When the flag drops

Into the closing laps of a race labelled Swiss but held on French soil. A Frenchman in a French car is leading. But he’s in trouble and being caught hand over fist by an enigma of aggression and reflexes called Rosberg.

Living up to the partisan reputation of his country, the flag man is preparing to hang out the chequered flag even though there is still another lap to go. Peter Collins, team manager at Williams runs up and harangues the man, pulling at his shirt sleeves.

“Pironi’s crash at Hockenheim had really blown the championship wide open,” says Collins. “Keke seemed to realise, ‘Okay, this is my chance, I’m back in the hunt’. By the time of Dijon, the championship title was a very real possibility and he’d realised by then that it wasn’t just a case of driving the balls off the car.”

Which was something Rosberg had proved brilliantly in this race. Biding his time in the early laps, he’d looked after his tyres while the turbos fought it out at the front. He’d got a blister on the right-front, but even with Lauda pressuring him from behind, he’d calmly nursed it, let it scrub itself off over a few laps, before pushing on again.

Alain Prost dominated at the front, even easing off early in the race once he’d built up a big cushion over teammate Rene Arnoux. Then,with about 20 laps to go, he felt a sudden loss of grip. Tyres,’ he cursed, though actually it was a split skirt. Arnoux caught him but then retired with another blown engine. Prost’s next problem was Rosberg in full attack mode, with a low fuel load and tyres in great shape.

The Finn tried out a line round the outside of the first corner, to check the grip. This, he decided, was where he’d pass the Renault.

Meanwhile: “I just ran up to the flag guy, grabbed his arm and shouted, ‘You can’t do that, there’s another lap to go!’ And all the while, cars were whizzing past. I can’t say it was any great piece of inspired action all I could think of was to just keep on at him so that he would be distracted and wouldn’t hang the flag out. It worked.”

Before Keke could try his round-the-outside stunt, Prost got a wobble under braking going into the last lap, and Rosberg dived down the inside to lead. He came round well clear. But still there was no flag. The man hung it out a lap late just to give Prost another chance. Instead, it simply extended Rosberg’s winning margin.

Justice had been done.

Math Hughes