Winning B Class: part 2, black flags

Last week I talked about why driving in Enduro style may be our best chance to win class B. By consciously driving 1% off pace we increase fuel economy by 13%, which may save one pit stop, resulting in a 5-6 lap advantage. Driving slower also reduces the chance of getting a black flag, which I parenthetically stated would ruin our race. Which begs the question “what exactly is the cost of a black flag?” We had better answer that. By ‘we’ I mean me and brother Mario.

The Slowest Driver

Early in our racing career, our team went through what most teams go through, which is learning how to drive fast. We eventually learned how fast you can drive in a race, which is an entirely a different thing. We also had to learn about pit strategy, conserving wear items, flat spotting tires, acceptable risk, going off track, hitting other cars, mechanical damage, and of course black flags.

Different race organizations feel differently about throwing black flags. 24 Hours of Lemons is very liberal with them, they’ll throw a black flag for putting wheels off track, for any contact, for passing under yellow (there are always yellows), for driving like a dick, for behaving like a dick, for exceeding paddock speeds, and anything else they feel warrants it. Consequently, Lemons racing is quite safe, because they sit down the idiots and give them a time out, or give them some ridiculous task that takes forever.

On the other end of the spectrum, ChampCar is more loose about “racing incidents” and generally doesn’t care about putting wheels in the dirt or minor contact. We brought the ChampCar judges video footage of an EC car (EC stands for Exception Class, meaning the car doesn’t fit into the competition rules and is just out there for fun) that barges into us mid-corner and almost takes us out. The officials really didn’t care. But I guess that goes both ways because we’ve never received a black flag in ChampCar, either.

But to get back to Lemons, in our first race and we were driving a MR2 with a wooden boat wrapped around it. You could bottom out the suspension by leaning on it, and it was making maybe 90 hp, but that wasn’t why we didn’t place well, it’s because we got hammered with black flags. After too many infractions (mostly passing under yellow, but also going four off), Judge Phil gave us our sentence: write out “you can’t win a race in one corner but you can lose one” 100 times. On both sides of the car. Right-handed on the right side and left-handed on the left side. That may not have been the actual phrase, but it was something like that.

In our next race, some of us were still collecting black flags, most of which were a result of driving too close to the limit. And by that I mean not just the limits of the track or adhesion, but physical and mental limits as well. In order to demonstrate how much this affects lap time, we did some work in a spreadsheet.

A typical 2 hour stint is less than 120 minutes because nearly every stint has some FCY (full course yellow) time. So let’s say that a stint has 100 minutes of spirited driving. At a 2 minute pace, a driver can complete 50 laps during this time. How many laps can be completed if one also picks up a black flag? Some black flags are only a few minutes and some are quite long if there are other cars also being attended to. At some tracks the race stewards are outside the timing loop so you lose whatever lap you were on. 8 minutes sounds like a good average.

The cost of a black flag is therefore 4 laps and the black flagged driver can complete only 46 laps. You know who else completes 46 laps? The driver way off pace lapping at 2:10. Getting a single black flag will turn the fastest driver into the slowest driver. Once getting a black flag, there’s no way to drive fast enough to make up for the transgression. That would mean driving a 1:50 pace or faster. That might not be physically possible, and if you’re getting black flags at a 2:00 pace, you’ll pick up a dozen more driving at 1:50. The second black flag will set your actual pace to 2:23.

How hard should you drive?

Regardless of how skilled you are, the more you push yourself, the greater your risk. To examine this, let’s look at the Assetto Corsa world records at the RSR LiveTiming site. As I’ve done in some previous posts, I’ll use Brands Hatch Indy and the NA Miata as the source. The top driver, Marius Golombeck, has somehow manged a blistering 59.757 lap time. That’s almost 1 second faster than I’ve done (1:00.653). He’s logged 181 laps to achieve this. And in doing so, he’s had the equivalent of 113 black flags (invalid laps from going off course). So even aliens can’t manage to stay on track when they’re driving 10/10ths. And this is just a time trial without any traffic.

So if you shouldn’t drive 10/10ths, what is acceptable? I can lap all day with zero risk of self-inflicted harm (there’s never zero risk with other people on track) when I’m 1-2% off pace. Hey, that’s like the Enduro pace from last week. Not only can it cut 1 pit stop (gaining 5-6 laps), it also reduces the chance of getting a black flag (costing 4 laps). You don’t lose much by waiting for a safe time to pass a slow car, giving extra space to less experienced drivers, pointing by a train of faster cars, or staying off the curbs and grass. Not doing those things could cost you the whole race if you pick up a black flag and find yourself making repairs.

In a typical amateur endurance race, drivers may have different capabilities. Everyone needs to cut their own 1-2%. The benchmark can’t be the fast driver. I recall a race at Willow Springs where my comfortable pace was 5 seconds ahead of a teammate who drove over his limit, crashed the car, and ended our race. Egos and red mist sometimes win over reason. To combat this, clever teams have put the driver’s cell phone in a bag on the front bumper or set a fastest lap anti-bounty (fastest driver pays $100 for bragging rights). We haven’t done these things yet, but we talk about it.

Mario’s Advice

Here’s what I do: Drive at a pace where I have total situational awareness and a huge margin for other drivers fucking up; Follow drivers that are a bit slower than I am, for as many laps as they let me; Point-by everyone who’s on my bumper; Be kind to the car; Exit the car after my 2-hour stint feeling refreshed – not tired, not energized, not angry, not pumped, not frustrated, but refreshed and ready to get back in.

Ian’s Advice

Have a mindset that the race is safer and more fun for everyone (not just you) because of the way you drive. Race with people, not against them, and for fucks sake, don’t have a competition within the team. Drive 70% of the time at 7/10ths, and when you need to step it up a notch, go to 8/10ths not 8/8ths.

2 thoughts on “Winning B Class: part 2, black flags

  1. Great points, especially since they’re backed with actual math. Additionally, on a longer enduro where you drive several stints, how much faster do you think your team would be on the last round if everyone’s been driving well within their limits all race long than the people who’ve been pushing themselves the whole time?

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    1. In my real job (professor, science, bioinformatics, genomics), I’m constantly making educated guesses followed by actual experiments. My educated guesses are surprisingly unreliable, which is why experimentation is so important. So I’m not going to guess what the effect of fatigue is. I’ll test it instead. Thanks for the suggestion (however I also hate you because now I’ve got a lot of tiring work ahead).

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