Red Flags in Qualifying: Should the FIA penalize drivers for causing stoppages?
Monaco and Azerbaijan spark discussion as red flags create qualifying chaos
The Monaco and Azerbaijan Grand Prix had very unpredictable and interesting qualifying sessions, each with unique results. At these compact street circuits, red flags are a continuous threat as incidents occur during the session. And in the case of the last two races, red flag stoppages can have a huge impact on driver results, with some benefitting and others put at a disadvantage.
Q3 in Monaco saw Charles Leclerc put in a great lap that earned him provisional pole on his first run. With less than a minute left in the session, he collided with a barrier and caused a red flag. This hindered several drivers from completing their final runs and took away the opportunity for them to challenge Leclerc’s pole position.
It was a bittersweet hometown pole for Leclerc, as the extent of damages done to the car was unclear. He was ultimately unable to participate in the race the next day due to gearbox damage related to the incident.
Qualifying in Baku saw a total of four red flags, with five drivers crashing out of the session. The fight for pole was impeded once again with Tsunoda crashing into the wall at turn three and Sainz locking up into the same turn just after, spinning into turn three’s run-off area. With seconds to go in Q3, the session was not restarted. The grid would remain as it stood, with Leclerc securing his second pole position in a row.
Max Verstappen was one of the drivers denied their final lap due to the incident, and was unable to try and knock Leclerc off pole.
“It was just a stupid qualifying to be honest. Anyway, it is what it is. Still P3. We have a good car, good recovery from FP3 obviously for us,” Verstappen said after qualifying in Baku, as reported in a June 5 F1.com article titled “Verstappen curses ‘stupid’ qualifying in Baku as he loses another chance of pole to red flag."
“It’s just unfortunate but it’s a street circuit, so these things can happen,” Verstappen said, as reported later in the article.
The qualifying situation at these Grand Prix have prompted Fernando Alonso to speak out about the “unfair” advantage given to drivers who cause a red flag.
"[It is] unfair probably that the people that crashed, they repair the car and they start in that position tomorrow,” Alonso said speaking to Sky Sports F1, as reported by ESPN and other outlets.
This begs the question: should drivers be penalized for causing stoppages in qualifying? With Alonso saying that a change should occur, it is worth discussing what the implications would be.
By adding a penalty of some sort, the mindset of drivers to go all out and meet the limits of the track at hand may change to some extent. This is something Alonso alluded to, saying some drivers push the limits of their car too far, especially in street circuits.
“I think the people need to calm down a little bit and drive 98% in a street circuit because if you crash and you start last in the race, maybe you don't drive over your possibilities,” Alonso said in the aforementioned article.
A penalty would add to the risk factor that comes with each qualifying run, as any incident has the potential to be detrimental to their grid position. This change of mindset could have interesting implications when it comes to qualifying strategy.
The addition of a penalty would give indirectly-impacted drivers some solace knowing the driver that caused them some frustration during the session was punished by race control. In some cases, said drivers may gain back a position lost, or even a pole position in a situation like that of this year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
A penalty would also keep teams and drivers from purposely inciting a stoppage to secure their own gain. A key example of this situation is when Michael Schumacher was stripped of his pole position after the FIA deemed his mistake during Monaco Grand Prix qualifying in 2006 to be deliberate.
It may seem like too unusual a case to consider, but as Commentator David Croft alluded to during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix qualifying session, a driver purposely veering into the run off area to cause a stoppage could give them a great advantage with little detriment to their own team or result.
There would be cases in which the natural consequences of a crash-- the tumble in morale the driver takes, car damage, inability to put a time on the board-- may be considered by some to be enough of a punishment for causing a red flag. A scenario where more than one driver is involved would complicate things further. This is why rule changes are difficult, as every situation is different. This is where I would pass it to the FIA to make the best decision possible to ensure fairness for all parties involved.
Ultimately, a penalty-- something along the lines of a grid penalty of a few places or the deletion of their fastest time-- may be a good way to keep teams honest and ensure incidents aren’t caused on purpose, as well as give drivers who were negatively impacted by the stoppage some consolation. It may be a change for the series worth considering for the future.