Pit strategy is incredibly important in Formula 1, and this can be impacted by safety cars and virtual safety cars. If you’re new to the sport, you may therefore be wondering if F1 drivers can pit during safety cars or even VSCs.
F1 drivers can pit under the safety car and during the virtual safety car (VSC). It’s the most advantageous way to get a pit stop because the other cars are forced to drive slowly out on the track. Pitting under the safety car can yield what is known as a cheap pit stop.
There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into crafting the perfect strategy in Formula 1, so a timely safety car can make or break a driver’s race. Below, we discuss pitting under safety cars and virtual safety cars in more detail.
Pitting Under The Safety Car In F1
When there is an incident out on track and marshals need to be sent out to recover a car or debris, the safety car will be brought out to lead the pack. All drivers need to slow down immediately and form a queue behind the safety car, and they are not allowed to overtake. With all the cars driving slowly, it’s the perfect opportunity to pit.
Teams and drivers are allowed to make pit stops while they are behind the safety car. They can head into the pits as soon as the safety car is announced by race control. When they come back out of the pits, they cannot overtake to regain any positions they lost until the safety car period ends.
The only time that teams are not allowed to pit their car is when the pit lane has been closed. This does not happen often, but it’s enforced by race control if they deem it to be too dangerous for cars to pit. This could happen if there was an incident in the pit lane, or just before or after it that would make entering or exiting the pits dangerous.
Can You Pit Under Virtual Safety Car In F1?
You can pit under virtual safety car in F1, but it’s usually not as common as pitting under a full safety car. This is because the VSC normally isn’t out for as long as a full safety car, and drivers only get a 10-15 second warning before it ends, making pit stops riskier.
VSCs are used in different situations to full safety cars, generally when there are less serious incidents on track or some debris that needs to be cleared. It still slows the cars down, but not by as much, usually around 30-40%.
The virtual safety car acts in a similar way to the normal safety car, but the drivers do not need to bunch up and stay within 10 car lengths of each other. Instead, they must drive to a delta, which is essentially the time it takes for them to travel within special mini sectors on the track. This basically acts a bit like a speed limit, only it measures time rather than speed.
Neutralizing The Race
The VSC is used to neutralize the race and prevent any drivers from overtaking. Drivers will be reducing their speed by 30-40% under the VSC, and they are still allowed to pit. The pitlane will be open under VSC conditions unless race control decides that it is unsafe for the cars to be pitting, in which case they would close the pitlane.
The virtual safety car period is usually shorter than a full physical safety car, so it’s a much more difficult decision for drivers and teams to make when analyzing their strategy.
Drivers and teams need to make a split-second decision if they want to take advantage of the VSC, as they only get a warning of about 10-15 seconds before it ends, unlike with a full safety car, when they find out much earlier in the lap.
Why Do F1 Drivers Pit Under The Safety Car?
F1 drivers often pit under safety car as it can provide what is known as a cheap pit stop. Essentially, with the rest of the cars going slowly around the track, and with the pit lane speed remaining the same as always, drivers lose less time relative to their rivals when pitting under safety car.
Cheap Pit Stops
A pit stop is called ‘cheap’ in this case because the cars behind the safety car all must slow down by a certain amount to stick to a given delta, much like with a virtual safety car. They usually do this for a lap or so, before they are then told to catch up with the cars in front and eventually the safety car itself.
But during the time they need to stick to the delta, their rivals can enter the pits. The pit lane speed limit remains as it normally is, and the time it takes to change the tires is unaffected too. But those on track might be going 60% slower than normal, which means a pit stop can effectively cost you 60% less time than usual (the exact amount varies by track).
This means that, if under green flag conditions a driver loses 20 seconds to their rivals when they pit, they might only lose 14 seconds or less when pitting under safety car. This can allow drivers to pit and lose less time to those around them, or lose fewer positions than they would by pitting under fast, green flag conditions.
It’s Not Always Cheap
One of the most crucial factors in a successful safety car pit stop is the timing of the safety car (which is out of the driver’s control). If the driver is close to the pits when the safety car is brought out, they will have a massive advantage because they can get their pit stop done and join the safety car queue.
However, if they have already passed the pit lane, they need to crawl all the way back around at a slow pace to get to the pits. In the meantime, every other car will pit while they still need to get around to the pit lane, complete their pit stop, and join the safety car queue. They won’t lose as much time as they would under green flag conditions, but it’s still not ideal.
The cars also all need to bunch up behind the safety car eventually, meaning the delta system stops being the ‘speed limit’ and instead the cars are limited by how fast the safety car is going. This means if a team leaves it too late to pit their driver under the safety car, they can end up missing out on the other drivers going at the absolute slowest speed, making the pit stop less cheap.
Why Do F1 Drivers Pit Under VSC?
The virtual safety car is not as much of an obvious pitting opportunity as the full safety car in Formula 1. The VSC usually doesn’t last as long as the full safety car, and the drivers aren’t usually slowed down quite as much either. Nevertheless, it’s still a good opportunity for drivers to head into the pits for a cheaper pitstop than under green flag conditions.
Pitting under the VSC is far less common than pitting under the safety car. That’s because the time difference is not as much of an advantage for drivers. However, if the VSC does fall into a driver’s pit window and they haven’t been into the pits yet, it will provide them with a perfect opportunity to gain some time compared to their rivals during their pit stop.
While full safety cars are brought out for serious incidents, VSCs are used for less serious cases, such as minor debris on the track. This means they can last less than a full lap, and drivers will only be alerted 10-15 seconds before it ends, meaning what could be a cheap pit stop could end up costing them the usual amount of time if they get the timing wrong.
Since you can’t predict when a safety car or virtual safety car is going to come out, it all comes down to luck. This makes it one of the most exciting and unpredictable aspects of an F1 race, and teams often gamble on them happening in order to maximize their tire strategies. Different tracks have different safety car likelihoods, but it all comes down to what happens on the day.
KEY POINTS• You can pit under safety car and VSC in F1
• It can often make a pit stop ‘cheaper’
• As you can’t predict when they’ll happen, it’s risky to base your strategy on them
Should F1 Drivers Be Able To Pit Under Safety Car?
The safety car pit window rules have been changed a few times over the years. In 2008 it was deemed to be dangerous for the pit window to be open as soon as the safety car was deployed. That’s because drivers would ignore orders to slow down and speed into the pits as quickly as possible, causing high risk situations on track.
The result was that the pit lane would be closed for the first few laps under the safety car until race control opened it again. If a driver had to pit while the pit lane was closed, they would be given a 10 second time penalty. If you had to decide between a penalty and running out of fuel (F1 cars could refuel back then), you would probably be forced to take the penalty. This rule was scrapped in 2009.
Over the years there has been much debate about whether drivers should be allowed to pit under the safety car or not, and that debate sparked up again recently. At the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix, the race was set for an exciting finale between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, as the Dutchman was being hunted down by the Mercedes on fresher tires, and Red Bull had to make another pit stop.
However, a late safety car allowed Verstappen to pit for brand new tires without losing much time, giving his strategy the advantage despite the hard work Mercedes had put in for a one stop approach. Verstappen breezed past Hamilton on his brand new tires and went on to win the race comfortably in front of his home crowd.
Should F1 Ban Safety Car Pit Stops?
Having a safety car deployed when it’s your turn to pit comes down entirely to luck. Some drivers do get incredibly lucky with the safety car, but that naturally also means that other drivers need to lose out too. But everyone still has the opportunity to pit, regardless of their strategy.
If Formula 1 bans drivers from pitting under the safety car, it takes away the element of strategic intrigue and excitement that safety cars bring for drivers, teams, and fans. Capitalizing on the right opportunity is an important part of winning in Formula 1, and that should not be taken away.
There is also an element of risk involved, as drivers may need to head into the pits to repair damage or change out dangerously worn tires. Closing the pit lane would prevent them from doing so, and so it’s unlikely that we’ll see the rules changed any time soon.
You can pit under safety car conditions in Formula 1, and drivers can pit under VSC as well. Doing so can result in a cheap pit stop, allowing for a strategic advantage. However, drivers have no control over when a safety car or VSC will be deployed, meaning it all comes down to luck.
I created and have been writing on this site since 2019, collaborating with drivers, coaches, engineers and manufacturers to provide you with the most reliable information about motorsport. Find out more about me here.