The F1 Safety Car – From Past to Present

The history of the F1 safety car

For any given Formula 1 race we generally know who was on pole, who led the pack and who passed the chequered flag before everybody else. However, there is one other ‘leader of the pack’ who usually goes unnamed and is maybe not always appreciated either by drivers or fans, the F1 safety car driver.

In fact, since the year 2000 there has been one official F1 safety car driver and his name is Bernd Maylander. The impact the car has on a race outcome can be significant, the impact it has on race safety can be controversial but the principle of an F1 safety car makes sense, when it is unsafe, maybe due to weather conditions or on-track events, it provides a maximum speed for all drivers thus enabling the race to continue as soon as the dangers have been cleared up. In this article we look at the history of the F1 safety car and, as we do so, take in some detail about F1 safety car speed, F1 safety car models and the future of the F1 safety car, including aspects about the virtual safety car.
F1 safety car

The First F1 Safety Car

The F1 safety car did not have an auspicious beginning. During the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix it caused results mayhem when it identified the wrong car as leader and gave some drivers an inadvertent lap advantage. This also caused issues for the timekeepers, who still relied on less technological timing solutions and everyone had to wait several hours before the race results were actually verified and announced. This debacle meant that the car did not make an official introduced appearance until 1993, following trials during the 1992 British and French Grand Prix.

F1 Safety Car Speed

The F1 safety car driver Bernd Maylander has a difficult task; he is required to drive slow enough to avoid accidents but fast enough to ensure that the pack retains adequate speed. If the F1 safety car is too slow, the F1 cars forced to follow it can lose tyre pressure and brake temperature. There is some suggestion that Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at Imola in 1994 might have been caused by lowered tyre pressure and a subsequent ground touch as he rounded Tamburello corner. It is interesting to note that Senna himself had, earlier in the race, clearly indicated his dissatisfaction with the safety car speed by pulling alongside it and gesticulating to the driver.
pace car
With F1 safety car speed being so important it is only fair that the F1 safety car driver gets his own practice session. This happens on Grand Prix Thursday each weekend and also includes the medical car. There is said to be fierce competition between the medical car and safety car drivers but, in reality, the practice session is also used to check GPS, flags, cameras and timing systems. The practice must pay off because, despite collisions behind the safety car being fairly common, the F1 safety car itself has only ever been involved in one accident (it has, however, come pretty close to running out of fuel a couple of times, including at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2007).

F1 Safety Car Models

In the early days, each circuit provided their own safety car and driver. This naturally led to a rather unpredictable and sometimes-dangerous roulette in which it was not always clear whether or not the F1 safety car model met the speed and safety standards required for control. The F1 safety car model that made the inaugural appearance at the ill-fated 1973 Canadian Grand Prix was a Porsche 914. This variation has led to some interesting disparity in style, for example at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1980s, the car was a glamorous Lamborghini Countach and the one whose use preceded Ayrton Senna’s crash in 1994 was a high performance version of the considerably more mundane Opel Vectra.

Since 1997 Mercedes-Benz have been the F1 safety car official supplier and it was agreed that, in order to ensure consistency and enhance safety, the same F1 safety car and driver would travel to each Grand Prix. The F1 safety car model has changed eight times since then with the current AMG GT S being in use since 2015.
f1 safety car speed

The Virtual Safety Car

After Jules Bianchi suffered fatal head injuries following an accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix the FIA trialed a VSA (Virtual Safety Car) system designed to slow cars down without the implementation and related effects of a physical F1 safety car. Due to leaps forward in track technology, these trials were successful and the 2015 Formula One season saw the formal adoption of the VSA procedure. The virtual safety car is implemented whenever there might be a level of danger to those on or around the track, that doesn’t warrant the use of the safety car itself. When the virtual safety car is indicated, via double waved yellow flags, the instruction ‘VSC’ is displayed around the track on marshaling light panels. While the virtual safety car is indicated, drivers are not allowed to enter the pits (unless they are changing tyres) and they have to stick to minimum section times.

The Future and the Virtual Safety Car

Whilst the idea of driverless motor racing, for example the Roborace Series, is still struggling to gain momentum, the F1 safety car does perhaps offer the future opportunity to introduce some autonomous technological influences to a Grand Prix weekend. A driverless F1 safety car would probably be bad news for Mr Maylander but would give engineers an excellent opportunity to perfect some of the current, developmental, autonomous driving technology. The question remains however as to whether or not fans would appreciate a driverless safety car. The appearance of the current F1 safety car model on the track adds another element of excitement and another driver to a race, this impact might be lost if the vehicle was driverless. Only time and trial will tell whether or not a driverless car is a viable alternative to the current F1 safety car, which is perhaps a more loved element of Formula One Grand Prix than any of us are prepared to admit.

All motorsport includes an element of danger and, to date, 51 drivers have lost their lives whilst driving F1 cars. At MDD we offer the very best in driver cover and extrication. For professional help and advice regarding safety cover personnel and all of your FIA approved medical equipment, feel free to get in touch with our expert team today.
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