceptance by IMSA, SCCA, ACIND, ACO, CAMS, ADAC, and all the other ASN’s and Clubs around the world to train their local marshals to the same standards is crucial in this sport.

But experience is paramount. I think marshals with previous experience with a particular series should be given a priority working Blue flag if they request it (and based on their performance at previous events). If people continuously push their agenda and continue using SCCA rules for an FIA event then they certainly shouldn’t be given another opportunity to blug flag the FIA event. Despite their many years of experience, if they are using the incorrect flag rules for a particular series there’s no distinction between them and someone with zero experience, as they’re doing the WRONG thing! Experience must be gained, enhanced, practiced and ultimately rewarded when done correctly.

Correct use of Blue flag shouldn’t be up for debate during the race by individual marshals around the track. Everyone should do the same thing, because there’s a correct way of blue flagging and a wrong way of doing it at the wrong time. The goal is professionalism!