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F1 Safety Car vs Virtual Safety Car Explained

The F1 safety car was, in the past, always a physical car that would drive around the track while an incident was cleared. However, there is now a second option, called the virtual safety car. Many fans may wonder what the differences are between the safety car and the virtual safety car.

The F1 safety car is a physical car that leads the cars round the track while incidents are cleared, causing them to bunch up behind it. The virtual safety car is not a physical car, and is invoked to limit the drivers’ speed to 60-70% of their normal speed, effectively neutralizing the field.

But there are more subtle differences, advantages and consequences to consider in the safety car vs virtual safety car debate. Below, we go through all of these in more detail, to outline under which circumstances a safety car or virtual safety car is more favorable.

What Is A Safety Car In F1?

The safety car in F1 is a car that leads the entire pack of F1 cars around the track when an incident occurs. This is used when there are dangers on the track that are expected to be cleared soon, such as debris or a car that is being removed by a crane.  

The safety car is deployed when there is a hazard on the track, but not a hazard that is dangerous enough to warrant a red flag, and therefore a stoppage in the race proceedings.

The Car

The car itself comes in two varieties. There is the Aston Martin Vantage, and a Mercedes Benz AMG GT Black Series. The safety car has been driven by the same driver since 2000. Bernd Mayländer is a German racing driver who previously raced in the DTM Series in Germany for Mercedes. His co-driver is currently Richard Darker.

The aim of the safety car is to provide the marshals out on the track with a safe environment to work in. It does this by bringing the cars together on track and having them run at a pace determined by the safety car – i.e. much slower than they would normally go under normal racing conditions. We’ll discuss the implications of this soon.

The safety car has both a driver and a co-driver. The co-driver is in constant contact with race control, as they must know when they need to alert the teams of various things, such as when the safety car period will be ending or when they will let any lapped cars through.

How It Works

When something happens on the track, such as a crash or when there is a lot of debris from earlier incidents that makes its way onto the track, the race director makes a decision as to whether to deploy yellow flags, a virtual safety car, or a full safety car (the physical Aston Martin/Mercedes safety car). This depends on the hazard, and the risk to those involved in dealing with it.

Yellow flags are used in various ways to tell the drivers to be aware of hazards at certain points of the track or to slow down, but if it is deemed necessary for the safety car to come out, then the safety car picks up the current race leader who becomes the first car behind them. The safety car then leads the cars around the track.

Why Do F1 Cars Bunch Up Behind The Safety Car?

F1 cars bunch up behind the safety car because the safety car travels much slower than the F1 cars do under racing conditions, meaning each car catches up with the one in front. The cars must remain within around 10 car lengths of the one in front, and that includes the leader behind the safety car.

Depending on when the safety car is deployed, there may be lapped cars at play. This means there are cars that are ‘out of position’ in that they may find themselves between cars that aren’t actually around them on the leaderboard. For example, a lapped car in 20th place may be in front of a car in 5th place that hasn’t lapped it yet. The lapped car isn’t in fourth, but is now ‘in the way’ of 5th.

If the safety car period is expected to be long enough to allow it to happen, and if the race director deems it safe to do so, teams may be told that all lapped cars may overtake the safety car and work their way round to the back of the pack, effectively unlapping themselves. This sorts out the on-track order of cars, and puts them all back in the order in which they are classified.

Safety Car Ending

When it is deemed safe enough for the safety car to come back into the pits, an announcement is made over official channels to let the teams and drivers know the safety car will be entering the pits the next time they come around, and TV viewers will see a message saying something like ‘safety car ending this lap.’ This allows them to start racing, but only when they cross the start/finish line.

For this part, you will see some cat and mouse games going on with the lead driver and those right behind them. Some will slow down and weave before suddenly accelerating to try to gain some advantage. This may be confusing for some fans, as it’s unclear why a driver in front would slow down before shooting off into the distance.

Do Safety Car Laps Count In F1?

Safety car laps do count in F1, as do virtual safety car laps. The lap counter starts after the initial formation lap, which means any laps run after that, including extra formation laps, count. This is because cars are only filled with a certain amount of fuel at the start of the race.

How Does A Safety Car Restart Work In F1?

When the safety car is coming in at the end of a lap, the lead driver will back off a little as the safety car goes into the pits. The lead driver then effectively becomes the safety car for the rest of that lap. As with a safety car, drivers cannot overtake, at least until they reach the first safety car line. The safety car line is not usually the same as the start/finish line, but is usually before it.

This means the lead driver also cannot overtake the safety car until the safety car has passed this line on its way into the pits. This is why you’ll see drivers slowing down at the safety car restart, bunching the field up behind them even more. But there’s a tactical reason for the lead driver to do this as well.

Timing The Safety Car Restart

If the leader were to simply start going as fast as possible once the safety car had passed the first safety car line, the driver in second place would simply do the same at the same time, and would likely catch them on the pit straight as they make use of the slipstream. By slowing down, and waiting until very specific moments, drivers can time their restart to catch out the driver behind them.

As the second place driver cannot overtake the lead driver until they have passed the first safety car line, the second place driver can’t just floor it once the safety car goes into the pits. If they did this and overtook the leader before they had reached the first safety car line, they would be penalized. This applies to every driver behind as well, as there is no overtaking until this line.

The lead driver must therefore be tactical with where he decides to put the foot down. They need to do it close enough to the first safety car line to limit the chance of the driver in second place overtaking them, but far enough away that they have enough speed going down the main straight to keep the slipstreaming second place driver behind them going into turn one.

It’s therefore all about timing for the lead driver, and reaction times for the second driver, as they battle to see who can keep or take the lead at the safety car restart. But what if the safety car is deployed at the end of a race?

Can F1 Races End Behind The Safety Car?

F1 races can end behind the safety car. As of 2022, 10 F1 races have finished behind the safety car, with the first happening at the 1999 Canadian Grand Prix, and the most recent happening at the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix. It is a rare and undesirable result for a race to finish behind the safety car.

Some races have also started behind the safety car. This is usually due to standing water on the track with the race either switching to a normal race when safe to do so, or red flagged if conditions have not improved.

2021 Belgian Grand Prix

The Belgian Grand Prix in 2021 was a rare case of a race both starting and ending under safety car. It wasn’t really a race though, as it was really just a few laps, all behind the safety car.

As F1 races have to be completed within certain time limits, it’s sometimes necessary for the race to finish under a safety car. Sometimes there is an incident at the end of the race that forces the safety car to come out for just a few laps, and it then doesn’t become worth racing for one lap only, or it may not even be safe to do so.

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The infamous end to the 2021 F1 season was a case of a race almost finishing under safety car conditions, before the race director decided to allow 1 racing lap. This had plenty of implications, and they won’t be discussed here. However, needless to say that it was controversial, and crowning the World Champion – whoever it may have been – under safety car would have been very strange!

What Is A Virtual Safety Car In F1?

The virtual safety car in F1 is not a physical car on track. Instead, it is used as a way to effectively neutralize the race, by forcing all of the cars to reduce their speed by about 30%. Virtual safety cars are used for less severe incidents, and usually don’t last as long as a full safety car.

With a virtual safety car, the cars are forced to slow down to adhere to a minimum lap time. Essentially, rather than forcing the drivers to reduce to a certain speed, they reduce their speed to remain in line with minimum time differences (or ‘deltas’) between certain points on the track. These mini sectors are all measured instantaneously to ensure drivers adhere to the required speed reduction.

A Virtual Safety Car Neutralizes The Race

Because all of the cars are required to adhere to the same minimum delta times, and therefore all travel at roughly the same speed going around the track, a virtual safety car doesn’t cause the bunching up that a full safety car does. This means the race is basically neutralized, as drivers are frozen in their relative position to the cars around them, and are unable to overtake.

Whereas a full safety car provides an advantage to trailing cars, as they are able to catch up to those in front for the restart, a virtual safety car often provides an advantage to the leader, and to any cars that are under threat from those behind them. Because there is no bunching up, any lead that a car has over those behind remains almost exactly the same when the virtual safety car ends.

How A Virtual Safety Car Works

The virtual safety car is indicated by signs throughout the track with the initials ‘VSC.’ That indicates to the drivers they must then slow down to adhere to the minimum delta, and they will have a message on their dashboard too. However, no car can be driven excessively slowly during this period, or in a dangerous manner, as would be the case under a safety car (and normal racing conditions).

The virtual safety car tends to be deployed when the track is under double waved yellow flags. It’s deployed when there is a danger to those that need to deal with the incident, but not as much danger as to require a full safety car. The teams are notified via the official messaging system, and they are then given advanced warning of when racing will resume.

This means a virtual safety car doesn’t come with quite the same restart that a normal safety car does. This presents some unique strategic opportunities for teams when comparing a full safety car to a virtual safety car. Below, we take a closer look at these differences.

What Is The Difference Between Safety Car And Virtual Safety Car?

Apart from the obvious fact that one is a real car and the other is simply instructions for the driver to follow in terms of minimum sector times, there are other differences between a full safety car and a virtual safety car in F1. The first main difference is to do with the speed of the cars.

Safety Car vs Virtual Safety Car Speed

A virtual safety car provides the drivers with minimum times to complete certain sections of the track, whereas the full safety car has the option of varying the speed at which cars will travel as they go around the track. For example, the safety car may take the cars through sections of the track at a much slower speed, such as when they’re passing the scene of the incident.

The virtual safety car on the other hand doesn’t come with this level of variability. With a slower moving full safety car, F1 car components, like tires and brakes, can get quite cool as they’re not being worked as much as when they are racing. This can have an effect on the car’s performance when the racing resumes.

However, when there is a virtual safety car, the speeds are usually only reduced by around 30%, versus the sometimes 60% reduction behind a safety car. This means the cars’ tires and brakes don’t tend to be as affected behind a virtual safety car.

Bunching Up vs Neutralizing The Race

With a full safety car, the cars end up bunched up behind it. This means the gaps between the cars essentially disappear. If a leader had a 10 second gap to second place and the safety car came out, that gap would vanish, and second place would be right behind them when the race restarted.

Under a virtual safety car, the race is neutralized as all of the cars reduce their speeds by the same amounts. Drivers are unable to catch up to those in front like they can with a safety car, as they need to arrive at different parts of the track after a minimum amount of time. This means the cars end up ‘frozen’ in their positions.

This means that the gaps between the cars stay pretty much the same with a virtual safety car, so it’s almost like the race is paused while the incident is cleared. A full safety car however essentially restarts the race with the cars in whatever order they are currently in. This allows trailing cars a chance to make up positions on the restart that were perhaps out of reach beforehand.

Cheap Pit Stops

The amount of time drivers can save by pitting under a safety car is also different to that under a virtual safety car. However, both types of safety car allow the driver to make a ‘cheap’ pit stop. When a driver pits under racing conditions, they may take up to 25 seconds or more depending on the track in terms of entering the pits, changing their tires, and getting back out on track.

As their rivals are still racing around the track at top speed, they can catch up, meaning the driver ‘loses’ those 25 seconds or so, in terms of track position. However, under safety car conditions, and indeed virtual safety cars, the cars on track must slow down, but the speed limit in the pit lane and the speed at which the mechanics change the tires don’t change.

So, because the drivers on track are slower than normal, and the driver making his pit stop doesn’t have to go any slower than normal, the pitting car doesn’t lose as much ground to their rivals under safety or virtual safety car conditions. The slower the cars still on track are going, the less time the car in the pits loses.

So, it then makes sense that, if a safety car slows the pack down more than a virtual safety car on average, drivers can make ‘cheaper’ pit stops under safety car conditions when compared with virtual safety car conditions.

Other Differences Between The Safety Car & Virtual Safety Car

Safety car periods tend to last longer than virtual safety car periods, just due to the fact that safety cars are used for more severe incidents or disruptions. It may take several laps to clear a crashed car for example, leading to a few laps behind the safety car. But it may only take half a lap for marshals to clear a bit of debris, so the virtual safety car may only be active for half a lap.

This has implications for the cheap pit stops mentioned above. Because the safety car lasts longer, teams have more time to decide whether or not to pit their drivers. Virtual safety car periods can last for less than a full lap, so much tighter strategic calls need to be made.

Teams get advanced warning of the safety car ending, and for the virtual safety car too. However, they’ll be told further in advance about the safety car ending, which can aid in strategy calls. However, teams have usually committed to any strategy changes within a lap or two, as the pack bunches up quite fast. But the virtual safety car also ends in a different way to the full safety car.

As we mentioned above, there is a tactical restart procedure behind the safety car, with the lead driver trying to catch the driver in second place out. However, when a virtual safety car ends, the drivers can simply floor it when the lights go green. There is no safety car line to adhere to, so the racing very much instantly restarts when a virtual safety car ends.

How Fast Does The Safety Car Go In F1?

Compared to our own driving, the safety car goes fast, but it is designed to slow down and control F1 cars, so it’s actually quite slow compared to normal racing speeds. Safety cars can slow the pack down by a lot, especially if they need to go around an incident. But the safety car will often be going close to flat out on the straight.

Mercedes claimed that, at the 2017 Canadian Grand Prix, the safety car led to lap times 60% longer than those under normal racing conditions. The speed differences in the slow corners were measured in the single digits, but on the straights the speed difference was closer to 28 mph. This is quite a sizeable difference.

The safety car needs to be going fairly fast to try and help the cars behind keep some heat in their tires, or there would be an increased risk of an incident once the safety car comes into the pits. This is why you’ll often hear team radio from the lead car saying the safety car is going to slow, as they feel like they’re not going fast enough to keep everything in the optimum temperature ranges.

But the safety car also must go slow enough to allow the danger to be cleared, and to avoid the chance of more incidents happening behind it. It’s an attempt to strike a balance between keeping the track safe for the marshals, and also keeping it safe for the drivers when racing starts again.

Has An F1 Safety Car Ever Crashed?

An F1 safety car has never crashed, but a car has crashed into the medical car during a race. The safety car has never crashed since its inception in 1973. The aim of the car is to keep everyone safe. It drives at a certain pace, determined by the conditions, and the driver is very experienced.

At the 2002 Brazilian Grand Prix, the medical car stopped on track to attend to an Arrows car. Nick Heidfeld then came around the corner to be confronted with a car on the racing line, leading to him taking evasive action. However, that evasive action led him to crash into the door of the medical car. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.

F1 Virtual Safety Car Speed Limit

The speed limit under the virtual safety car in F1 is usually 30-40% slower than normal racing speeds. However, it’s measured using defined sector times, with the drivers keeping to minimum times rather than maximum speeds.

Final Thoughts

The F1 safety car is a physical car on track that keeps the entire pack of cars behind it, whereas the virtual safety car is not a physical car. The virtual safety car slows each car down by the same amount, neutralizing the race, whereas all of the cars bunch up behind a full safety car.