When F1's chequered flag wavers get it wrong


Waving the chequered flag to signal the end of a Formula 1 grand prix might seem simple, but superstars, celebrities and officials have all been caught out over the years

Pele waves chequered flag at the 2002 Brazilian GP

Mauricio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

He’s Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer, a three-time World Cup winner and widely acclaimed as the greatest footballer of all time. But for many F1 fans, the mention of Pele immediately conjures an image of his hapless figure at the 2002 Brazilian Grand Prix, clutching the chequered flag with his back turned as Michael Schumacher crosses the line to win.

But Pele shouldn’t feel too embarrassed at the blunder, which took place 20 years ago. He’s not the only person to get the deceptively tricky, high-profile role all wrong. We look back at F1’s chequered flag errors.


Fangio waves chequered flag in the 1978 Argentinian GP

Juan Manuel Fangio waves the chequered flag as Ronnie Peterson crosses the line in Buenos Aires — Lotus team-mate Mario Andretti was the winner

Getty Images

1978 – Argentinian Grand Prix

There wasn’t much that anybody could have done to hamper Mario Andretti in Buenos Aires, 1978. Surging away from pole position in the Lotus 78, en route to victory, and ultimately that year’s title, he was unchallenged.


From the archive

So the fact that the race was shortened by a lap when the chequered flag was waved early, is simply a note in the history books, albeit an embarrassing mishap — more so because of the flag bearer.

“There were some red faces amongst the race administration over this, for the man who was waving the flag was none other than Juan-Manuel Fangio!” wrote Alan Henry in the Motor Sport report.

Fangio, who was the honorary chairman of the race, mistook another car for Andretti’s — likely to have been Ronnie Peterson in the sister black and gold JPS Lotus, but Jody Scheckter’s similarly black Wolf could also have confused.

The drivers raced on, as the pitboards showed there was one lap still to go, but the results were calculated after 52 laps, rather than the scheduled 53.


Alain Prost leads Ayrton Senna in the 1985 British GP

Prost moved ahead of Senna when the Brazilian’s Renault engine failed


1985 British Grand Prix

For the sake of F1, it was just as well that the Renault engine in Ayrton Senna’s Lotus failed, with five laps remaining at Silverstone, or the chequered flag error in 1985 could have been much more controversial.

From the archive

The Brazilian catapulted into the lead from fourth on the grid and was soon under pressure from Alain Prost’s McLaren, which unfolded into a race-long duel; Senna always doing just enough to keep the Frenchman behind until his engine cut out on lap 60 and retired.

So when an official mistakenly ordered the chequered flag to be flown a lap early, it had no effect on the winner; Prost was a lap ahead of second-placed Michele Alboreto. Once again, the drivers raced to their pitboards and completed the full distance — with the exception of Jacques Laffite and Derek Warwick who ran out of fuel on the final lap; the former has the flag error to thank for his podium place.

At a time when technology was sweeping into the sport, Denis Jenkinson was unsparing in his Motor Sport write-up.

“The organisers put it down to ‘human error’ which really is a nice ‘circus’ touch in this electronic, micro-chip, computer age,” he wrote. “Through all this ‘high-tech’ and electronic time-keeping to 1000th of a second, a man with a flag decides when the race has finished, and he makes ‘a human error’. It does put it all into perspective, doesn’t it?”


Pele waves chequered flag at the 2002 Brazilian Grand Prix

Pele missed the winner but unfurled the flag in time for third-placed David Coulthard


2002 Brazilian Grand Prix

The camera operator had set up the perfect shot for the final moment of the Brazilian Grand Prix: framing the start-finish line and the gantry above where football legend Pele was stood with the chequered flag.

As Michael Schumacher’s car climbed through the final corners at Interlagos, the editor switched to the shot, right on cue, only to capture the three-time World Cup winner with his back turned to the track, talking to a figure behind him.

It wasn’t until third-placed David Coulthard crossed the line, almost a minute behind, that Pele unfurled the flag.

“I was going like this [punching the air with his fist] and then, I thought, where’s the chequered flag?” said Schumacher, who was assured that the race had ended by the routine practice of marshals waving their multicoloured array of flags at the side of the track.


Chequered flag waves at the end of 2014 Chinese GP

The flag waved a lap too early for Hamilton

Goh Chai Hin/AFP via Getty Images

2014 Chinese Grand Prix

It was another race official error that brought an early end to the 2014 Chinese Grand Prix although, as ever, the drivers raced on after the chequered flag was waved two laps early.

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“Yeah, I thought I was dreaming,” said race winner Lewis Hamilton, as he described seeing the flag early. “I momentarily backed off but then saw there was no-one on the [team] pit wall and got back on it. I radioed that I’d seen the chequer and the team said to just ignore it and keep going [for the last two scheduled laps].”

During that time, none of the drivers in the points changed position, so it made no difference to them when the Shanghai race was classified after 54 laps instead of the scheduled 56.

Kamui Kobayashi, however, had to live with the knowledge that his penultimate corner pass on Jules Bianchi’s Caterham was for naught. He crossed the line after lap 56 in 17th place, but the record books show him finishing 18th.

Winnie Harlow waves chequered flag at 2018 Canadian GP

Winnie Harlow waves the flag on lap 69


Official waves chequered flag at 2018 Canadian GP

Vettel is shown the flag again on lap 70

2018 Canadian Grand Prix

Attending the race as a guest of Lewis Hamilton, model Winnie Harlow was given the honour of waving the chequered flag, although it turned out to be a disaster in the first flag gaffe to register across social media.

Winnie Harlow Canadian GP TweetInstead of showing the flag to the leader at the end of lap 70, it was unfurled one lap early. The results were then back-dated by two laps and were identical to the order in which the cars — which continued racing — crossed the line on lap 70, although Daniel Ricciardo lost the fastest lap he set during that period.

Unfortunately for Harlow, she suffered the greatest repercussions — at the centre of a social media storm, with fans quick to blame the ‘F1 outsider’. It later emerged that she had been told to wave the flag early. And she underlined this with her own social post, dropping the unlucky official in it.

Subsequently, F1 changed the rules to eliminate human error, ending the chequered flag’s long-running role as the official sign that a race has ended and replacing it with an infallible electronic board (although flags were still waved symbolically).

That change didn’t last long.


Valtteri Bottas celebrates 2019 Japanese GP win

Valtteri Bottas won a shortened 2019 Japanese Grand Prix

2019 Japanese Grand Prix

The technology wasn’t infallible. Or more accurately, the person programming the electronic board wasn’t, which is why an input error led to the 2019 Suzuka race ending a lap short of the 53 lap distance. Not that the drivers realised at the time.

It proved fortuitous for Sergio Perez, who made a lunge to pass Pierre Gasly for eighth place on lap 53, only to find his Racing Point headed hard into the barriers. But with the classification taken on the previous lap, Perez retained some points behind the victorious Valtteri Bottas. Lance Stroll, who would have been classified 10th after Perez’s crash, missed put on a point.

Following the incident, the rules were changed once again, returning the physical chequered flag to its status as the official signal a race has ended.