What Is the Virtual Safety Car in F1? (VSC Explained)
Formula 1 introduced many safety mechanisms throughout its fairly short history. But the most recent one was implemented during the 2015 season. It was the Virtual Safety Car (VSC for short), which is a different version of the F1 Safety Car.
Think of the Virtual Safety Car as imposing almost the same conditions as a physical Safety Car but without a full Safety Car on the track. Hence the “virtual” part.
Let me explain the key differences between a Full Safety Car and a Virtual Safety Car:
- The Virtual Safety Car isn’t a real car on the track
- Competing cars don’t have to bunch up
- The drivers’ speed is limited by ~30% throughout every marshalling sector for the duration of the VSC
- The drivers have to abide by a specified “delta” time through each marshalling sector
What this all means is that, if an accident occurs and the track needs clearing, the race director can issue a Virtual Safety Car. This ensures that the drivers maintain a certain speed and remain safe until the debris is cleared off the track.
Read below for more details on the Virtual Safety Car in Formula One!
Advantages of the Virtual Safety Car
The VSC brings several things to the table that the full Safety Car lacks. Mainly, it is more effective and flexible at helping drivers maintain safe speed on the track.
Here's how the Virtual Safety Car works:
- It can be issued instantly and drivers must reduce their speed immediately
- The competing cars are not bunched up, preventing accidents
- It maintains the same gap between competitors as before the VSC was initiated
- It can be “switched off” at any time, without the need for drivers to complete a pre-determined number of laps
- The race restarts much faster
- The specific speed limit is not imposed on the entire track but individually, throughout each marshalling sector
- Cars can enter the pits whilst the VSC is on by driving on the pit lane to the pit entry. They can then do a pit exit when allowed by the officials
It’s clear that the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) is more accommodating to drivers and doesn't affect the race as much as an actual Safety Car.
The idea behind a VSC is that it doesn't bunch drivers up together. Instead, it maintains the same gap between then that they had prior to the VSC being activated.
This means that all the cars will be spread out over a larger portion of the track. And if you remember from my other article on the Full Safety Car (either the Aston Martin or the Mercedes variant), this is an obvious problem for when marshals are on the track, clearing the debris.
However, that’s exactly the point with the VSC. If an accident occurred but the track was not deemed potentially dangerous for marshals, then the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) is activated.
The VSC will keep every car driving safely at the speed limit until the track is back in normal racing conditions. Then, the VSC is deactivated and the drivers can resume the race.
Delta Time and Marshalling Sectors
There are two main factors that define a VSC: The Delta Time and the Marshalling sectors.
Let me tell you more about them:
1. The Delta Time
The Delta Time usually refers to the time difference between two laps of a driver or between two cars.
In the case of the VSC, the Delta Time refers to the specific timings imposed by the 30% reduction in speed across marshalling sectors.
In the image above, the pink line corresponds to the normal race lap time, while the blue line shows the VSC lap time, which is 30% longer due to the 30% reduction in speed. The Albert Park Circuit was used for the chart above.
Here’s an example, to make you understand:
- Max Verstappen usually completes Marshalling Sector 1 in 10 seconds
- Under the VSC, there’s a 30% reduction in speed, which means the same sector must take 30% longer to complete
- Verstappen will have to complete Marshalling Sector 1 in 13 seconds, which is the VSC Delta Time
Basically, when the VSC is activated, there’s a consensus that each car is following a “virtual” version of themselves that’s driving 30% slower.
Every driver’s time is measured every 50 metres and compared to the VSC’s lap time. And each car has a visual indicator in the cockpit showing their time difference against the VSC’s lap time. It tells them whether they’re “in front” of the VSC or “behind it”.
But what happens if the driver overtakes the VSC or drives slower? Well, this is where the marshalling sectors come in.
2. Marshalling Sectors
Every F1 race track in the world has 20 marshalling sectors, equal to the number of marshal posts around the track, as you can see in the image below.
The distance between every two marshal posts is equal to one marshalling sector. When the VSC is activated, there’s a 30% speed reduction in top speed applied throughout each of these sectors.
Cars are allowed to have a higher speed than the Virtual Safety Car speed and won’t be penalized for it only if they fall behind the VSC’s delta time at least once throughout every sector.
Once they do that, they can again overtake the VSC in the same sector and won’t be penalized. By enforcing this rule in every sector, the race director ensure that the competitors retain their position and timing during the VSC while also driving safely.
The reason for this timing flexibility is because it’s impossible for drivers to perfectly match their lap time to the VSC’s lap time (delta time) at all times.
Every now and then, they will drive slower or faster due to multiple factors and will have to make periodic adjustments to stay as close as possible to the VSC’s delta time.
How Does the Virtual Safety Car Period End?
Once the track is deemed safe to drive on, the VSC is called off with the official messaging system showing “Virtual Safety Car Ending” on the boards and the FIA light panels change to green. Drivers will then have a 10-15 second warning window before the race resumes in full force.
During that time window, the drivers must always be behind the VSC’s delta time. They can’t overtake the VSC delta time during this warning window for any reason or they’ll get penalized.
Once the 10-15-second window expires and the green lights turn off, the VSC is terminated and the race resumes. Drivers can then continue racing immediately.
Why Was the Virtual Safety Car Introduced?
The reason for the introduction of the VSC was the the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Jules Bianchi lost control of his vehicle and smashed into a tractor that was recovering a vehicle from the track.
He suffered a severe head injury and passed away nine months later, in 2015. In the same year, the FIA began implementing the Virtual Safety Car system as a more flexible method of slowing down drivers during cautionary events on the track without sending a physical Safety Car out.
The measure was met with reluctance at first but eventually, after the FIA improved the VSC system, all teams agreed to it.
Now, the Virtual Safety Car system is a staple of every Formula 1 racing season and everyone is much safer because of it.
That’s all there is to know about the Virtual Safety Car in F1. I hope you find the information useful!
- 1. Jalopnik – Here’s How Virtual Safety Cars Work in Formula One