Tradition and motorsport go hand in hand. That’s why we still have national anthems and champagne spraying on the podium. It’s the reason F1 still goes to Monaco season after season even though it usually delivers the dullest race of the year. And it’s why the 24 Hours of Le Mans has particular flag procedures for the start and finish of the race.
At the start, the race commences with the waving of the French Tricolore. Once 24 hours has passed, the chequered flag is waved by a dude standing out on the track, rather than from the pit wall. This accepted tradition looked questionable this year, however, after a scary near-miss at the end of the 2021 running of the endurance race.
The number 7 and 8 GR010 Hybrids, having ‘met’ in the pitlane a few laps earlier, gently crossed the line in formation, giving Toyota its PR money shot. Several GT cars following slowed down too, presumably to avoid taking another racing lap. Unfortunately, just behind an intense battle for the LMP2-class victory was going on between Robin Frijns and Tom Blomqvist.
Frijns was forced to dart his way through the slower-moving traffic, sending his Oreca 07 towards the flag-waving official, who did his best to jump out of the way. “I was turning hard left because I saw the chequered flag guy standing there. If I would hit the guy, he would be dead,” Frijns said, as reported by Motorsport Week.
Understandably, this caused some social media debate, include among industry figures. “Don’t let people with flags walk on the track,” Porsche factory driver Laurens said in his “Notes from Le Mans 2021”. Formula E champion and former Audi World Endurance Championship driver meanwhile Tweeted: “Heritage and old costumes in motorsport need to change when it makes no sense at all…it was SO close”.
F1 used to feature on-track chequered flag-waving, but this was ditched years ago due to safety concerns. It may still be the done thing at la Sarthe, but the race has binned long-standing traditions before, like the traditional Le Mans start which featured drivers running over to their diagonally parked cars, hastily belting up, and driving off. The death of John Woolfe in 1969, who’d started without fastening his seat belts before crashing on the first lap, led to a new, less perilous start procedure.