It’s not often that you see a black flag with an orange circle in motorsport. While damage happens to cars in every series, it’s rare for race marshals to have to order them in to repair their cars.
This is mainly because any damage to a car which could be deemed as dangerous is also so harmful in terms of performance that it’s a no brainer to make a stop for repairs.
So why did we see four drivers issued with a black and orange flag at the Berlin ePrix within just a few laps? Oliver Turvey, Nelson Piquet Jnr, Rene Rast and Sam Bird were all called into the pits by the race officials in the early stages of the race, and each of them had their races ruined as a result.
As any Formula E race is a one stopper, getting called in for an extra trip through the pits immediately puts you way behind the leaders, and with most tracks being short, you can also get lapped by the leaders – eliminating your already slim chances of a recovery.
It’s no wonder then that Bird and his team were so vociferous in their criticism of the decision on team radio, both agreeing that there was no need to pit as the loss of his front wing endplate was having no adverse effect on the car.
Speaking after the race Bird said, “I’m really disappointed with this decision. I didn’t expect a black flag for such minimal damage…that decision means it’s now extremely difficult for me to contend for the driver’s championship.”
Oliver Turvey also commented, “The part of the wing that was damaged then fell off, but it didn’t affect the handling of the car so it was frustrating to get a technical flag as this dropped us down the field.”
This is where Formula E differs so much from other racing series.
It remains a powertrain led series, and while losing a front-wing endplate in Formula 1 might cost you several tenths a lap, in Formula E it barely makes a difference.
Even when Robin Frijns had his rear wing taken off in Long Beach by Sebastien Buemi, he was still able to continue at a reasonable pace as the car was not overly reliant on it for rear grip.
So if it isn’t effecting the speed of the cars, and considering that a black and orange flag can ruin a driver’s race entirely, were Formula E right in dishing out so many of them in Berlin?
In a word, yes.
Firstly, there’s the obvious safety element. If one bit of body work has fallen off a car, there’s nothing to say that another won’t follow shortly afterwards. As we saw with Jean-Eric Vergne, after he lost his front endplate he soon lost the whole wing, causing a full course yellow.
This can not only cause damage to other cars, but as we tragically saw with Justin Wilson last year, it can also cause harm to drivers.
There’s also the reputational side to consider.
As a series in its early years, Formula E has to come across as a serious sport, and images of half assembled cars lapping at a similar pace to the leaders is not good for that image.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence that there was a sudden crackdown in Berlin. Formula E Chief Executive Alejandro Agag must have seen this issue develop over the past few races and decided that enough was enough. By keeping a hard line when it comes to damage they can start setting a precedence and let drivers know that any damage they incur will lead to a trip to the pits.
They’ll have to be careful though – choosing to ruin a driver’s race to prove a point won’t just piss off those getting penalised, but when these decisions could affect championship battles, it will annoy the fans they’re trying to win over as well.