I had almost forgotten what a flag-to-flag race was all about until Le Mans last week. The spectacle of the riders racing into pit lane, not all arriving at the correct pits to change bikes, soon put that right and thoughts turned to Mugello in 2004. The MotoGP™ race that afternoon in the Tuscan hills was the very foundation of the flag-to-flag concept. It was an extraordinary afternoon resulting in the shortest ever premier class race in the 73-year history of Grand Prix racing. Just six laps of the 5.24 km circuit, a 31.47 km distance, brought Valentino Rossi the 25 World Championship points and a hero’s reception to set up his successful Yamaha World Championship bid.
Sitting in the commentary box, it was confusing but, rule wise, very clear. Once the race that had started in the dry was stopped after 17 laps when the rain began to fall the results of the second race would determine the complete results and points scorers. The fact that the second race was only six laps to make up the original 23 lap race distance did not matter. It was rumoured that some television stations went off air thinking the first race was the result. Things had to change, and they did the very next year.
The flag-to-flag concept was borne. Riders could change bikes with different tyres if the race started in the dry and then turned wet or in the opposite direction from wet to dry. The first time the white flag was shown to indicate riders could change from slicks to wets came at Estoril in Portugal that year. It was just the second round of the 2005 Championship, but it dried out and no rider elected to come in.
Incredibly the weather stayed dry for over a year until the 2006 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, which at last brought about the first flag to flag race. British rider James Ellison was the first rider ever to change bikes, but the race is probably best remembered by winner Marco Melandri remarkable celebratory wave while sliding through the final corner at around 200 kph.
It was Phillip Island seven years later at the 2013 Australian Grand Prix I had another commentary box moment. The track had been resurfaced and Bridgestone soon realised during practice that their tyres would not last the race distance. Riders were instructed to follow a flag-to-flag process and call in to change bikes with new tyres on laps nine or ten. I was in control ticking off each lap and smiled when the riders started to call in after nine laps. I watched Marc Marquez race through and waited for him to appear in pit lane at the end of lap. I panicked and checked my ten fingers when he raced down the Gardner straight towards the Doohan corner on full throttle. Once again had I messed my maths? Anguish on the Repsol Honda pit wall suggested it was not me. Unbelievably in the age of computers, traction control, fly-by-wall throttles and seamless gearboxes, the old ten fingers method had been ignored. They miscalculated the number of laps and Marc was disqualified.
Never was the problem of working out who had won the race when it turned from dry to wet better illustrated than the totally chaotic British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1978. Some riders came in and changed wheels fitted with wet tyres while other stayed on slicks. It was a complete nightmare for the lap scorers using pen, paper and eyes. Kenny Roberts was declared the winner, but nobody is sure and British privateer Steve Manship, who was declared second, still claims victory.
Even when the rules were put in place to avoid such chaos there were still problems at the 1989 Belgium Grand Prix in Spa Francorchamps. The race was stopped twice, and then run a third time. After much discussion, the third race was deemed against the rules and only half World Championship points were awarded after the first two.
So, no ten-finger calculations or six-lap races at Mugello this weekend and hopefully no rain.