By Stefan Kristensen
July 18, 2023

How Does The Virtual Safety Car Work?

In 2014, Jules Bianchi was critically injured in the Japanese Grand Prix. Less than a year later, he passed away from his injuries. This event resulted in the FIA (the sporting regulators of Formula One) shaking up how their safety car system operates. While the traditional safety car system was retained, the FIA introduced a virtual safety car system (VSC) that could be used when the issue on the track isn’t serious enough to pull out a physical safety car but where it is still desirable to get the drivers to slow down quickly. 

On this page, we want to talk about the incident that resulted in the introduction of the virtual safety car. We’ll then dive into how the virtual safety car works and why it is a better system than the old one. 

The 2014 Japanese Grand Prix Incident

The 2014 Japanese Grand Prix was an event plagued by weather issues, with the drivers needing to deal with seriously reduced visibility by about lap 40. Shortly after, the rain started to fall heavily, causing many drivers to need to pit to get their saturated tires dealt with.

On lap 42, the heavy rain caused Adrian Sutil to aquaplane off the track. As a tractor was recovering his vehicle, Jules Bianchi lost control of his, and his vehicle smashed into the back of the tractor. The race was called to an immediate halt.

Because the track wasn’t physically blocked, no safety car was used. Although, a double yellow flag was waved. This meant drivers had to slow down, but not to a specific speed. As a result, many drivers continue to push their speed on the track. 

There were many contributing factors to this incident. However, the FIA believed that the incident could have been prevented if drivers were forced to slow down to a certain speed. This resulted in them considering the virtual safety car system. 

The Virtual Safety Car System

If you follow F1, then you will know how the standard safety car system works when there is a major incident on the track: 

  • The race director calls the safety car to the track.
  • The safety car positions itself in front of the race leader.
  • Drivers are informed there is a safety car on the track.
  • The drivers continue to drive until they reach the safety car, bunching up behind it (while maintaining a distance of at least 10 car lengths between one another)

It is a good system for safety on the track, although it is used sparingly. The problem with using the safety car is that all the cars catch up to one another. When the safety car is used, it could effectively kill the lead that the 1st placed driver has. Hence why it wasn’t called during the previously discussed race. It is only going to be used when there is a serious incident on the track where the marshalls need to work safely (the Japanese Grand Prix was an off-track incident).

Shortly after the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, the FIA began to look into the ‘Slow Zone’ system used at Le Mans. This system essentially allowed specific areas of the track to slow down in the event of an incident without needing to call out the safety car. The system used by F1 is a slight variation of this.

The virtual safety car system works as follows (we’ll cover this in more depth in the next section):

  • The race director calls in the virtual safety car.
  • All drivers are informed the VSC is in play.
  • The drivers are asked to slow down by about 30% (this varies between sections of the track).

The result of using the virtual safety car is that the race is neutralized. Unlike the standard safety car system, vehicles won’t start to bunch up. This is because every vehicle is instantly reducing its speed by about 30%. In theory, this means that by the time the VSC is removed from play, the vehicles have roughly the same amount of distance between them as they did before the VSC started. So, each driver should maintain their position (there is no overtaking with a VSC).

Other rules are in place when the VSC is being used e.g. no driving unreasonably slow, no unsafe driving, etc.

When the VSC is used correctly, it will ensure that drivers drive much slower around the more dangerous sections of the track (we’ll tell you how that works shortly), which can prevent incidents. While it may not necessarily have saved Jules Bianchi’s life, he certainly would have been driving much slower had the VSC been in operation, potentially giving him more time to regain control of his vehicle. 

How Does The Virtual Safety Car Work?

When the virtual safety car is called into action, drivers need to reduce their speed by roughly 30%. How much they need to reduce their speed will depend on two factors:

  1. The track
  2. The location they are on the track.

Before the race, the FIA will determine the standard time to complete a lap of the track. So, the speed at which they believe most drivers will complete the lap. They will then subtract 30% from this lap time to determine the virtual safety car speed. So, when the VSC is called into play, the total lap time for a driver should be the standard time minus 30%.

As we said before, certain sections of the race can be a little bit more difficult than others. So, for the purposes of the VSC, the track is divided into 20 sections (each section has a marshaling point). Each section has a speed target, which is (roughly) 30% less than the standard time on that section of the track. 

To illustrate how the VSC works, let’s walk you through what happens step by step:

  1. The VSC is called into play by the racing director.
  2. The drivers are informed that the VSC is in action. There will be digital signs at the side of the track to tell them when the VSC starts and when it finishes.
  3. The driver must reduce their speed by roughly 30% (depending on the section of the track, it could be slightly higher or lower).
  4. At various points between each section of the track, the driver’s speed will be monitored. The driver will be regularly informed whether they are above or below the VSC speed for that section of the track. They will then need to adjust their speed to stay as close to the VSC speed as possible. 
  5. At least once in each section, the driver’s speed must be lower than that of the VSC speed. If they are not, they will be penalized. 
  6. When the race starts again, the driver must be below the VSC speed. They will have a short warning before this happens, allowing them to slow down.

When the VSC system works (and it does, most of the time), drivers should be able to maintain their position on the track. Nobody will be bunching up, and the sections where incidents are likely to have occurred will have a ‘slower’ speed.

Most F1 drivers seem to love the VSC system. The only time it causes massive issues is if you have two drivers driving pretty close to one another. When the VSC system is put into place, it becomes incredibly difficult for the driver in front to just hit the brakes, as this can cause an accident. Although thankfully, this has not happened.

The Advantages of the Virtual Safety Car Over Safety Car System 

We’ve already mentioned the advantages of the virtual safety car quite a bit, but here they are in summary:

  • The system can be instantly deployed. There is no wait for the safety car to enter the track. Every driver will slow down as soon as the VSC system is turned on.
  • Drivers maintain their positions on the track. No bunching up.
  • Everybody slows down at once, preventing accidents.
  • The race is quicker to start once the VSC system is turned back off (15 seconds warning). 
  • More dangerous sections will have drivers driving at a slower pace. 
  • Drivers slow down less than they would with a standard safety car (just 30% v 60%), which is more beneficial to the vehicle. 

Final Thoughts 

The Virtual Safety Car system was introduced by F1 in 2015 as a way to quickly slow down the drivers on the track without needing to call in a full safety car. It is used in less serious incidents where a small speed reduction would be sufficient to ensure safety on the track (for both marshals and other drivers). 

If you are watching an F1 race and the VSC is put into place, you will notice all drivers slow down by around 30%. They will be trying to stay in line with a minimum speed for a lap. This is set by the FIA before the race. It is often better than the standard safety car as it is easier to put into place, and drivers will maintain their position on the tracks. 

(Top Photo:  Morio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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