What's it like to be the safety car driver?

By on Sunday, October 20, 2013

_BEL8621When race direction deems that an event needs to be neutralised, the safety car is deployed onto the circuit.

But being a Safety car driver involves more than leading the Formula 1 cars when incidents or weather conditions requires their presence. It’s a relentless coordination job in which catching up the leader, keeping the field together and allowing lapped cars to overtake are more than just commands. All must be done with accuracy at a speed which allows the racing tyres to remain at an operating temperature while simultaneously ensuring that their engine remains optimal. Consider that the car – a Mercedes SLS AMG - weighs nearly three times more than a Formula 1 car, with a fraction of the downforce and equipped with all-weather tyres, the job gets even more difficult.

F1Zone.net sat down with Bernd Maylander to discuss his role as the safety car driver: the man who drives his Mercedes in front of the Formula 1 field in front of a worldwide TV audience.

“You don’t think about that,” he says. “You also don’t think that you’re now on TV and I don’t know how many millions of people can see you. I’m just focused on my job.”

“If I make a mistake I think we’ll have no interview anymore,” he joked.

“There is pressure. Pressure to make everything right and you are really focused that you don’t make any mistake. There were some tricky moments, especially on aquaplaning, but all the time it went right. For sure some things can go wrong, like for example I can have a puncture. It never happened but in this kind of situations you cannot do anything.”

_BEL8736Maylander, who has a racing background, explained that driving the safety car presents a different proposition to competitive motorsport.

“The basics are to be able to drive safe on the limits and to know what you have to do in which kind of situations. My job is to catch up the leader, to bring the field together, to give them somehow the speed that they have to follow.”

“We get all the information we need by radio. Me and my co-driver report to race control from our point of view, let’s say the rain conditions on the track or debris, if the right car is behind us because maybe I didn’t catch up the leader and then we have to bring him behind, or when the lapped cars can pass us. So we have to coordinate all those kinds of things in a safe way, but [while] still driving on the limit with the Safety Car.”

Maylander prepares himself for the race weekend on Thursday by practicing on the circuit for an hour. This helps him not only to remember the circuit but also to make some set-ups to the car, to check all the systems (radio, GPS) and ensure that the medical car is in the right position.

Maylander pinpoints the first lap of the race as the most likely time to trigger his presence on track, due to the relatively small field spread. But that doesn’t mean it’s a relief for him when the drivers enter the fourth lap. “If you start thinking that the critical moments are over, mostly in the next moment something will happen. All the time you are focused, even more at the start as every start is a new situation and you cannot plan anything, but you also never know what can happen in the next lap.”

Maylander nominated Spa and Suzuka as being the tracks which provides him with the biggest challenge, from a driving point of view, but the Japanese Grand Prix in 2007 [at Fuji] and the Korean Grand Prix in 2010 were the hardest races. Both events were marred by torrential rain, resulting in the race starting behind the safety car. “Korea was very tricky because the weather conditions were difficult. It was a long distance to drive and I had to watch every corner in the mirror to see if the guys were all together behind. It was very slippery and sometimes a little bit of aquaplaning, and if I can feel that the Formula 1 cars have it even more, so you always have to find the right level.”

“The record was at Montreal in 2011 when I led almost half of the race. It was quite difficult because it was really long and everybody got tired. You’re coming down a little bit because we stopped the race and then you have to bring your body up, to concentrate again and this is very tough, for me as well as for the race drivers,” he added.

“But the best races are without anything [incidents]. I don’t get paid by laps!”

42 year old Maylander has been the Safety Car driver in Formula 1 since 2000 and only missed one race to date, the Canadian Grand Prix in 2001, because of injury. He started his racing career at the end of the 1980s and retired in 2005, but is eyeing a return to competitive action.

_BEL8729“I’m working for the FIA and I’m a brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz, so I’m in a lucky situation that I can drive any AMG models and that’s quite an interesting job. All together I would say it’s a dream job but yes, I miss racing. I’m thinking maybe in the future to do some long distance races. I don’t want to do a whole championship, but three or four races per season would be nice.”

Maylander competed in Formula Ford, Porche Carrera Cup, DTM and one of his biggest achievements is winning the 24 Hours race at Nurburgring in 2000.

“I did both [racing and driving the Safety Car] for 5 years and there was a time when I said I cannot be at a high level because of travelling so much from one weekend to another. I was also working during the week and that’s not possible to be really at a top level. And if I do something I want to do it 100%, not 99%.”

"I stopped because I was running out of motivation,” he added. Perhaps, given compatriot Michael Schumacher’s lack of motivation in 2006, such a mentality is a German attribute?

“Maybe when we do something, we do it such in a good way, and Michael did it in a fantastic way, that maybe we need a break. I’ve also tried to do it as good as I could and I was also tired and said I need to stop and focus on something else.”

“So I was done. It was fantastic, I put it in my memories and then I had to do the next step.”

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