Updated for the 2021 season on 12th April 2021.
Our grateful thanks to David Hawley (Chief Marshal MotoAmerica and Flag Chief at Austin MotoGP) for his assistance with this article.
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The following is an outline of how trackside marshals convey Race Direction’s instructions to the riders who often only have only a split second to see the information.
Due to the nature of the sport the best way to convey information or instructions to the riders is simple and limited.
To achieve this there are a small number of flags and lights that instantly tell a rider what is happening ahead and what action they are required to take.
Even when you understand the rules and penalties, there are times when it seems Race Direction are simply making things up as they go and it can be confusing.
However, Race Direction has discretionary powers to decide re each incident as it occurs, considering the conditions and numerous other factors unique to each race before deciding if they issue a penalty and what that should be.
For the most part it is straightforward:
- jumping the start line will result in a two “long lap” penalty (see explanation below under “instructional flags”)
- overtaking under a yellow flag will result in the loss of that place
- ignoring Race Direction can result in a black flag and so on.
There are two kinds of flags used by trackside marshals in MotoGP.
The first kind are informative only and indicate to riders general information about the track and other issues regarding the race.
The second are instructional and will carry penalties to riders who fail to comply.
Note: the term marshal post is the placement of trackside marshals. It is important as some signals are to be given by every marshal post and others at only specific sections of the track.
Tells the riders the track is clear and ready for use.
A green light is shown in the pit boxes during training sessions, sighting and warm up laps while the green flag will be waved at each marshal post.
The green flag is seen at the pit lane exit to indicate it is now open and following any incident on the track that required a warning to be issued and is now resolved allowing for normal racing to resume. For example, after the clearing away of debris following a crash.
White with a Red ‘X’
This is waved when rain is falling on that part of the circuit.
Red and Yellow Stripes
This is the surface flag and it means that the surface grip is affected by something other than rain.
White with Red ‘X’ & Red and Yellow Striped Flag Together
The White flag with a red X combined with the yellow and red striped flag indicates to the field there is water on the track and the surface grip is affected. It is waved only at the marshal post(s) relevant.
A Blue Flag signals to a rider they are about to be passed by a fellow rider. During a race it will let a rider know they are about to be lapped and to allow the other rider to pass. It is also waved to signal traffic is approaching when leaving pit-lane.
The chequered flag is used to indicate the end of the race as each rider crosses the line.
The second set of flags are instructional and may carry harsh penalties if ignored.
The possible penalties available by race direction are as follows:
- “long lap” (see below)
- change of race position
- time penalty
- withdrawal of championship points
- or in more serious cases exclusion
At the start of the 2019 season an additional penalty has been added to the rule book called a long lap. A specific area of track is now marked out adding a few seconds onto a lap time. The idea behind this additional penalty is to create a similar outcome in times as a place change. The rider will have 3 laps to comply with this penalty or will be further penalised.
A yellow flag tells the riders several things depending on when and where it is used, also the number of flags can mean something different too.
If the riders see one yellow flag waved at every row while on the staring grid it will indicate the race is delayed.
If the flag is waved at a single row on the starting grid it indicates a rider on that row is having trouble.
Sometimes this will result in the rider leaving the grid and starting from the pit lane 5 seconds after the rest of the field starts from the grid.
During the race if a single yellow flag is waved at a marshal post it indicates danger trackside ahead.
If two yellow flags are waved by a marshal post it tells the riders there is danger and an obstruction covers part or the whole of the track.
During a race either a single yellow flag or two means riders must slow down and overtaking is prohibited until the green flag is waved telling the riders the danger is now over and normal racing is to resume.
If a rider does overtake at this time, they will be ordered to surrender the place gained, if they do not a harsher penalty will be issued.
If a rider overtakes by accident but realises and surrenders the place as soon as possible (they indicate this by lifting their hand and waving) no penalty will be issued.
If the infraction occurs during practice/qualifying the lap time for that rider will be deleted and not counted towards qualifying.
The Red flag with red lights is used to tell riders the current session (be it training or during the race) is being interrupted and riders are to slow down and return to their pit boxes as soon as possible.
The red light at the pit-lane exit will remain on to let riders know they may not exit the pits.
If this occurs and at least three quarters of the race has been completed by the race leader and all riders are on the same lap then the race will be deemed complete and full points will be awarded.
In the event this point has not been reached two options are available.
The first is the race is restarted or the race is still deemed over but only partial points will be awarded, this decision by race direction depends on the reasons for the interruption but history has shown if the reason is the death of a rider the race is over regardless of the amount of laps completed, all other scenarios are determined on a case by case basis.
A red light only is used to begin the race and is shown for between 3 and 5 seconds before ‘lights out’ occurs indicating the race has begun. It has become a favourite catchphrase among commentators at the start of each race.
A plain white flag is waved at the marshal posts only and indicates riders are allowed to return to their pit boxes and switch to their alternate bike set up for the rain, the race will now be declared a wet race (often we hear the phrase a flag to flag race when this occurs).
This is up to the rider to decide but generally they opt to switch bikes.
There is no penalty issued by race direction if the rider decides not to switch bikes it is all about what the rider believes is best for them at the time taking weather, tyres and other matters into consideration (at high speed in the rain mind you).
This flag is only used in the MotoGP class only, not Moto2 or Moto3.
While the above instructional flags are used to communicate with the entire field the following two are directed at specific riders upon race directions say so.
The black flag will be shown with a riders corresponding number by all marshal posts indicating they are to return to their pit box the race is over for them and they will receive a DNF (Did not finish) for that event.
Further penalties may apply depending on the reasons for the black flag being shown.
For Marc Márquez in 2013 at Phillip island he received the black flag for failing to follow race directions orders to change bikes due to safety concerns over the tyres at that event in his first flag-to-flag race with Repsol Honda.
The order to change bikes was for the entire field Márquez claimed he believed he could come in after lap 10 but was mistaken and received a disqualification.
The black flag can be shown to a rider during practice as well for non-safety reasons for example if their transponder is not working and under some circumstances the practice can then resume.
Black with Orange Circle
When the Black flag has an orange circle in the centre the rider is being told there is a technical fault with their bike that places them and others in danger.
They will then return to their pit box or otherwise safely exit the track immediately.
Beginning the 2020 season riders leaving the track under this flag will require clearance from a technical steward before re-entering the track.
Considering the high speed and nature of racing there are plenty of opportunities for infractions of the rules, misunderstandings and accidents to test the safety procedures and keep race direction and marshals run off their feet.
It really is a well oiled machine deserving of great respect.