MONZA, Italy -- "Do you give the leading Ferrari at Monza a five-second penalty? Out of the question. Then we'd need a police escort out of here!"
That was the tongue-in-cheek verdict of Mercedes boss Toto Wolff on Charles Leclerc being shown a black-and-white flag for his aggressive defensive move on Lewis Hamilton that forced the reigning world champion off the road during the Italian Grand Prix. The move helped Leclerc hold on to the lead en route to Ferrari's first victory on home tarmac since 2010.
The flag was commonly used in F1's past and has been revived under new FIA race director Michael Masi as "the motorsport version of a yellow card" to punish what the Australian calls "bad sportsmanship." Pierre Gasly was the first driver to be shown it during the Belgian Grand Prix for cutting the Raidillon corner three times during the race.
At Monza, the use of the flag was instrumental in determining the outcome. Unlike the Canadian Grand Prix in June, when the result was decided by a time penalty handed down to Leclerc's teammate Sebastian Vettel after he rejoined the circuit unsafely to defend the lead from Hamilton, this allowed the Leclerc-Hamilton fight to continue on track. Hamilton felt Leclerc had not left him a car's width on the outside of the road, as the rules dictate.
Earlier this year, drivers asked the FIA to ease up on the in-race penalties and a "let them race" philosophy has continued since -- the black-and-white flag is seen as a way to help allow that to happen. While in-race penalties and superlicence penalty points are handed down by race stewards at a grand prix, Masi, who became race director after the death of Charlie Whiting at the start of the year, has sole authority on when to issue one of these yellow cards.
Masi explained that as there was no actual contact between Leclerc and Hamilton, it had made sense to stop short of a time penalty for Leclerc.
He went on to say: "We need to remember a couple of points. The discussion with the drivers in Bahrain about let them race, the subsequent discussions that have been ongoing with team principals, drivers, sporting directors, then you look at it particularly in the context of Spa, where we said we are going to reintroduce the use of the bad sportsmanship flag.
"Gasly, for a very similar incident in Spa received the bad sportsmanship flag, so in that case there was no contact and it was, if you use the analogy, it was the professional foul ... it was Charles' warning."
Masi went on to clarify that stewards can opt to overrule his decision on a black-and-white flag if they think an incident warranted a harsher punishment.
"Was it hard racing? Yes," he said.
"It's ultimately the stewards' decision if somebody gets penalised or the bad sportsmanship flag, but if the stewards feel there was more to it then we absolutely have the capability of issuing a penalty, and that's exactly where it sits.
"I think it was hard. The black-and-white was issued for the reason it was there. It's quite simple for me and a carbon copy of what Pierre did last weekend in Spa. It achieved its purpose."
He added: "The black-and-white is effectively your warning. The next infraction it would be referred to the stewards and in all likelihood be a time penalty. I think the black flag ... you've got to [do] something seriously severe to be disqualified from a race."
Hamilton calls for consistency
Hamilton said he might speak to Leclerc in private about some of his moves; another incident later in the race saw the Ferrari driver move aggressively to the right at the Curva Grande to stop the world champion getting by.
"That's just racing, I guess," the five-time world champion said. "I had to avoid colliding with him a couple of times, but that's how the racing is today. We just move forwards.
"I'm not unhappy. Of course I don't like to go backwards, but he did a fantastic job today. I put on as much pressure as I could. We had a couple of close moments -- I think we can probably talk about it in private together, but there's nothing major, and we continue to race. I'm looking forward to more races together."
His frustration at Leclerc getting the black-and-white wasn't down to the move itself, however, but more the lack of consistently he feels there has been in handing down punishments.
"We've just constantly asked for consistency," he said. "There was a rule put in place, and then it wasn't abided by today. They used different consequences for the rule today. I don't know why that was the case. I guess the stewards woke up on a different side of the bed this morning; I don't know."
Interestingly, Hamilton went on to say Leclerc's move on lap 24 would have resulted in a collision had he not been mindful of protecting his healthy championship lead.
When asked how he would have behaved if the title had already been wrapped up, Hamilton said: "I wouldn't have moved. We would have collided."
Hamilton said the way the incidents unfolded have helped him understand what is acceptable in future wheel-to-wheel battles.
He added: "I think [Leclerc] did an exceptional job today and I don't have any problems with it. It is what it is. I haven't spoken to anyone or him, but if we have a moment together we might chat for a second. Just to reverse roles and make sure he is cool if he is in that position when that happens.
"If he's cool with that, then that's how we will [be] racing. There is no issue. From what I knew going into the race, I was supposed to leave a gap and now I don't know if that's the case as it is unsure over the rules. But it is good that we are able to race as hard as we want to. We all want to race harder and today was a tough battle, which was good."
Muddying the waters?
There are some who feel drivers might test the limits of Masi's new warning system in a bid to find the line between a black-and-white flag and a time penalty.
Mercedes boss Wolff had welcomed "borderline dirty" racing after some close wheel-to-wheel battles at the British Grand Prix and he thinks this will continue as drivers look to find the line between a black-and-white flag and a time penalty.
"I think more cars will be touching and it will be more of a common practice," Wolff said on Sunday evening. "My opinion is that it will end up in a collision, then we will bail out of it or crawl back, this is the modus operandi. Until then we will let them race."
Haas boss Guenther Steiner elaborated on this point in his media session after the race, saying the black-and-white will work as an effectively warning system if it is not used too much.
"I think in certain circumstances it works," he said. "Drivers are clever, they push the envelope and see how far they can go.
"If they get a black-and-white flag, it's at least if they haven't done anything completely wrong or hindered [another driver]. Maybe you get a wake-up call. I think it's not a bad thing if it is used and if you don't start using it instead of penalties or use it too often; if you do that, then it becomes meaningless.
"It's a very fine line in this one and not an easy thing to do. But I don't think it's bad, I think it's a good idea."
Steiner finished on a line referring his long running history of frustration with the inconsistency of penalties, joking: "The race director is in charge of the black-and-white, so at least he keeps it away from the stewards!"