The F1 Safety Car - All You Need to Know
Formula 1 is a sport of blistering speed and risky manoeuvres, with crashes happening all the time. This is where the F1 Safety Car (SC) comes into play – it keeps the race going while letting the marshals deal with the aftermath of a crash.
In other words, the F1 Safety Car’s purpose is twofold. One, it prevents the complete interruption of a race. And two, it allows for the safe removal of stricken cars and debris from the track and keeps the drivers safe
While the SC is on track, three things will happen:
- Drivers are not allowed to overtake the SC (unless they are lapped and only at the race director's discretion, more on that later…)
- Drivers will drive at limited speeds
- Drivers will be forced to bunch up behind the SC
There’s a lot more to be said about the F1 Safety Car and how it affects a race. I’ll get into more details below, so keep reading!
Table of Contents
Why Does the Safety Car in F1 Exist?
I hear this question all the time. Why don’t the marshals wave the red flag and stop the race when an incident happens on the racetrack?
The answer is simple – to avoid wasting time. Sometimes, there’s no need to stop the race.
A regular F1 race usually lasts anywhere between 90 to 120 minutes, which is the maximum allotted time.
Crashes are also quite common during F1 seasons. For instance, during the 2020 season, there were a total of 26 crashes.
With these points in mind, the role of the F1 Safety Car becomes evident. With it, drivers can keep driving and maintain their tyres relatively hot, while marshals and technicians clear the debris off the track and help injured drivers.
Once normal racing conditions are restored, the race resumes.
Historically, the first Safety Car was officially introduced during the Canadian Grand Prix weekend in 1973, a yellow Porsche 914 was sent out slow down the race. A massive crash between two drivers had taken place, filling the track with debris.
All in all, the entire 1973 season was steeped in crash incidents and drivers who lost control, one of them even resulting in a fatality – Roger Williamson during the Dutch Grand Prix.
However, 1973 was just an impromptu use of the Safety Car. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that regulations were created for the Safety Car, and drivers would know what to expect during a race.
When Does the Safety Car in F1 Come Out During a Race?
An F1 Safety Car is issued when an incident happens that:
- Results in stricken cars or debris on the track or may require medical assistance
- Does not meet the requirements for the race to be interrupted
The logic is simple. If the marshals can deal with the incident without having the race fully stopped, the F1 Safety Car comes out to lead the other cars until the track is safe to drive on.
Usually, this means that the debris does not cover the entirety of the track, making laps impossible. It either covers a portion of the track or is mostly on the grass.
With the Formula 1 Safety Car in front, the drivers will lap around at reduced speeds until the crashed car and the debris are removed. Then, the Safety Car returns and the officials resume the race.
Once this signal is given, the Safety Car leaves after extinguishing its lights and finishing its current lap. That’s when the drivers can resume the race at its normal pace.
It's worth mentioning, all the laps performed under the Safety Car will count unless specifically stated by the Race Director or race officials.
Another situation when an SC may go out is during wet weather and heavy rain during the formation lap. A good example was the Belgian Grand Prix in 2021, 2022’s Monaco Grand Prix or 2023’s Belgian Grand Prix (yes it rains a lot at Spa!).
After the orange lights come on 10 minutes before the race starting time, the drivers will perform laps behind the SC (the laps will count).
Safety Car vs. Virtual Safety Car
In Formula 1, there are two official safety cars. The regular Safety Car and the VSC (Virtual Safety Car). I’ve explained what the first one does but what about the second one?
Simply put, a VSC imposes the same driving conditions as a regular Safety Car without the need for a physical SC on the track.
So, a Virtual Safety Car:
- Requires drives to slow down (30-40% of their normal pace)
- Requires competitors to adjust their speed based on the marshalling sectors
- Does not require competitors to bunch up
- Does not require a physical Safety Car on the track
Once the marshals clear the race track of debris and/or assist injured drivers, the race can resume at full pace.
The VSC was introduced relatively recently in 2015, after the fatal crash of Jules Bianchi at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014. The driver crashed into a mobile crane that clearing debris off the field following a previous crash.
This forced the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) to introduce several new safety regulations, which included the first appearance of the VSC.
What Are the Safety Cars in 2023?
In 2023, there are two Safety Car models that are used interchangeably during each season:
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
The Vantage has a 4-litre turbo V8 engine that maxes out at 528hp or 535PS. Its top speed is 194mph and it reaches 62mph in 3.5 seconds.
Thanks to its vaned grille and front splitter, it manages 155.6kg of downforce at around 200km/h (125mph).
Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series
The Mercedes Safety Car has a 4-litre twin turbo V8 engine with a horsepower of 730 and a max torque of 800nM.
Its top speed is 202mph and reaches 62mph in 3.2 seconds. It also manages 249kg of downforce at around 200km/h (125mph).
Comparing the two Safety Car models, we get the following specs:
|Technical Element||Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series||Aston Martin Vantage|
|Engine||4-Litre Twin Turbo V8||4-Litre Turbo V8|
|Acceleration (0-62mph)||3.2 seconds||3.5 seconds|
|Downforce at 125mph||249kg||155.6kg|
From this specs sheet, it’s clear that the Mercedes model packs a stronger punch than the Aston Martin Vantage. With more horsepower, faster acceleration, increased maximum speed, and more downforce, the Mercedes is definitely better.
Even the designated F1 Safety Car driver, Bernd Maylander, said that “I’m simply blown away by how close it is to a thoroughbred race car. It really is a major step compared to last year’s GTR – which was already at an extremely high level.”
Mercedes safety cars are usually better than other alternatives, according to many. Even the Aston Martin pales in comparison.
F1 Safety Car Rules
The Safety Car brings with it many rules and regulations on the race track, both before, during, and after its deployment. You may call them the "safety car conditions".
Before the Safety Car is deployed on the track, a couple of things will happen:
- The competitors will receive a “SAFETY CAR DEPLOYED” or “VSC DEPLOYED” (for a VSC situation) notification
- The light panels on the track will show the “SC” or “VSC” message
- The track marshals will be waving yellow flags on the sides of the racking track
Immediately after these signals are issued, the SC will go out onto the race track or competitors will be required to drive within specific delta times on every sector of the track.
Already, the competitors know what to expect and will behave accordingly.
While the Safety Car is on the race track:
- Competitors are not allowed to overtake each other or the Safety Car. The only exception to this is if there are lapped cars in the race. In this case, once the debris is cleared and the safety car period is due to end, the race director may choose to allow lapped cars to overtake the safety car. The lapped cars will then continue at full speed and hopefully bunch up at the back of the pack, but certainly get far enough around the track to not be in a position to be lapped again.
- Competitors will have to stay packed behind the Safety Car
- Competitors will limit their speed by around 60% (or 30-40% with a Virtual Safety Car)
- The first car must stay within 10 car lengths of the F1 Safety Car once the latter is out on the track and until its lights are extinguished
- Competitors will remain within a distance of 5 cars between each other
- Competitors are allowed to pit if the pit lane is open
- Pitted cars can only rejoin the race upon receiving the signal to do so
After the Safety Car goes out onto the racing track, the competitors will immediately reduce their speed and assemble behind the Safety Car.
They will continue to follow the Safety Car until the racing track is deemed safe for driving.
At this point, several things will happen before and after the Safety Car goes to the pit:
- The “SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP” message will be shown on the messaging system
- The Safety Car will extinguish its lights
- The Safety Car will finish its current lap
- Once the Safety Car approaches the pit lane, it will enter the pit
- Once the Safety Car Light goes out, the lead driver effectively becomes the safety car and will try to slow all following cars down to allow the Safety Car to speed back to the pits
- No one is allowed to overtake until they reach the safety car line, this is just before the pit entry
- At some point before the safety car line the lead driver will speed off in an attempt to pull a gap on the cars behind
- This is the point racing has started again and all cars can overtake once they have passed the safety car line
- A green light and green flag are now shown
All three phases are well-known to the competitors, so there is never a moment when confusion ensues. Everyone knows what they have to do.
Benefits and Downsides of Driving Under a Safety Car
While a Safety Car is out on the track, competitors are both advantaged and disadvantaged. It depends on the race track, racing conditions, duration of the Safety Car, and other factors.
There are three major benefits for competitors when a Safety Car comes out:
- It bunches up the competitors, eliminating the time and distance advantage of the leading driver (benefit for non-leader competitors)
- It allows a “Safety Car window” for competitors, who can come for a pit stop without a confirmation from the team. The time wasted with it is also lessened thanks to the Safety Car
- Lapped cars can unlap themselves (when allowed to my race control) and go to the back of the pack
While these things do benefit competitors, there are several other downsides that arguably create an unfair playing field.
Here’s what I mean:
- The leader’s time and distance advantage are severely reduced since all cars are bunched up
- The competitors’ tyres will go colder because of the reduced speed, which leads to less grip on the track
- Airflow and cooling are lessened during a Safety Car, which puts the brakes at risk of overheating
- It slows down the lap time by approximately 60% of a normal non-SC lap
- Before the race is restarted, the cars will speed up and slow down, making manoeuvres to build higher temperatures into the tyres
Most of the people you ask, they’ll tell you that Safety Cars are an unfair element of Formula 1. They slow down the race and give an unfair advantage to some competitors.
However, the “safety” part is paramount here. The SC serves a very specific purpose, that of ensuring safety on the race track for marshals cleaning the debris.
Who Is the Safety Car Driver in 2023?
Bernd Mayländer is the official F1 Safety Car driver and he has kept this position for 24 years. He has attended countless Grand Prix and is a well-respected figure in the sport.
Here's what he has to say about his role - "I'm always nervous when I arrive at the track, because you have to adapt very quickly to the conditions: rain, fog, accidents. My co-driver takes care of the radio contact and the light system, and I concentrate on driving."
Naturally, he has to react quickly to any changing conditions but his decades' long experience is enough.
Even when criticism pops up against drivers, Bernd is never the target. Even in the eyes of fellow drivers, the German has never made a mistake.
He doesn't have a fixed salary in the F1, similar to the officials, but he should be making around six figures per year (lower six figures).
Why Isn’t the Safety Car a Regular Race Car?
Many F1 fans, and even competitors, are complaining that the Safety Car is extremely slow and deliberately lengthens the race time.
However, that’s precisely the idea behind it.
The Safety Car’s role isn’t to race or complete laps in record time. It’s there to ensure safety during incidents on the track.
So, there’s no need for the Safety Car to be as fast as the race cars or to produce as much downforce.
The Aston Martin V8 Vantage and the Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series are more than enough to serve as Safety Cars.
Another reason for this is that road cars are more reliable for longer periods compared to F1 cars.
An F1 car is designed to be pushed to the limits only for several hours (1-2 hours). It wouldn’t make much sense, practically or financially, to assign F1 cars as Safety Cars.
So, the answer to this question is that Safety Cars don’t need to be as fast F1 cars.
How Long Does a Safety Car Situation Last?
There is no fixed duration for a Safety Car of Virtual Safety Car situation but usually:
- A Safety Car lasts around four laps
- A Virtual Safety Car lasts around 1-2 laps
The reason for these typical durations is prior experience. That’s the average time it takes for marshals to clean up the track during both situations.
A Virtual Safety Car lasts less because the incident is usually less severe, and the debris is less spread. So, the marshals finish clearing up the track faster.
However, in both situations, the competitors are driving at limited speeds, though this principle is applied differently in both situations.
Many are arguing that only VSC (Virtual Safety Car) should be used in F1 because it has less of a negative impact on the race than a standard Safety Car.
There is a point I have to make here, though.
During a Virtual Safety car, the competitors will not be bunched up. They will drive normally, only with reduced speeds. This means that they will be spread out throughout a larger portion of the race track.
Consequently, the area where the marshals are working to clean the debris will have a constant stream of cars passing by. This exposes the marshals to a higher risk.
With a VC, on the other hand, the competitors will be closely packed together, leaving a large portion of the race track empty all the time, with no cars passing by. The marshals are less exposed and much safer this way.
The Formula One Safety Car is an indispensable part of the sport. You need only look at the 1970s period in Formula One history, before the Safety Car was introduced, to understand why.
It is still recognized as the “brutal era” due to how many fatal crashes there were during World Championships. Back then, competitors were fully aware that any race could be their last. Or any lap their final lap.
Nowadays, the sport is seen as generally safe, with the occasional injury taking place. Fatal crashes are few and far between, and one of the reasons for this is the Safety Car, and more recently the Virtual Safety Car.
Even though it slows down the race and might be unfair in some ways, it reduces life-threatening situations to almost zero.
That’d be all about the Safety Car F1. See you in the next guides!
- Vice - Lost In the Dunes: The Death of Roger Williamson
- CNN Sports - Formula One: Jules Bianchi’s Family Sues Over ‘Avoidable’ Death
- Motorsport - How the Mercedes and Aston Martin F1 Safety Cars Compete
- Formula1.com - GALLERY: View the brand-new 2022 Mercedes AMG and Aston Martin Safety Cars
- Le Monde - Meet Bernd Mayländer, Formula 1's safety car driver