Armchair generals never lose a battle. Hindsight is 20-20, so seeing the battlefield with perfect clarity is a given. But in the real world, military leaders are confronted with incomplete and conflicting information – the fog of war. So I can sympathise with FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi and the dilemma he faced at the end of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Should Masi have allowed lapped cars to pass the safety car and restart the race before they caught up to the field? Well, that’ll be debated as long as there are at least two F1 fans left on the planet. For me, at least, the problem wasn’t that he made the wrong call. It’s that the decision was made under duress, with time quickly expiring. Everybody was caught by surprise – the fans, the commentators, even the players themselves – because nobody knew what to expect.
Here in the States, since late-race full-course cautions are relatively commonplace, there are detailed and finely calibrated rules in place to govern how races will end. These rules don’t please all of the people all of the time, and just because they exist in black and white doesn’t mean they’re always applied without controversy. But in light of the unsatisfying finish at Abu Dhabi, I thought it might be interesting to summarise what the rules actually say.
The issue comes up most often in the NASCAR Cup Series, due to the style and intensity of oval-track racing. According to the rule book: “The race will go into overtime if the caution period continues into the lap preceding the white flag lap or the caution lights are illuminated and/or yellow flag is displayed prior to the race leader breaking the leading edge of the start/finish line before receiving the white flag.”
A late cuation period triggers overtime in NASCAR, with the green flag indicating the start of the end sequence
In other words, overtime commences with a sequence of green, white and checkered flags. Racing resumes on the green-flag lap. When the leader crosses the start-finish line, the white flag comes out, signalling one lap to go. The race then ends with the chequered flag the next time by. Although this sounds cut-and-dried, things often get, ah, complicated.
Once the white flag comes out, the race ends on the next lap no matter how much hell breaks loose. But – and here’s the kicker – a wreck on the previous green flag lap will cause the caution to come out again, initiating a new green-white-checkered sequence. So, in theory, a Cup race could last forever – or at least until only one car was left – if there were another wreck each time the green flag was shown, but before the white flag flew.
Granted, this is very much how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin? territory. But the YellaWood 500 at Talladega in 2020 required no fewer than three overtime periods, one of them punctuated by a red-flag stoppage. Altogether, the race ran 12 laps longer than scheduled and lasted nearly four and a half hours from start to finish. “This one was unexpected, to say the least,” surprise winner Denny Hamlin quipped afterward.
Incident-packed YellaWood 500 lasted for four-and-a-half hours in 2020
Although the NTT IndyCar Series rule book doesn’t incorporate any NASCAR-style overtime regulations, officials are encouraged to use a red-flag stoppage to allow a race to finish under green-flag conditions. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Two years ago, in the Indy 500, a crash with five laps to go allowed Takuma Sato to trundle home ahead of Scott Dixon under caution. Dixon, who’d finished second under similar conditions in 2012 after Sato wrecked on the last lap, was understandably miffed. “Think IndyCar needs green white checker,” he tweeted.
That was the third Indy 500 to end under caution in nine years. So IndyCar officials tried to get out ahead of the critics by issuing a statement: “IndyCar makes every effort to end races under green, but in this case, following the assessment of the incident, there were too few laps remaining to gather the field behind the pace car, issue a red flag and then restart for a green-flag finish.”
Formation finish is led by Sato as 2020 Indy 500 finishes under caution
True to their word, IndyCar officials threw late red flags not once but twice this past season to allow drivers to race to the finish. In Race 1 at Belle Isle, the race was stopped to repair damage when Romain Grosjean clobbered – and damaged – a wall with six laps remaining. Then, at Nashville, the red flag was shown to permit the track to be cleaned up after Colton Herta crashed heavily with five laps to go. Coincidentally, F1 refugee Marcus Ericsson won both races.
Race stewards have plenty of room for discretion at IndyCar and NASCAR events. In the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, not so much. As senior director of race operations Mark Raffauf explains: “IMSA races to a time, not laps or distance, so when the time is up, the race is over regardless of what the course condition is.”