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How Alonso's Turkish escape will stop further yellow flag dramas

motorsport.com logo motorsport.com 10/21/2021 Adam Cooper
Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521 © Charles Coates / Motorsport Images Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

In Austin this weekend the FIA is set to trial a new system that will see laptimes achieved in practice and qualifying by a driver who passes through a double-waved yellow flag zone automatically deleted.

The general idea is that it will take away any incentive a driver might have to complete a lap at racing speed, because he knows that it will be cancelled, and he also knows that the same will happen to any rivals who pass through the same zone.

He simply has to slow down and go again on the next lap, assuming that the track is clear.

Speeding under yellows has been long been a cause of debate in the stewards' room. It's always been about how much does a driver have to slow down.

Double yellow flag scenarios are addressed in the International Sporting Code, and also in notes issued to teams every weekend by FIA race director Michael Masi.

Masi's standard wording is as follows: "Any driver passing through a double waved yellow marshalling sector must reduce speed significantly and be prepared to change direction or stop.

"In order for the stewards to be satisfied that any such driver has complied with these requirements it must be clear that he has not attempted to set a meaningful laptime, for practical purposes this means the driver should abandon the lap.

The key phrase here is "meaningful laptime," which is open to interpretation – as the Alonso Turkish GP case highlighted.

The incident happened at the start of Q1 in Istanbul. The sky was grey, and rain was threatening. As the pitlane opened, teams believed that there might be only a couple of dry laps, and thus drivers knew that they had to get a banker time in early.

However, the track was slippery, and several drivers had moments or went off the road on their first laps, and others couldn't do representative times because of yellow flags.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521 © Motorsport.com Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

Alonso came across double yellows at Turn 1 at the start of his first flying lap. He actually got a bit sideways in the middle of the corner, but he carried on and finished his lap. For a brief while his 1:29.589s was actually the third fastest time.

Laptimes soon started to tumble, and those who who hadn't got a clean first lap in did so. After a slow lap, Alonso himself went over three seconds quicker on his next flying lap, doing a 1:26.147s, so his earlier time no longer had any relevance.

However, that first lap did trigger an investigation, and after the session some rivals were surprised that Alonso escaped with no sanction.

Alonso got away with it because he subsequently did a faster lap, and thus the dodgy one was no longer "meaningful".

However, rivals argued with some justification that at the time, it was indeed meaningful - everyone feared that it was about to rain, and had it bucketed down at that moment, Alonso would have been third in the grid with a time set while passing through double yellows.

The fact that this situation came soon after some other hotly-debated decisions – notably Lando Norris escaping with reprimand after crossing the pit entry line in Russia when a time penalty is the established punishment – did not go unnoticed. 

"I was really surprised," said Pierre Gasly. "This last two events I don't understand the regulations. Because to me it is either black and white, and these two situations were, for me, were very clear.

"On a single yellow, you can lift," said Lance Stroll, who backed off an abandoned his lap for the same incident that Alonso passed.

"And if conditions are improving with the lift, if you can demonstrate that with the data, and you've set a fast laptime, fine. If there's a clear lift. But in a double yellow, for me, it's clear. You have to abandon the lap.

"Yesterday, that wasn't the case. So I just think that there's different decisions being made, which is which is funny."

Stroll's Aston Martin team was particularly aggrieved. Not only had the Canadian backed off and aborted his lap for the same flags that Alonso passed, the verdict came a few months after Sebastian Vettel was penalised for a yellow flag offence in Bahrain that some thought was marginal.

"In Bahrain Sebastian went past the accident before the double yellows were waved," team boss Otmar Szafnauer told Motorsport.com. "But he was in the sector and then passed the accident when the double yellows happened, and he got a three-place penalty.

"Apparently Alonso didn't get a penalty because he didn't set a meaningful laptime. I think the laptime was meaningful, but we've got to review that with the FIA, and just understand what the rules are so they're consistent from race to race to race.

"The last thing we want is to encourage drivers to go flat out in double-waved yellows, we don't want that. So it's got to be discussed further."

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21 © Motorsport.com Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

When Motorsport.com asked Masi about the verdict after Sunday's race, he confirmed that the stewards would have given a penalty had it rained and Alonso's time been relevant.

"The facts are that in the circumstances, it wasn't a meaningful laptime," said Masi. "But we'll have a discussion about that, and might come up with some adjusted wording for future, to remove any incentive whatsoever in that scenario."

The bigger picture here was how do you convince drivers to do the right thing is they believe that someone else has previously got away with something?

In fact, on Sunday morning in Turkey some teams had talked to Masi about the incident, and a possible solution emerged. Instead of debating how meaningful a lap is, why not just delete it if double yellows are out? The process undertaken for track limits showed that it was possible.

To his credit, Masi embraced the idea, and even before that afternoon's race he had put the wheels in motion for it to be trialled at the next race in the USA.

Asked if a deleted times system could be trialled as early in practice in Austin, Masi said "quite possibly," stressing that a test would not be difficult to sanction.

"It's in my event notes. It's not even a regulation change. It's effectively, the legal terminology would be, it's a test. So you need to comply with the requirements within the ISC [International Sporting Code], complying with double yellow flags.

"But effectively to prove that you've done that, the test is being meaningful laptimes scenario. So we'll have a look, probably trial something else in Austin, and see where we go."

Drivers still have to slow down through the yellows, and can still be investigated – but knowing that the lap will be worthless, they will now back off completely without worrying that the next guy might not slow down as much, and therefore benefit.

"I think an elegant solution is to just once you go through a double yellow just delete the laptime," Szafnauer told Motorsport.com.

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