The yellow flag confusion which hit Verstappen’s title hopes in Qatar explained

2021 Qatar Grand Prix

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Max Verstappen suffered a blow less than two hours before the Qatar Grand Prix began as an error at the end of qualifying came back to bite him

The Red Bull driver, who had been due to line up alongside his championship rival on the front row of the grid, was served a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow down for yellow flags.

Observing yellow warning flags is a fundamental requirement for racing drivers. But the unusual circumstances of this case left Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas, who was also penalised, less opportunity to avoid a sanction. Nonetheless, as some of their rivals demonstrated, they could have spared themselves the setback.

In an unfortunate coincidence for Red Bull, for the second time in three races it was an AlphaTauri which inadvertently compromised their qualifying effort. In Mexico it was Yuki Tsunoda, in Qatar Pierre Gasly triggered a series of events which effectively ended Verstappen’s hopes of challenging for victory.

Fourth-quickest when the final runs began, Gasly was on course to improve his lap time still further when he ran wide at turn 15 and the front wing broke off his car, damaging his front-right tyre. He shot past the pit lane entrance too quickly to dive in, and brought his damaged car onto the pit straight with most of the remaining runners still coming around to complete their laps.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Alonso backed off after Alpine warned him about Gasly
Esteban Ocon, the first driver past, arrived so soon afterwards that no warning flags had yet been shown in reaction to Gasly’s stationary car. Sebastian Vettel, next past, saw a yellow warning light beginning to flash as he exited the final corner and abandoned his lap.

Next was Lando Norris. As the McLaren driver rounded the final corner the yellow warning links blinked briefly then stopped. He pressed on to the line past Gasly’s still-moving car and cut three-tenths of a second off his lap time.

Gasly was discussing with his team whether to stop or press on to the pit lane exit when Fernando Alonso came out of the final corner. He slowed immediately as the team told him yellow flags were being shown for Gasly. However with the AlphaTauri still rolling – albeit very slowly – no warning signals were being displayed.

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Barely five seconds later – closing quickly on the slowing Alpine – Valtteri Bottas passed the AlphaTauri. By this time Gasly had stopped and a marshal opposite the pit wall had produced a single waved yellow flag to warn oncoming drivers. The Mercedes driver didn’t slow, and was penalised.

Carlos Sainz Jnr arrived next and did slow down, albeit in reaction to Gasly rather than the yellow flag. He would escape a penalty.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri, Losail International Circuit, 2021
Gasly’s stoppage triggered further yellow flags
By the time Max Verstappen, the final car to set a time, appeared, two yellow flags were being waved at the marshal post. He received no warning from his team and flashed past the AlphaTauri.

In effect, there were two different yellow flag events. The first began when Gasly damaged his car, and was swiftly cleared as he moved on from the crash scene. This signal ended 34 seconds before Verstappen arrived on the pit straight.

The second was when the marshals began waving yellow flags to warn drivers Gasly’s car had stopped on the pit straight. The confusion arose as the recently-cancelled warning lights were not reactivated at this point, which also meant drivers were able to activate DRS at the exit of the last corner.

Red Bull called attention to this as they tried to avoid Verstappen’s costly penalty, to no avail. As the stewards pointed out, the International Sporting Code gives equal weight to flag and light warnings. This is logical, as physical flags are an essential fall-back if electronic systems fail.

Afterwards Vettel voiced a suspicion the original signal was cancelled to allow drivers yet to complete their laps – specifically, Verstappen – opportunity to do so. However FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi said he felt the debris left from Gasly’s incident didn’t warrant disrupting the session with a red flag.

Masi pointed out the decision when to show yellow flags is not taken by him or the clerk of the course, but local officials.

“With all yellow flags that are displayed, they are displayed from trackside,” he explained. “They’re in the hands of the officials’ control as they are at every venue in any form of the sport anyway. If they deem that it’s a single or a double it’s up to those officials to determine that and they judge what they see before them.”

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These warnings can be overriden by race control “but obviously not instantaneously”, said Masi, “there’s actions and time in it.”

Report: Horner given official warning over “rogue marshal” comments
Afterwards Red Bull team principal Christian Horner directed his fury at the marshal who had shown the yellow flags. He later retracted his comments following an official warning from the FIA.

Masi made it clear he would not tolerate criticism of volunteer marshals and defended how they reacted to Gasly stopping on the pit straight.

“I think what the locals did, they reacted to the situation before them, and that’s plain and simple,” he said. “You have a look at what was there and what was happening, with everything with Pierre’s car, they acted upon instinct of what was before them.”

Verstappen’s five-place penalty was the third time in four years he has been penalised for failing to observe yellow flags. Although it wasn’t confirmed until shortly before the race, he realised soon after qualifying it was inevitable. “I knew I was going to get a penalty already yesterday evening,” he said on Sunday. “So I was prepared for that, so when I saw the result I was not shocked or surprised.”

While he minimised the damage on race day with second place and fastest lap, the penalty had taken away his front row start, and with it his last, best hope of beating Lewis Hamilton to victory in the Qatar Grand Prix.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...
Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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24 comments on “The yellow flag confusion which hit Verstappen’s title hopes in Qatar explained”

  1. ”He shot past the pit lane entrance too quickly to dive in”
    – What about Norris in FP1? He entered the pit lane following his penultimate corner incident, so Gasly could’ve equally done the same had he bothered.
    Same distance, reaction time available, etc., so continuing on track with damage was inexcusable.
    Nevertheless, this whole back-&-forth yellow confusion, changing from single to double, was unnecessary & avoidable.
    I don’t blame drivers for getting them wrong.

    1. With a blown out tyre at that speed, he would crash into the wall as the car would understeer massively.

    2. Yeah, I think Gasly could actually have made it into that pitlane too @jerejj.

      As for the others, the likes of Alonso, Vettel and Sainz did the right thing. Sure, look for flags and obey them (which Verstappen seems quite regularly and repeatedly not all too keen to do). But when you see a car parked on the the fastest bit of track ahead of you, it should be natural in such a situation to slow down significantly, as you don’t know what is going to happen.

      1. @bascb Yes, but the thing is Gasly’s stationary car was off the racing line & on a straight line, so not a hugely risky situation. Keeping single yellow would’ve been enough.
        A stationary car around a corner, especially a blind one, is another matter.

        1. Hm, I don’t agree there @jerejj. I actually think with the huge difference in speeds (0 vs 200+) and the risk of drivers backing off right after the finish line there might have been cars coming up at speed who did not get that Gasly had come to a stop and could have actually hit his car.

          Remember, this all played out within a few seconds.

          1. Agreed all you’d needs is a puncture and you’ve got the potential for a car smashing into a stationary object at that closing speed coming off the corner.

    3. @jerejj Having watched the onboard replay a few times, Gasly is past the pit lane about a second after his very sudden incident. These guys have great reaction times, but there was a heck of a lot going on in that cockpit during that second, and I think Gasly did well to keep control of the car as well as he did.

  2. It remains odd that it took the stewards so long to decide what everyone in the paddock more or less knew the evening before would be inevitable, as shown by Verstappen’s remarks.

    Is that because it was such a late session (in which case: is that an issue at other night-races? Why, or why not), or was there some problem for the stewards this race that mean several decisions took until the next day?

  3. The yellow flag confusion which hit Verstappen’s title hopes..

    Did it really hit the title hopes? Everyone on the dirty side of the track had a very poor getaway. It wouldn’t have made any difference.

    1. +1 and let’s not forget overtaking wasn’t actually hard at all on this track too. Maybe Verstappen could have kept Hamilton behind for the whole race, but with two chances at the undercut I really don’t think it changed the result at all.

    2. @montalvo
      Yeah I think if anything it helped him with Bottas also getting a penalty, if they’d started 1-2-3 Bottas might have jumped him at the start, and even if Verstappen had stayed in 2nd Bottas could have prevented him getting fastest lap.

  4. To summarize the twisted logic for this race, tyre punctures are bad and could result in disaster but when racers are flying in qualifying it is ok to let them race when there is a busted wing in the final corner and a disabled car on the side of the track.

  5. Sector 3 times from the timing app for the drivers after Gasly:

    Ocon: 27.675
    Vettel: 30.174
    Norris: 27.546
    Alonso: 33.176
    Bottas: 27.769
    Sainz: 27.731
    Verstappen: 27.543

    So they say that Sainz slowed down but still posted a sector time faster than Bottas? For Vettel and Alonso the slowing down is much more evident from the sector time. Or did the slowing down happen after the start/finish line?

    1. This is what the article should be about.

      Really dissappear in this site lately….

    2. I would guess (only reasonable explanation I can think of) that his slowing-down wasn’t obvious in the sector times, but was clear in the mini-sector where the flag was/Gasly’s car was parked. Alonso and Vettel bailed much earlier, while Sainz would have lifted much closer to the line and (seemingly) only dropped a tenth or two.

      1. @neilosjames Still it seems odd that Bottas was actually slower through the sector than Sainz and Bottas did get the penalty. While you’d actually expect Bottas to have lifted more than Sainz to get that time as Bottas would have been faster through the sector to begin with.

  6. The penalties were correct. But there is no excuse for the amount of time it took.
    The rule is that a fast lap under yellow always is cancelled. So let’s try to apply the rules.

    1. @erikje The rule is that lap times set under Double Waved Yellows are deleted. As Vestappens was. It was single yellows for everyone else I beleive.

  7. How many penalty points on the licence did Verstappen and Bottas get respectively for this? I don’t recall seeing it written, but I presume that there must have been some issues, as a yellow flag infringement is automatically a safety issue.

    1. @eurobrun I am also curious about this. If I recall correctly, there are usually 2 points given for going past a double yellow flag unsafely, and 1 point for a single yellow flag infringement. That would put Bottas on 5 and Verstappen on 4, I think.

    2. No / Driver 77 – Valtteri Bottas
      Decision Drop of 3 grid positions
      (1 penalty point imposed, total of 5 points in the 12 month period)

      No / Driver 33 – Max Verstappen
      Decision 1. Deletion of lap time set under double yellow flags 1:21.282
      2. Drop of 5 grid positions
      (2 penalty points imposed, total of 4 points in the 12 month period)
      No / Driver 33 – Max Verstappen

      Taken from the FIA Documents released just before the race..

      1. @f1-plossl thank you
        @ferrox-glideh sorry, I fat fingered and accidentally reported your comment!

        1. @eurobrun No worries, I don’t think I’ll be getting a ban over it ;)

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