Eoin Young rang the other day to question why the finish of a motor race is marked by the display of a chequered flag. An interesting point, but one about which Ian Bamsey says nothing in his new book on race safety and about which the experts appear to have no answer or divided opinions.
Flag signals, or those conveyed by coloured lights, are an absolutely vital part of motor racing and have long been properly established. In the past those specified today were different. At Brooklands, for example, the indestructable Mr. AV Ebblewhite, to whom thanks for his almost endless task of handicapping and starting races and other competitions can never be too great, for some years used a red flag to get drivers away, before changing to a Union flag. Quite a small flag. I have measured one of Ebby’s Union Jacks in my possession — a tatty momento of Brooklands — and it comes out to 7″ wide by 13 1/2″ long, whereas the FIA rules now state that all race signal flags shall measure a minimum of 30″ x 24″.
Later it became the done thing, as universal today, to start a race with the national flag of the country in which that race was being run. I am not sure when this first became the norm but probably for races with an international field. To this national flag we have flags of blue, white, yellow, yellow with red stripes, green, red, black and black and white, either stationary or waved, to convey vital messages to drivers. It seems logical to have a red flag to indicate an immediate stop to a race, a black flag for an individual car to pull in. Moreover, with these and the rest of the above colours usurped, and because the flag’s colour must be easy to see from a speeding car, there is little choice left over what to use to signal the end of a race.
So for many years the official end of contest flag has been a black and white multi-chequered one. When Eoin asked why, I suggested that it was because this pattern was easy to see and was about the only such flag left after the other primary colours had been used up. It would have been important not only for the winner and finishers in a race to see quickly the finish flag but the spectators also.
But when was a chequered flag first used for this purpose and what preceded it? A nice one for industrious historians! It is interesting that the FIA rules say that if this flag is inadvertently displayed before the full race distance or duration, the race will finish then, but if the signal is inadvertently delayed, the race will still finish at the specified distance or time. WB