Safety Car! Safety Car!

By on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

We take a look at the role the safety car plays in keeping Formula One safe

Whenever a dangerous situation arises on track – for instance, when a car is in a hazardous position – race director Charlie Whiting deploys the safety car to pick up the lead car which takes the competitors around the track at a vastly reduced speed. The regulations state the official reasons for a safety car period are “whenever there is an immediate hazard but the conditions do not require the race to be interrupted”. Competitors are not allowed to pass the safety car or other competitors during a caution period, and the safety car leads the field at a pre-determined safe speed – often about a minute slower than racing speed per lap. At the end of the caution period, the lights on the safety car go out and race control informs the teams and viewers. The safety car leaves the track and the competitors may resume racing. But what lies behind what we see on TV and what are the finer details of the safety car?

Since 2000, the role of safety car driver has been entrusted to Bernd Maylander. He has to control the field at a reasonable pace, ensuring that the Formula One cars do not lose too much temperature in their brakes and tyres whilst being on the edge and not crashing himself!

The safety car sits at the end of the pit lane with its engine running throughout the race. Radio and video technology enable the race director to keep in touch with the safety car’s driver so that deployment of the car can happen at a moment’s notice. When the safety car is deployed, marshals display ‘SC’ boards with black text on a white background. Furthermore, drivers are informed via their team radios, flashing electronic boards & a flashing light on their steering wheel. If a dangerous situation arises on track, Maylander receives a message of ‘Safety Car stand by’ which indicates that deployment is possible and he has to be ready until either ‘Safety car stand down’ or ‘Safety car GO’. If the latter is said, then Maylander immediately takes to the track and waits to pick up the leader. However since the debacle in Valencia earlier this season, Maylander is informed exactly when to join the track so that the first car picked up is the lead car, rather than join mid-pack.  If he is going too slowly, then the teams sometimes radio in. However, he is going as fast as he can with the machinery available to him. Race director Charlie Whiting then informs Bernd Maylander that the track is safe and that the race will restart. Sometimes problems with the information screens can affect the race. For example, last year’s Japanese Grand Prix saw the safety car stay out two laps longer than required because of this issue.

Since the start of 2010, the safety car has been the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, packed full of the latest technology. Safety cars advance each season and seem to become faster and sportier. From Singapore – and for the first time in Formula One history – the safety car (and medical car) featured sponsorship in the form of insurance company Allianz, whose banners are often seen trackside.

The first use of the safety car came during the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, but it resulted in chaos. The car picked up the wrong driver which left part of the field incorrectly one lap down. It took hours of head scratching and data analysis to work out who had actually won the race!

The safety car has been used to start races several times when it was deemed too wet to have a standing start, most notably at the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix where the safety car led the first 20 laps of the soaking race at the Fuji Speedway.

For a few years, the pit lane was closed when the safety car was immediately deployed and would only be re-opened when the pack had formed behind the car. This often led to drivers being penalised as they had no other option but to pit courtesy of being low on fuel. Furthermore, it also led to some chaotic scenes and incidents with red lights. When the safety car is travelling along the pit straight, no cars may leave the pits as they would rejoin in traffic, causing inevitable (and illegal) squabbles under a caution. Therefore, the lights at the end of the pit lane remain red. This has caught out drivers on numerous occasions as passing the red light results in disqualification from the race. Juan Montoya, Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa all suffered from this in 2005 & 2007 respectively but the most famous incident occurred in 2008 when Lewis Hamilton ploughed into the back of the patient Kimi Raikkonen, who was waiting at the end of the pit lane with eventual race winner Robert Kubica. This the day after the young Brit had made noises at how his Father had managed to crash a Porsche road car at about 30mph…

But sometimes, the safety car can only add to the danger rather than save the drivers from it.

Well, not strictly the safety car, but the medical car. In warm up for the 2002 Brazilian Grand Prix, Enrique Bernoldi crashed his Arrows at Turn 2 and the medical car attended to him. As Alex Ribeiro was about to exit the car, he opened the door only for Nick Heidfeld to smash into the door and wreck his Sauber as well as the door to the medical car. Both were fortunately uninjured.

Formula One has never had any major incidents with the safety car (there is a video of the car crashing when practicing for the Monaco Grand Prix in 2000); the same can’t be said for the World Touring Car Championship. During the race meeting at the Pau Street Circuit in France, a series of accidents led to the safety car being on standby. However, the safety car driver proceeded to drive slowly out of the pits (the pit exit being at the blind fast Turn 1) and he was struck by race leader Franz Engstler, who was naturally furious at the incident.

So there you have it, the safety car controls the field during a dangerous position and ensures that marshals can deal with incidents in a controlled environment. Unless your name is Frank Engstler…

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