Tag Archives: Blue Flag

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.

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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!

Media from the 24h of Nürburgring 2015

One of the best souvenirs I bring home from a race weekend are pictures to help me preserve the memories of the event.

I was extremely lucky at Nürburgring to have my Flemish buddy Pol take some fancy shots of me at the track with his Canon DSLR. The pix include some shots of me working:

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Eating:

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and of course checking out the paddock/garages:

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I will share some cool videos I shot with my GoPro in another post:

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One of my favorite moments was watching a Formula Truck vehicle go by our post with the water spraying around the wheels to keep the brakes cool. About the coolest thing I ever saw on the racetrack!

More pictures will be added as I get them.

United States F1 Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas, Austin, TX

As with any other motorsport weekend, this one went by too quickly. But what a great weekend it was. I usually get excited about events as they’re in progress and then looking back think perhaps I was overly enthusiastic. This wasn’t the case at all at COTA as I was mad as hell from the moment I saw my station assignment and the location of the digi board. I was spewing mad that the track in the US was much like the track in Singapore, or the track in Canada, or elsewhere I worked where there is so much talk about Safety but so little of it is actually put in practice when it comes to the marshals. And this was precisely the case at turn 12 at the Circuit of the Americas. The light board was in a perfect spot, but there was no hole in the fence for the operator to see the oncoming traffic! I had no vision of what was flying my way at the fastest point of the track, and therefore as a result had little chance or hope to actually do any blue flagging. What a shame?!

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Now at that point people would say: “Well focus on yellow flag” … Sure being near the apex of the turn, it was easy to see through the fence. But what about all this “Safety” talk… if I have my back to the traffic and someone comes crashing into the fence Dario Franchitti style – I am toast!  So “safety” as you can see was not a major concern at COTA for F1.

It wasn’t just me who wasn’t given much consideration. The one and only retirement during the actual race occurred just meters away from where I was standing and the good folks responding to the mangled car had no clue what to do when they got to it. The intervention marshals, the flat bed driver, the Manitou operator, all did their own thing and none contributed to each other’s safety. Its easy to criticise in hindsight but I wouldn’t be saying a word if any of us in the US actually got some fucking training for this! For example, the marshals responding to the car should stay behind the ARMCO as much as possible before entering hot track to respond to the incident, our guys ran out on the track and were running with their backs to traffic for a good 100 meters. The flat bed driver arrived on scene and parked past the stricken vehicle, not before it to protect the marshals responding. (sure he would have been in the way of the Manitou once it finally showed up two laps later, but the driver could have stayed in the truck and moved it when the Manitou made it on scene). The hooker had no clue where to thread the strap to connect the vehicle to the Manitou. And finally when all the people on foot near the vehicle being lifted thought it would go on the flat bed that had been waiting all this time, the Manitou driver proceeded to reverse with the vehicle dangling in the air because none of the marshals there were stabilizing it. I was across track behind the fence cringing at the potential accident that was waiting to happen over a multitude of scenarios that could have gone terribly wrong. We got lucky…. But we cannot depend on luck alone for Safety!

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Now that I got that off my chest, there were a number of very positive events that took place that made this race weekend one of the most pleasant ones I worked all year. And once again the people I worked with were a great contributing factor to my happiness. For starters no one on the team projected the negative vibe of being better than anyone else. We all had our levels of experience and I think each respected that notion. The post chief was kind enough to share his duties which I thought was unique, especially when it was my turn at the helm and I  had some Ferrari debris to pick up under safety car conditions. That was a rush as always, and the crowd cheering resulted in a constant thought running across my mind: “don’t trip and fall on your face… don’t trip and fall on your face.” Similarly the boss allowed me to adjust the digi board location to my liking, which was quite helpful… though again without a hole in the fence it was very difficult to see anything. I did manage to rig a somewhat tolerable set-up that included a rear-view mirror, though I was not impressed with my blue flag because it was still very difficult to see and I didn’t want to use the flag incorrectly. I did get the blue flagging out of my system when I was on actual manual flags for the Historics race, that was fun!

Hanging out in Ausin and San Antonio before it was better than any of the previous times I had visited Texas. Things went well all around, from car rental, to hotel, to CouchSurfing. In fact I spent a great deal of time hanging out with my hosts, even got a chance to introduce some marshal buddies with the CS’ers which was a great experience. Food was sublime, with all the Tex Mex, BBQ, biscuits and gravy, and other local cuisines that made the whole trip memorable. I had a great time and feel good about it.

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Texas BBQ at Salt Lick outside of town…. finger lickin’ good!

Media from SportsCar Grand Prix at Mosport

One of the many things that made the weekend at the SportsCar Grand Prix of Mosport very special was not just eating copious amounts of tasty poutine (always stick to local cuisines when I travel) but also having someone to take a few shots of me in action. My friend Will’s father, a racer in his own right, and a guest of mine this weekend along with Will, took some amazing photos of me blue flagging at turn 4. Notice how the blue flag station at Mosport is separate from the hard station which is cross track. I had an incident marshal to keep me company for the race, who would also warn me if the main station went yellow, so I wouldn’t blue flag anyone into an active incident. Great place to flag!

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One of many traffic jams leading downhill into turn 5

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Northeast Grand Prix ALMS debrief

I was not feeling it. The whole atmosphere of this year’s Northeast GP was somehow off. It was supposed to be amazing. After all I had just returned from Europe working the actual Le Mans… I was going to work with my friends at Lime Rock, what more could I ask for? Well Friday night I was just one bad decision away from going home and not returning.

Luckily I stayed. Saturday morning, on race day I was still out of it. I asked my buddy Tim where he and Jessie were stationed and he was like: “we’re together dude!” which made me feel a lot better, I mean we were team JRT after all, even though I was totally thirdwheeling the entire weekend. I also found out we were at Turn 1, which made me go “WOW!” that’s one hell of a station to work for ALMS. And finally when the flag chief called station assignments I discovered I was made corner captain, which just made me laugh. Why me? Usually Tim likes this sort of thing… but at least I knew I wasn’t going to be stuck doing something I wouldn’t enjoy. In that spirit, I made station assignments based on people’s requests. It may sound a lot looser than it actually is, but I know from my experience when I’m doing something I enjoy doing, the time flies.

Thanks to the heat the time didn’t fly during the race though. It felt like the exact 2 hours and 45 minutes that it was. Unfortunately for Tim and Jessie, they were marooned across track at the outpost for the entire race. I tried to “create” opportunities to cross with the only full course yellow until that point occurring at our station thanks to a high-sighted prototype challenge car, but it wasn’t happening. All in all, the race was OK… not the greatest ALMS race I’ve been to, not even as good as I remember last year’s race to be, but it was good. Something was holding it back from being amazing. Not sure what.

The station assignment was quite perfect though. We were able to do the grid walk for the Le Man’s style start, and mingle with teams and drivers before the big event. It gave Tim and Jessie a final opportunity to sticker up cars they didn’t get a chance to over the past few days, and they did a spectacular job doing it. These guys have some serious balls doing what they did… I on the other hand would be contacting the organizers, the team head offices, etc. and probably getting rejected at every step of the way, while they went there and had the driver’s put the stickers on the cars, that’s about as good as it gets.

It will be sad not to see prototypes racing at Lime Rock Park next year with the United SportsCar Series… its the second track I’ve lost in my home area in two years, after NJMP lost Grand-Am… but I guess I’ll have to travel elsewhere to volunteer…

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The highlight of the weekend was a call I requested that Brendan make to Race Control in the early stages of the race. Pat from Watkins Glen had complained that the blue flag was shredding off the handle, every time we used it. And at turn 1 we used it aggressively. I had a quick look at it, and told him that that’s how flags generally are with the NY SCCA region… but being corner captain and allowing myself to start and finish the race on blue flag, I found my right hand was cramping after only 15 minutes into the race, because I was clinging onto the cloth part of the flag. The grip was so tight because I worried I’d lose the flag when waiving it in a spirited fashion to allow the prototypes to zoom past the slower GT/GTC traffic. Brendan reported our blue flag catastrophic failure to Race Control whom promptly delivered a new flag for us to flog 🙂