Unless it happens right at the start or right of the end of the race, these days a red flag means little more than a temporary break in the race.
But until surprisingly recently, the red flag rules were a little different. If it came out in the middle of the race the cars would stop, as you’d expect, but when the race got underway again behind the safety car, it was almost like a completely different race. The result would be determined from the combined times from the part of the race before the red flag and the part of the race after the red flag, meaning there would often be a situation where drivers were racing the clock and not each other.
The last time it happened was at Suzuka in 1994 and it turned out to be an absolute classic.
It was the penultimate race of the season and a crucial round of the championship battle between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill. If Schumacher won with Hill second, he’d have headed into the final race in Adelaide with a nine-point lead – a serious amount with only 10 points available for a win back then. But if Hill won in Suzuka, that gap would be down to just one point.
The race started out wet and Schumacher quickly built up a lead over Hill. But the rain was really coming down, cars were spinning off everywhere, and after 13 laps the race was stopped.
Half an hour later things got underway again, and once again Schumacher streaked ahead. But he was on a less effective two-stop strategy to Hill’s one, and after both stops found himself some way behind his rival on the road. However, thanks to the advantage he’d built up before the red flag, he only had to get within 6.8 seconds of the Williams to win the race.
The closing laps were seriously tense as everyone watched the timing screens and Schumacher closed in. With just a lap to go, Schumacher was only 2.4 seconds behind on aggregate and catching fast. Traffic, a mistake or just a really really good lap could decide the race.
As it was, the really really good lap came from Hill, leading to an iconic commentary moment from Murray Walker.
Hill crossed the line 10.1 seconds ahead of Schumacher, more than enough to offset his 6.8-second deficit in the first part of the race and win by 3.365 seconds. He later called it his best-ever drive – not surprising really, considering the enormous pressure he was under and the fact he beat one of the best wet-weather drivers of all time!
It was the last time a race was decided on aggregate time. Whilst it was tense in this instance, there’s no doubt that it can be confusing and frustrating to watch, and it’s probably a good thing that the idea was dropped.