The safety car is a common sight in Formula 1, appearing in many races under various circumstances. If you’re a new F1 fan, you may be wondering what exactly the safety car does.
The main function of the F1 Safety Car is to slow the cars down in case of an incident on or around the track. The safety car leads the pack of cars around the track at a set speed (usually about 40-60% of normal racing speed) until the track is once again considered safe for racing.
There are several reasons why the F1 safety car may be deployed, which we will look at in more detail below. Additionally, we will also look at the main rules surrounding the use of the safety car, as well as some facts about the car itself and the driver behind the wheel.
When The F1 Safety Car Is Used
The F1 safety car is used in various situations that require the cars to slow down and stop racing. The most common reason is in the case of an accident on the track. When this happens, the safety car is called in to lead the cars around the track at a prescribed speed to reduce the danger and remove the cars from the scene of the accident.
The drivers don’t have to follow a specific speed limit, but they must reduce their speed to allow a minimum amount of time to pass between defined sectors on the track (called a ‘delta’). The safety car will wait for the race leader to come around and lead them around the track at a prescribed speed.
The other cars will follow at a slower pace until they catch up to the leader. When the track is deemed safe for racing, the safety car will return to the pits and the race will resume.
Debris On The Track
Another reason the safety car may be used is when there is debris on the track. The safety car can be called in to allow the marshals to clear the track of any dangerous material and make it safe for racing. This can result from an accident or damage to a car. In most cases, yellow flags or a virtual safety car may be used instead of the full safety car.
The safety car may also be used to lead the cars around the track at the beginning of a race if the track is too wet for a standing start. This allows the safety car driver and the F1 drivers to gauge the track conditions and report back to teams and race control about whether the track is safe for racing.
It also helps to remove some of the standing water on the track, as F1 cars kick up a phenomenal amount of spray when driving at speed, even behind the safety car. This clears the racing line of water (provided it’s not still raining heavily).
In all situations, the safety car allows the race to continue without major interruptions, unlike red flags. The safety car period usually lasts a few laps, although in some cases it may last for many laps. There can still be a red flag if the track cannot be made safe for racing without a longer delay or having no cars on the track at all.
What Model Is The F1 Safety Car?
Formula 1 uses two different models of safety car: the Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series, and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Both cars are very similar and even share (largely) the same engines. Mercedes have supplied safety cars to F1 since 1996.
In 2021, F1 introduced the Aston Martin safety cars in addition to the Mercedes, after Aston Martin re-entered the sport and took over the Racing Point team. Throughout the season, the cars alternate, with one being used in some races and the other in others.
F1 Safety Car Specs
|Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series
|Aston Martin V8 Vantage
|4L twin-turbo V8
|4L turbo V8
|202 mph / 325 kph
|195 mph / 314 kph
|1520 kg / 3350 lbs
|1570 kg / 3460 lbs
Who Drives The F1 Safety Car?
Bernd Mayländer has been driving the F1 safety car since 2000, only missing a few races during that time. He is accompanied by a codriver, who may change from race to race. Mayländer is a former racing driver with experience in karting, Formula Ford, and DTM.
KEY POINTS• The F1 safety car slows the field of cars down and leads them round the track
• It can be brought out for a variety of reasons
• There are two different models of F1 safety car
• Bernd Mayländer is the safety car driver
How Fast Does The F1 Safety Car Go?
The F1 safety car can reach top speeds of over 200 mph (320 kph) and has a 0-62 mph time of approximately 3.2 seconds (3.5 for the Aston Martin). However, the car’s primary function is not to reach high speeds, but to drive safely around the track and guide the F1 cars behind it.
The safety car is unlikely to reach its top speed when it’s out on track. Some drivers have criticized the speed of the safety car in the past, as when the cars are going slower than usual, their tires begin to cool down, reducing their grip levels.
This not only affects the cars’ performance as they prepare to race again, but it can also lead to dangerous situations where cars with limited grip struggle to stop in time for a corner after a restart, which could result in accidents (although this is rare).
It’s Not Going Slowly!
Despite the speeds appearing slow to spectators and the drivers behind it, the safety car is not actually traveling at a slow pace on the track. The apparent slow speed is primarily because F1 cars are typically much faster during races, but the cars are still likely to be traveling at 40-60% of their normal racing speeds (which is still very fast).
It is important to note that the speed of the safety car is not controlled by the driver (Bernd Mayländer), but instead by instructions from race control. They provide him with target average speeds for each sector that are well-defined to ensure the safety of all drivers, both those racing and those around the track due to a crash, as well as the safety of marshals and fans.
Can F1 Cars Overtake Under Safety Car?
F1 drivers are not permitted to overtake under the safety car, just as they are not allowed to overtake under yellow flags. The only exception to this is if they receive instructions to unlap themselves before the race restarts.
Overtaking under the safety car can result in severe punishment, such as a time penalty for the offending driver. In some cases, miscommunication between drivers and teams may lead to accidental overtaking, which can usually be remedied by the cars simply swapping positions again. The no overtaking rule is in place to ensure the safety of all drivers and those around the track when there has been an incident.
One way drivers can gain positions during a safety car period is if cars in front of them make a pit stop. Drivers may also be able to make a cheap or free pitstop, which means they lose less time to their rivals compared with pitting under green flag conditions. This means you often see many drivers head to the pits under the safety car, temporarily losing positions in the process.
This means those who choose not to pit can gain positions without overtaking on the track. However, there is strictly no overtaking in a racing manner when behind the safety car.
Can An F1 Race Finish With A Safety Car?
F1 races can finish with the safety car. This happened most recently at the 2022 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and it has occurred 9 other times in F1 history. In 5 other instances, races have ended prematurely while the safety car was on track, with the most recent example being the 2021 Belgian GP.
Many fans and drivers are not fond of races ending under the safety car as it can lead to an anticlimactic finish. However, the safety of the drivers and those around the track is always the top priority in Formula 1, and officials deemed it was the safest way to finish the race at Monza.
In some cases, a red flag may be used instead of the safety car, such as at the 2021 Baku Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen suffered a tire failure in the closing laps, leading to the race being stopped. There were then 2 laps of racing after this, and Sergio Pérez managed to take his first win for Red Bull.
Although this may be more exciting for fans, the safety of drivers comes first, which is why races can still finish under the safety car.
4 Key F1 Safety Car Rules
1. Adhering To Minimum Sector Times
When the safety car is deployed, drivers must reduce their speeds to conform to specific delta times, which are minimum time intervals between certain points on the track.
In the early laps of the safety car period, drivers must adhere to the delta times, and then begin to catch up to the rest of the pack to form a line behind the safety car, which eventually returns to the pits when the track is deemed safe. The race leader then takes over as the de facto safety car and leads the pack when the F1 safety car returns to the pits.
The lead driver typically slows down and bunches the pack up even more in the last few corners, and then they must time their launch precisely to maintain the lead after passing the first safety car line, which is at some point before the start-finish line. This is when overtaking is once again permitted.
2. No DRS Usage Within 2 Laps Of The Safety Car
For two laps after the safety car period ends, drivers are not permitted to use their DRS (Drag Reduction System). This restriction may be extended if race control determines that track conditions are not safe for DRS use. This rule has been criticized by fans and drivers, as it allows the leaders to build up a gap without trailing vehicles being able to catch up using their DRS.
However, in 2023, six F1 Sprint events are trialing a change that allows DRS to be used just one lap after the safety car period, and this also applies to the race start and restarts of any kind. This will give drivers the opportunity to use their DRS one lap earlier than usual.
3. No Overtaking Behind The Safety Car
As we previously mentioned, drivers must not overtake behind the safety car unless instructed to do so by race control to unlap themselves. This rule was highlighted during the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where only a few lapped drivers were allowed to overtake. In most circumstances, overtaking behind the safety car is not allowed.
4. Drivers Can Pit During A Safety Car Period
Pitstops are allowed during a safety car period in Formula 1, which can lead to some interesting race strategies. Since the cars are going at a slower speed during this time, drivers can lose less time to their competitors if they choose to pit when compared with pitting under green flag conditions.
The concept of free and cheap pitstops in F1 can be complex, but the safety car essentially provides an opportunity for drivers to make up time against their rivals. It can work in favor of those who plan for safety car periods or those who get lucky, and it can work against other drivers, such as those who pit the lap before the safety car and miss the opportunity to save time.
F1 Safety Car vs Virtual Safety Car
Finally, let’s delve into the main differences between the full F1 safety car and the virtual safety car. The full safety car is a physical car that drives out on track when there is an incident, whereas the virtual safety car (VSC) is a system used by F1 to neutralize the race in the event of minor incidents.
A virtual safety car period requires drivers to maintain a minimum delta time, which typically slows down their average speed by about 30-40%. This means the drivers don’t bunch up like they do with the physical safety car, and it simply neutralizes the race rather than restarting it.
Although virtual safety cars are less intrusive, they still present some interesting strategic options for teams. Drivers can get cheaper pit stops under VSC than under green flag conditions, but they won’t save as much time as they do under a full safety car. The VSC is used primarily when there is debris on the track, and it can give marshals time to remove it between the passing cars.
|Full Safety Car
|Virtual Safety Car
|Physical car that leads the drivers out on track
|Not a physical car, and instead is just a minimum delta time drivers must adhere to
|Used in the event of crashes or major track obstructions, and if the track is too wet at the race start
|Only used for more minor incidents and debris on the track
|Typically lasts several laps
|Usually doesn’t last too long, and may last less than a single full lap
|Can slow the cars by as much as around 60%
|Usually only slows the cars by 30-40%
KEY POINTS• There are various rules surrounding the F1 safety car
• Drivers must adhere to these or they can be penalized
• The physical safety car differs from the virtual safety car, which is used for minor incidents
The F1 safety car is primarily used to slow the cars down in the event of an incident on the track, preventing the need for a full race stoppage. It often creates some of the most exciting moments in F1, but the number one goal of the safety car is to create a safe environment on and around the track.
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