Formula 1 needs to keep getting more like NASCAR.
There, I said it.
The past two weeks, thanks in large part (OK, whole part) to a few fender benders and three red flags, there's finally been some must-see TV coming out of Formula 1. The past two races—Monza and Mugello—have finally had moments that put fans on the edge of their seat for more than just the first couple of turns of the first lap.
We're talking RED FLAGS and STANDING-START RESTARTS, baby!
NASCAR has been notorious for years, make that forever, for phantom caution periods to stop a race from turning into a runaway. Amazing how many times a hot dog wrapper, water bottle or piece of roll bar padding has sent NASCAR officials into a huddle to decide whether or not to throw a yellow caution flag.
👀 A long view and a close-up of the crash that's brought the remaining drivers back into the pits— Formula 1 (@F1) September 13, 2020
It's the first time that we've had a Red Flag in consecutive races since 2011 - Monaco followed by Canada#TuscanGP 🇮🇹 #F1 pic.twitter.com/Z2QT1k1ckE
After all, it's all about driver safety. And TV ratings.
Who can argue anything that keeps our favorite athletes safer is a good thing? We all know we can't have them out there with a bit of roll-bar padding up near the wall in Turn 3. And if a caution and subsequent restart artificially bunches the field and keeps the race from becoming a boring runaway or a train of cars separated by five seconds (maybe 10 or 20 in F1) is just a bonus.
Ever notice that the restarts after a caution period are typically the most dangerous times of the race for a driver? Seems a little counter intuitive to throw a caution flag and then just a few minutes later put them into arguably a much more dangerous situation. But that's another topic for another day...
The past two weeks, F1 fans have gotten a little taste of NASCAR. Instead of another Mercedes runaway, fans have been treated to real excitement and intrigue during the middle or ever latter portions of the race. And we're not talking about that thrilling "battle for eighth" that TV coverage always seems to swing back to during the final laps of most Formula 1 races these days.
The red flag in F1 is the closest tool in the F1 officials' box of tricks that resembles a NASCAR yellow flag. Sure, F1 has Safety Car periods and something called a "virtual Safety Car." The virtual Safety Car is little more than a speed limit for a certain sector of the track, normally called for during a small cleanup or stalled car extraction.
But even the true Safety Car periods don't call for something as exciting as NASCAR's double-file rolling restarts (Hey, F1, that would be sweet!). Cars are still strung out in single file and generally nothing much happens during a Safety Car restart to dramatically change the pecking order.
A red flag, however, is another animal. A red flag that calls for a standing restart has been a home run for race excitement in Formula 1 the past two races. We saw one red flag at Monza and two at Mugello. Now we'e talking action!
The standing restart is must-see TV and it has proven to close the gaps in the field for the remainder of the race. That, sports fans, is a win-win.
In the five Formula 1 races void of red flags in 2020, the margin of victory has been 24.2 seconds, 13.7, 8.7, 8.4 and 5.8. In the two races where the red flag has flown, the margin of victory was 0.415 second (Pierre Gasly at Monza) and 4.88 seconds (Hamilton at Mugello). Many of the battles in the midfield were even tighter.
Red flags are rare in F1. Prior to the past two races, the most recent red flag came out at Azerbaijan in 2017. The last race with two red flags was Brazil in 2016. There haven't been back-to-back F1 races with red flags since 2011.
Since 2010, there have been 13 races red flagged. Four of those were for rain.
One thing NASCAR knows how to do is to keep a field tight and the outcome of a race more of a mystery later into the race. While the need to call some of the 220 caution periods (that translates into about eight restarts per race) so far in the first 28 races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup season can be debated, it's safe to say there are a few more "must-see" reasons to head over to a TV during the race than the typical F1 race after the opening lap.
NASCAR has even gone so far as to include "competition cautions" in some of its races to make sure the racing stays close and the leaders don'r run away and hide from the rest of the pack. Those cautions are announced beforehand. Hey, Kevin Harvick, no reason to push out to too big a lead in the first 20 laps because of that competition caution we've got coming up. Coming right out and announcing that there will be a "competition caution" on Lap 20 is better than throwing a flag for a phantom hot dog wrapper or stray piece of foam padding that's mysteriously found its way on the track.
While a restart or two in the middle of an F1 race is one way to add a few thrills, Formula 1 needs to pull one more page from the NASCAR rule book and not allow teams to work on their cars, change tires, or adjust anything during a red flag period.
As it is now, F1 teams are allowed to do just about anything to their cars during the red-flag period. That practice eliminates a lot of the strategy of a race. In the case of Monza, some teams were able to make what turned out to be their only pit stop in the race during the red-flag period. No one had to even give up track position to pit. Where's the fun in that?
Even six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton gets it, even if he has a few reservations about further "NASCARification" of his series.
“I know the fans were excited with the restart and everything at Monza," Hamilton said. "So it seemed like they, if there’s a piece of paper on the track they’re going to put the red flag out and do a restart. I can understand why and that is exciting. These races can get boring when everyone streams out and there are such big gaps between everyone.
“They do it in NASCAR. They put out the yellow flag all the time and safety cars all the time to keep the race exciting. But they definitely need to take into account the safety aspect.”
We'll leave it to the best 20 drivers on the planet to navigate a Formula 1 restart.
Let's get serious about making F1 a little more "must-see" after the first lap of a race.
To that, here's a wish list for Formula 1:
• Keep those red flags flying.
• Don't allow teams to work on their cars or even change tires during a red flag.
• Institute double-file rolling restarts for all Safety Car periods.
• Eliminate the virtual safety car (bring out the real Safety Car, bunch the field with a few double-file restarts each race).
• Throw a competition Safety Car into a few races and bring the field back together randomly once in a while just because it's more fun for the fans (even if it means F1 chief executive Chase Carey has to toss a few hot dog wrappers into Turn 8).
Yeah, that will spice things up.
Extra mustard, please.