Sometimes, it looks like the only car that can effectively stay ahead of Sebastian Vettel out on the track. But there’s a lot more to the safety car than that – it plays a crucial role in making a Grand Prix event safe for everyone positioned on and near the track.
In the event of unfavourable racing conditions – arising out of bad weather, a racing accident or any other driving hazard – that pose an immediate risk to the drivers, their cars or the volunteers (marshals), race officials deploy the safety car to temporarily suspend the race and maintain the proper order of vehicles till the trouble spot.
All this without bringing the race to a complete halt, and quickly enough for the obstacles to be removed so racing can resume – sometimes, in drastic situations, the race can even be stopped altogether.
In Formula One, the safety car is no slouch – it’s a roaring 570+bhp, 6.3-litre V8 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT. Its driver is in constant touch with race control, which monitors every inch of the track. When deployed during the course of a race, a “safety car deployed” message pops up on the official timing monitors; there’s also trackside indication from the marshals. The safety car then comes out on track flashing orange LED lights to signal the stewards’ intentions to the drivers behind.
The SLS must ideally be positioned ahead of the race leader. To regulate the pace and the order of the race cars that it leads, the AMG Mercedes must drive flat-out at all times – any slower and the race drivers’ tyres will start going colder than they need to be to stay competitive, and their engines risk overheating. The average F1 car is capable of completing a lap at least 40-50 seconds faster than the safety car.
If the safety car comes out in the middle of a racing pack, its driver will flash green lights to let the cars behind him pass till he gets the race leader directly behind him. At this time, no car may overtake another without a message from the control room, or indication from the safety car. When it’s time to resume the race, the safety car’s lights will go off, signalling that it will re-enter the pits on the next lap. No driver is allowed to overtake another car till they all cross the start-finish line on that lap. Each lap that the safety car is deployed on track is counted as a racing lap.
The F1 safety car is currently piloted by German race driver, Bernd Mayländer and his co-driver, Peter Tibbetts, who have performed this role since 2000.