The safety car certainly isn't the most entertaining aspect of a Formula 1 race, but it's nonetheless an important component of any Grand Prix. Aside from being an important safety tool, the presence of a safety car can also give a strategic advantage to the various race teams in certain circumstances.
Today, we'll review everything you might want to know about safety cars in Formula 1. This includes the history of the safety car, its current purpose, and other trivia that might interest you as a Formula 1 fan.
Generally, if something happens during a race that can potentially impede the other drivers, the race officials break out the yellow flags and signal for the drivers to slow down while the hazard is dealt with. However, the safety call will be called out if something happens that requires more time to resolve (such as heavy rain or an accident that leaves debris scattered over the track).
If the race officials deem it necessary for the safety car to come out, they'll begin by waving the yellow flag and displaying "SC" boards. When the safety car enters the track, drivers must slow down and follow it in formation; overtaking the safety car or any other driver is not allowed.
The drivers will then follow the safety car around the track until any obstructions have been cleared, at which point the safety car will leave the track. However, the drivers still have to continue driving at safety car speeds until they receive a green flag letting them know they can resume racing.
Safety car driving ahead of Lewis Hamilton at the 2014 Singapore Grand Prix, Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The first-ever use of a safety car in a Grand Prix dates back to 1973 and the Canadian Grand Prix. In some of the previous races, there had been some accidents due to bad weather. So the FIA deemed it necessary to take some extra precautions for this event.
The first safety car was a yellow Porsche 914 driven by Egbert "Eppie" Wietzes. The Dutch-born Canadian had previously participated in the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix as a privateer driver. However, this first use of a safety car resulted in a serious goof that nearly ruined the race.
This happened when Wietzes entered the track. Wietzes mistakenly took the position in front of the wrong driver, who was not the race leader. Because of this, several drivers ended up being placed one lap down from where they actually were. As a result, it took officials several hours after the race had ended to determine who had actually won.
After this, safety cars were used sporadically during Grand Prix events for a couple of decades. In 1993, safety cars were reinstated as a permanent feature for each subsequent Grand Prix. This is how it's remained to this day.
Since 1997, the role of the safety car has been filled almost exclusively by a Mercedes-Benz, although in previous decades, safety cars were much more varied. Some of the cars used as safety cars over the years include the following:
From 2021 Aston Martin is co-sponsoring the Safety car along side Mercedes. Mercedes has changed the colors of their safety car to red and the Aston Martin is green as seen here. Yoyodu10, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The safety car driver has also been pretty consistent for a while. Since the year 2000, the safety car has been driven by Bernd Mayländer, a former DTM driver. Except for the 2001 Canadian Grand Prix and the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix, he has served as the safety car driver for every race of the new millennium.
When the safety car is deployed, it can offer both advantages and disadvantages to the teams depending on the situation.
The main disadvantage of having a safety car on the track is that the cars are forced to slow down. However, as you may know, the tires and brakes on Formula 1 cars can only perform at their best once they've been heated up.
Since slowing down causes the tires and brakes to cool down quite a bit, the cars lose a lot of their handling as a result. That's why you'll often see drivers slaloming behind the safety car. This helps them retain more heat in their tires while maintaining the correct pace.
However, there are situations where the presence of the safety car can benefit drivers in ways other than preventing an accident. For example, teams have a maximum amount of fuel that they can use for each car. So the deployment of the safety car will help teams save fuel. This is because they'll be driving more economically in the meantime.
The other advantage of deploying the safety car is that drivers are often still allowed to make pit stops while the safety car is out. If the team's timing is right, they won't lose as much track position during a pit stop because the other drivers will drive a lot more slowly.
Teams often spend time calculating the percentage probability of whether the safety car will be deployed during a race or not, and plan their pit stops accordingly. Strategizing like this can potentially make a big difference during a close race.
After the tragic death of driver Jules Bianchi in 2014, which was caused by him crashing into a tractor crane that was in the process of removing another crashed car from the track, the FIA came to the conclusion that they needed a better way of getting drivers to slow down without having a safety car be physically present on the track. Hence, the creation of the virtual safety car.
Essentially, the virtual safety car is a lap time determined by the FIA that drivers must follow. These lap times are significantly slower than the lap times drivers set during a race. This is to ensure that drivers stay at the correct speeds.
To make sure that drivers don't drive too fast for most of the lap and then slow down at the last minute to meet the lap time, each sector of the track is given its own time to complete. Therefore, drivers must ensure that they're slower than the virtual safety car in each sector, not just overall.
The benefits of the virtual safety car are that it can be activated immediately; there's no time delay between deciding to deploy the safety car and then actually deploying it. In addition, because there are no more transitional moments where the safety car is entering or exiting the track, it can make slowing the field of cars down a much safer process.