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Flags in sport: the race flags

As we well know, flags can play many different “roles”, as well as their function can change depending on the context in which they are used.

When we think of national flags, we think first of all of their great symbolic value, objects that with a few shapes and colors are able to communicate the belonging, history and culture of an entire people. However, the flag also has another great function, that of signaling and communicating a message.

In some previous articles we have seen how flags can constitute real languages, specific alphabets regarding a given context or sector. This happens on the beach, with the flags of bathing signaling, as well as in the maritime and navigation field, where there is a rigid and structured International Nautical Code.

In the same way, flags also find space in the world of sport and, above all, in the world of competitions. Even in this context, in fact, flags show themselves as the best means to be able to communicate with ease and immediacy clear, universal and language-independent messages.

In car, motorcycle or cycling races it is essential that the drivers of the different nations who run at very high speeds can easily receive any type of message: from the one that signals the beginning of the last lap to the one that highlights a particular danger.

To overcome the problem, a real International Code of Signal Flags has been developed over time, used today by the judges of the race in all competitions both on the road and on the circuit.

Race flags: the International Code

The International Code used today in all sports competitions provides for the use of 12 signal flags, each with a specific message associated with it.

The 12 race flags are then divided, within the International Code, into two groups: some flags can only be used by the Race Director (or at most by his assistant) and must be used only on the starting line of the race; other race flags, on the other hand, are used along the entire race track, in the so-called “control stations”.

The only exception to this subdivision is represented by the red flag that can be used, depending on the need, both by the Race Director on the starting line, and by the other Race Officials in the control stations along the track.

The International Code includes messages of different nature, thanks to the use of race flags of different colors and with different patterns. For a driver it is therefore not only fundamental, but mandatory to know the meaning of all the race flags provided for by the Code. 

Below are the 12 race flags of the International Code and the related messages and signals associated with them.

The flags used by the Race Director on the starting line:

  • National flag: commonly used to express a sense of belonging, in the world of racing the national flag takes on a different function and is used on the starting line to give the official “Start” to the race.
  • Red flag: it can be used on the starting line, but it must also be waved at the same time in all control stations along the track. When used, the red flag indicates to the drivers the decision to interrupt the race or practice session. 
  • Black and white checkered flag: it is perhaps the flag most commonly associated with the world of racing in the collective imagination. The checkered flag is waved on the starting line, or in this case it would be better to say on the finish line, to announce the conclusion of the last lap and therefore the end of the race or practice sessions.
  • Black flag: as with the red flag, the black flag is waved in case of emergency or dangerous situations. The use of this flag indicates to the driver the obligation to stop in the pits the next time he is near the latter. 
  • Black flag with orange disc: this particular flag is used to communicate to a particular driver that his car presents a dangerous problem for himself and for the other participants. Also with this flag is therefore indicated the obligation to stop in the pits, at the first useful moment, to solve the problem and, only then, resume the race. 
  • Black and white flag divided into two diagonals: when shown to a driver, it represents a warning to him, due to incorrect behavior or against the rules of the race.

The flags used in the control stations along the route:

  • Red flag: as mentioned above, this flag must be waved simultaneously along the entire track to inform the drivers of the suspension of the race, inviting them to reach their pits and prohibiting overtaking between cars.
  • Yellow flag: The yellow flag is another warning sign, but can be used in two different ways: 1) When only one yellow flag is waved, it indicates a danger on one edge or part of the track, signalling drivers to be careful, reduce speed and prohibit the double of other cars.  2) When two yellow flags are waved it means that the danger could occupy most or all of the track, thus alerting the drivers of the possibility of having to stop the car. 
  • Yellow flag with red stripes: it is a flag used to signal to drivers that adherence to the track may be reduced due to oil or water along the way.
  • Blue flag: This flag indicates to a driver that he is about to be overtaken by another car. The driver in question will therefore have to allow overtaking at the first opportunity. 
  • White flag: can indicate to the driver that in the part of the track he is traveling there is a vehicle significantly slower than the speed maintained by the pilot.
  • Green flag: can be used following an accident or when you present water or oil on the track (perhaps previously marked by the yellow flag with red lines). This flag indicates “green light”, signaling to the drivers that the track is free in all respects.