The story of the Safety Car

The safety car has yet to make its first appearance in the 2013 Formula One season. With Monaco and Montréal the next two races on the calendar, though, that is all about to change. Those two circuits, with little-to-no run-off area at most corners and metal barriers often inches from the edge of the circuit, are prime safety car territory.

If you are a fan of the safety car (TPL mascot little Jense is!), the highlight of your F1-viewing career was probably the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. As ESPNF1’s Steven Lynch pointed out, the safety car made no fewer than six appearances in that water-logged race. I was there to see it live (sitting no more than 100m from big Jense when he passed Vettel on the final lap to win), and I was booing the safety car every time it came around. We wanted a race.

IMG_3660

The Parade Lap mascot, little Jense, fueling up for Monaco qualifying.  
Photo credit: Matthew Walthert

But the safety car is a very important part of F1 – an essential safety feature to protect drivers and race marshals. Whenever race director Charlie Whiting determines that there is sufficient danger to drivers and/or marshals, he can deploy the safety car, forcing everyone to slow down even more than double yellow flags would. Typical situations where the safety car might be called upon include:

  • an accident where one or more cars are stuck on the track (or in a dangerous area beside the track) and must be removed by the marshals
  • marshals are on the track clearing debris
  • it is too wet to drive at full speed (this is what happened in Montréal in 2011)
  • at the start of a wet race, when it is deemed that a regular start is too dangerous (this also happened at the 2011 Canadian GP – a rolling start is safer than a standard start, as the cars are more spread out)

When the race director determines that the safety car is needed, he gives a signal to its permanent driver Bernd Mayländer (a German former sports car and Formula Ford racer), who pulls out onto the track and finds the leader of the race.  Cars that have been lapped are now able to un-lap themselves during a safety car period to ensure that all cars are lined up in the actual race order for the re-start (the lights on the safety car turn green and the lapped cars are allowed to pass – carefully).  In the past, lapped cars were mixed with cars on the lead lap, often causing confusion during the re-start.  When the safety car is deployed, all cars must follow it in single file (aside from the aforementioned lapped cars) and no overtaking is allowed.  Laps under the safety car count as part of the race, and the race can even finish under a safety car – not the most exciting way to finish a grand prix.

scPhoto credit: Michael Elleray via Flickr

Often, as soon as the safety car is deployed, you will see a bunch of cars hurry into the pit lane.  This is because, with everyone forced to drive more slowly on the circuit, the time lost during a pit stop is much less than under normal racing conditions.  At some circuits, like Monaco, teams will even factor a safety car period into their race strategy, sometimes putting less fuel into the cars as they assume they will save fuel driving slowly behind the safety car for a few laps. It may seem like the safety car and the queue behind it are traveling quite slowly, and they are – compared to F1 cars at racing speeds.  But, as Herr Mayländer points out, he is usually driving as fast as his 571 horsepower Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG will go (sometimes up to 280 km/h).  As F1 cars are cooled by the air passing over the engine, they will overheat if driven too slowly.  The tyres and brakes have the opposite problem, getting too cold to work properly if the car is moving too slowly. Once the danger has passed, the race director will call the safety car in and the lights on top of it will go out.  This indicates to the drivers that the safety car will be coming in to the pits at the end of the lap.  As the cars near the end of the lap, you will see the leader start to fall back from the safety car.  Since he cannot pass the safety car before it enters the pits, but no one can pass him until they cross the start/finish line after the safety car is gone, this allows him to control the re-start.  All the other drivers must follow him slowly until, all of a sudden, he punches the accelerator and takes off.  Even with the lightning-quick reflexes of F1 drivers, it will take everyone a split-second to react and, in that time, the leader can open some space between him and the pack.

sc2Photo credit: JiteshJagadish via Flickr

A safety car was used for the first time in F1 at another Canadian Grand Prix, in 1973, however it picked up the wrong car as race leader, causing confusion.  It was not until 1993 that the safety car came into full-time use in Formula One.  Since then, the rules have been modified several times (e.g. at various times, cars have not been allowed to un-lap themselves), and we will likely see more changes in the future, as the sport continues to evolve…or controversies demand it: in the 2010 Monaco GP, the race was set to finish under a safety car.  On the final lap, just before the last corner, it pulled into the pit lane and Michael Schumacher passed Fernando Alonso in what he thought was a legal move.  The race stewards disagreed.  The real problem, though, was that the rules were unclear in that situation, so the FIA admitted the problem and clarified the rules. Enjoy the Monaco GP this weekend – now you can impress people with a little Bernd Maylander knowledge when he makes his inevitable appearance this Sunday (or maybe in two weeks, in Montréal).  As always, direct any F1-related queries should be directed to theparadelap@gmail.com.

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