Monday, January 13, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Red Flag Rules

Unfortunately, we begin this Monday with heavy hearts after the death of Paulo Gonçalves in stage seven of the Dakar Rally. Gonçalves was 40 years old. The Portuguese rider was participating in his 13th Dakar Rally. His best Dakar Rally result was second in 2015 and he had won three stages in his Dakar Rally career. Stage 8 of the 2020 Dakar Rally has been cancelled for the bike and quad class.

Rain and the flooding that followed ended the Dubai 24 Hour after only seven hours and 17 minutes. In doing so, the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG of Khaled Al Qubaisi, Hubert Haupt, Ben Barker, Manuel Metzger and Jeroen Bleekemolen claimed the victory, the third Dubai 24 Hour victory for Al Qubaisi, Haupt and Bleekemolen, the fifth Dubai 24 Hour victory for Black Falcon and the fifth Dubai 24 Hour victory for Mercedes-AMG. Elsewhere in the world, Americans are looking great in the Dakar Rally, Australia hosted the Asian Le Mans Series for the first time, bikes were in St. Louis and Roger Penske is now officially the owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Red Flag Rules
We are still over two months away from the first IndyCar race of 2020 but we are starting to see a few rule changes and other possible rule changes trickle out of the offices in Indianapolis. None of the rule changes are all that seismic. We are not seeing the Pacer Light system returning or a points system change or a playoff introduced (but don't worry, that will come in 2021), but we are seeing little things tweaked and one that caught my eye the most is a possible change to red flag regulations.

IndyCar may be looking to change Rule, which states "Unapproved work performed on a Car not related to INDYCAR approved safety issues while under a Red Condition will result in a minimum two (2) lap penalty, which will be enforced in a manner determined by INDYCAR."

The proposed change would prohibit any work to vehicles under red flag conditions and any work done under a red flag condition could lead to expulsion from the race.

The most notable instance of cars receiving work under a red flag occurred at Pocono last year when Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe each had their cars repaired after the lap one accident that brought out a red flag for about 45 minutes. IndyCar decided these drivers would receive a ten-lap penalty for the repairs. All three cars continued and ran to the red flag for rain that ended the race. Rossi had completed 39 laps and was 18th, Hunter-Reay completed 25 laps and was 19th and Hinchcliffe rounded out the top twenty with 19 laps scored.

At Texas in 2017, Ed Carpenter and J.R. Hildebrand both were involved in an accident and received repairs under red flag conditions but both drivers only received a two-lap penalty. Carpenter and Hildebrand would finish 11th and 12th respectively that night.

The one reason for IndyCar potentially increasing the penalty is fairness. There is a big difference between getting a car repaired after a red flag on lap one, two or three and a car repaired after a red flag on lap 159 of 248 or lap 75 of 90. At Pocono, Rossi, Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay could have conceivably returned to action and not missed a lap at all. Now, none of them were ready to join the race when the red flag condition was raised at Pocono but down the line it could be possible at another event.

The other reason is safety, which is the laziest reason of them all. You can say any change is done for safety reasons but that doesn't mean it gets to be free of criticism. I get the argument that people do not want damaged race cars that might not be up to the same structural integrity on track but IndyCar decides whether or not a car is allowed to return to the track. If a car is not fit to return than IndyCar will not allow it on track. If IndyCar says a car is good to go then it returns. If a car is on track then IndyCar has deemed it meets its safety standards to race. End of discussion.

The one question the proposed changes raise is should working on a car under red flag conditions really mean expulsion from a race? Need I remind everyone IndyCar still does not have it regulated that a car that fails post-race technical inspection be excluded from an event so that means IndyCar has greater leniency toward a car that does not meet the standards of the regulations than teams trying to fix a car and return to competition, but I digress, it seems a little extreme to completely throw a driver and car out of a race for work done under red flag conditions.

There was always a rule in place to dissuade teams from working under red flag conditions and in some cases teams decided the penalty was worth it. They would take whatever lap penalty was given. Most times teams do not work on their cars when under red flag conditions. At Pocono in 2018 when there was a red flag after only 11 laps none of the teams involved made repairs. The five cars involved in the red flag causing accident did not attempt to return.

The biggest difference between 2018 and 2019 was championship implications. Rossi had everything to fight for. He needed to get every point he could and sitting in the garage and accepting an 18th place result was not going to be good enough. Rossi ended up 18th anyway but he had completed the same number of laps as Spencer Pigot and if the red flag had come one lap later he would have finished 17th with one more point to his name. If the race had gone the full 500 miles he may have been 16th with two more points after Colton Herta's accident.

Breaking the rules and accepting the punishment added a twist to the Pocono race last year. It sucked to have five quality cars taken out before completing two corners and it took away from the competition at the front but the championship picture was still at play. Rossi was trying to stop the bleeding and he only lost 19 points that day to Newgarden. It could have been worse.

When considering the red flag rules it has always been the case that work on cars was verboten but no one has ever given a good reason why that is the case instead of just allowing everyone to work on their cars. If the conditions are equal to everyone than what is the problem?

We are also living in a different time period. Look, 2020 is not going to be that different from 2019, 2014 or 2010, and in a time period when IndyCar is suffocated out because of 20,000 different things in every day life from other sports to films, television shows and social media, IndyCar should want as many cars competing in a race as possible. That doesn't mean stopping a race and waiting for a driver to be able to return and that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a penalty if a team works on a car under red flag conditions if the rulebook expressly forbids it.

It does mean disqualifying cars might be too much of a knee-jerk reaction especially when teams that choose to skirt the rules and run a race to completion will not face as harsh of a penalty. I get that other teams that were not involved in the Pocono accident last year might not have like that the teams of Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe got to work on their cars while the rest of them had to sit there on pit lane but IndyCar did punish those three cars. Those teams got ten-lap penalties.

Down the road, if one of those teams were on the other side of the pit wall during a red flag they could choose to do the same. They can weigh the consequences and decide whether or not it is worth it. Power to those if they decide the punishment is worth it and power to those who decide not to take a penalty and work when yellow flag conditions return.

This rule change is likely to happen and it will likely not be challenged. Teams will accept the stricter punishment. They will accept not being allowed to work under red flag conditions because disqualification is worse than waiting but IndyCar does not need stricter punishments especially when it seems the punishments in place are already working.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the Dubai 24 Hour but did you know...

The #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus-Gibson of James French, Romain Rusinov and Léonard Hooenboom won the 4 Hours of The Bend. The #2 Nielsen Racing Norma-Nissan of Colin Noble and Anthony Wells won in LMP3. The #7 CarGuy Racing Ferrari of Kei Cozzolino, Takeshi Kimura and Côme Ledogar won in the GT class.

Ken Roczen won the Supercross race from St. Louis, his first Supercross victory since San Diego 2017.

Dakar Rally Update:

After seven stages, American Ricky Brabec leads the Bike class by 24 minutes and 48 seconds over Chilean Pablo Quintanilla.

American Casey Currie leads the UTV class by 32 minutes and three seconds over Chilean Francisco López.

Carlos Sainz leads the Car class by ten minutes over the defending Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah.

Ignacio Casale has a 36-minute and 43-second lead over Simon Vitse in the Quad class.

Andrey Karginov has a 21-minute and 12-second lead over fellow Russian Anton Shibalov in the Truck class.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Dakar Rally concludes.
Formula E is back for round two of the 2019-20 season in Santiago, Chile.
Supercross is back in Anaheim for the second time in three weeks.
The Chili Bowl is back with a slew of talented drivers from all forms of motorsports gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma.