New safety car rules for French GP

Mercedes SL 63 AMG F1 safety car, 2008, 470150

F1 is likely to have a new procedure in place for what drivers are supposed to do in the event of a safety car deployment in time for the next round at Magny-Cours.

A trial of the new system will be held before the race. The plan is that, when the safety car is deployed, the drivers will be given a message by race control and will have to activate a special programme on their cars that limits their speed.

Will this help fix the safety car problem? How will this affect the races?

The problem

The safety car rules were changed at the beginning of last year to prevent drivers from coming into the pits as soon as a safety car period was declared. This was because at the beginning of a safety car period drivers would continue racing up to the start/finish line, often out of a desire to get a pit stop at minimum cost to their race time while the rest of the field was delayed.

The first ??solution?

This was correctly judged to be unsafe and a solution was borrowed from other categories that have the safety car, notably the Indy Racing League. The pits would be closed during safety car periods.

However this meant if a driver was close to running out of fuel and had to pit during the ??closed? period they would receive a penalty. This is less of a problem for drivers in the IRL where much of the racing takes place on ovals and making up the lost positions is possible.

But in F1, where overtaking is near-impossible at many tracks, this solution was clearly flawed. However even though many people spotted the problem as soon as the new rules were introduced it has taken a year and a half to find a potential fix.

The solution

The new solution aims to solve the problem of the drivers hurrying back to the pits by making them activate a special ??safety car? programme on their cars. This will be part of the standard engine control units (ECUs) that were introduced this year.

This may be a simple speed limiter similar to what drivers currently use in the pits, or something more sophisticated (see here for more).

Safety

Is this new solution safe? A crash during the GP2 feature race at least year?s French Grand Prix highlighted the dangers of telling a pack of drivers that are jostling for position to slow down.

If one driver backs off before the other the consequences can be catastrophic (see this video of Ernesto Viso?s crash for an example).

Strategy

Presumably this change will mean it is no longer necessary for the pit lane to be closed during safety car periods.

What will be crucial is how long the delay between the safety car period being declared and the drivers activating their safety cat systems is allowed to be. If a driver can wait one or two seconds longer than his rivals before hitting the safety car button it could gain him a position on the track.

But other ways in which safety car can complicate races will remain. It will still tend to disadvantage a driver who is running behind his team mate on the track, because both cars cannot be serviced at once in F1. And there will still be occasions when the pit lane exit is closed, requiring drivers to stop because the safety car is passing, which as we saw last weekend can cause all kinds of dramas.

The new system, if it can be implemented, may at least end the unfair practice of penalising drivers who have no option but to pit while the safety car is out.

However safety car periods will still introduce an element of the random into F1 races, which is something we?re going to have to live with. At least until someone sees sense and bans refuelling during the races.

Pictures: New SL 63 AMG F1 safety car

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47 comments on New safety car rules for French GP

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  1. John said on 10th June 2008, 15:12

    “If a driver can wait one or two seconds longer than his rivals before hitting the safety car button it could gain him a position on the track.”

    I would assume that the driver couldn’t pass under the yellow flags that would already be out?

  2. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th June 2008, 15:15

    Not necessarily. For example imagine a situation where driver A is ahead of driver B, but driver B has already pitted and know he will pass driver A when driver A pits. The safety car comes out. Driver A knows he has to make a pit stop so he waits an extra few seconds before pressing the ‘safety car’ button. Those extra seconds spent at racing speed allow him to make his pit stop and get back out ahead of driver B.

  3. John said on 10th June 2008, 15:17

    Ah- thanks Keith, that makes much more sense.

  4. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th June 2008, 15:30

    I think that goes to show how horribly over-complicated things are going to get!

  5. Billy said on 10th June 2008, 15:41

    What about if the drivers received a warning (and a countdown) to the ‘safety car’ button being activated for them? Would this be dangerous?

  6. If they are going as far as sending a message to the driver, then he acknowledges, then hits the limiter, I am surprised the FIA don’t just use the SECU to remotely limit the engine speed – and be a ‘virtual’ safety car – since they seem to want to control the racing anyway.
    The racing is either completely controlled by the FIA and the marshals, or its left up to the individual drivers to respond, and racing is allowed anywhere on the track, apart from the crash area.
    This is a strange idea, since a driver can easily acknowledge the message, and in doing so lose his concentration and crash….

  7. frecon said on 10th June 2008, 15:46

    I think FIA checking telemetries to find out if drivers who refueled in SC period, did it for strategy or because they were running out of fuel, should be so much easier.

  8. I think the rule change has good intentions but fails to recognize that any time you have a safety car period, the field will accordion and large gains on the track will be completely lost. You’ve correctly assessed that there is nothing that can be done to avoid it.

    I don’t think the drivers are required to use the pit speed limiter in the pit lane, it’s just extremely handy for them to press a button and not worry about speeding. A speed limit under caution carries the same implication, because we also have to take into account the chances that telemetry may fail. Can a car be black flagged simply because the stewards cannot read its telemetry? I also wonder why slowing for the caution period is not as much of a problem in American racing, because you never hear about drivers getting rear-ended under caution in Indy or Nascar, not even in the feeder series, and I might add that Ernesto Viso has survived several IRL cautions; commentators have implied that he is adapting to oval racing very well.

    How bad must a wreck be before the stewards resort to the red flags?

  9. George said on 10th June 2008, 15:49

    Yet another example of the FIA’s never-ending convolution of the regulations. Throwing yet more legislation at a problem does not necessarily solve it, and unwittingly creates others, as we have seen time and time again over the years (qualifying rules being another example).

    I despair, I really do.

    You are absolutely right to point out the potential safety implications of this Keith – Viso’s accident at Magny Cours last year was nothing short of horrific, and we could do without a repeat performance at F1 speeds.

    The problem with Montreal remains the pitlane exit. This ruling would not have prevented what happened on Sunday. The problem generally will only ever be displaced rather than solved. When the safety car is deployed there is an advantage to be gained in the form of a ‘free’ stop at some point and while that possibility exists, teams will try to take it. Closing the pitlane for a number of laps only moves the moment at which everyone will seek to take advantage of this fact. Closing the pitlane for the duration of the safety car period will only lead to both a rash of penalties and/or drivers parked by the side of the track, with not a drop of fuel left in the car.

    Drivers need to take responsibility for slowing when the safety car is deployed. If someone is still travelling at something like racing speed in an attempt to steal and advantage, surely the stewards could simply deduce this from the split times and award penalties as appropriate in the form of a drive-through, or whatever?

    The whole thing is degenerating into a farce.

  10. Dan M said on 10th June 2008, 16:18

    My fear is what if two drivers are going down a straight, the second car is slipstreaming behind the first.

    The first driver gets the signal to slow down, the second driver also gets the signal, but is either too focused trying to make a pass, or is afraid to lose time if he slows down first. The split second difference in timing could lead to an even bigger crash.

    If this is the way the FiA HAS to do it, why not just have a remote controlled ECU, where all drivers speed can be lowered at exactly the same time. Give them a 10 second countdown prior to initiating the cut off. Take human error/reaction times out of the equation.

    I personally think there is nothing wrong with the current rule. If a driver is going to run out of fuel the teams should either pit earlier or have a reserve tank (used for ballast?) good for a lap or two. Teams cannot add oil to the engine so they carry a reserve of oil, why not the same for fuel?

  11. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th June 2008, 16:28

    Dan M – what you’ve described is pretty much what happened to Viso in that video.

  12. Rohan said on 10th June 2008, 16:33

    Could the “safety catch” not be operated automatically by the FIA? For example, when the Safety Car is sent out, a telemetry-esque signal is sent to the ECU in all cars that turns on the limiter. Such a system might be possible as there was a time a few years ago when teams could send info to cars.

    This would then solve the problem of drivers slowing at different times.

  13. Chalky said on 10th June 2008, 16:35

    So the drivers have to initiate the “program map” once given instructions from race control. I assume this is required to avoid any broken engines from automated program map deployment and gives the driver the option to find a safe time to decelerate and apply the limiter.

    However, I agree with Kenth. How long since race control issue the command do the drivers have to deploy the “program map”? If they know how long they have (guessing 15 seconds), surely this will be another rule stretched right to the limit to gain valuable seconds over their competitors.

    So we’ll see more drive through penalties for those deploying engine maps too late now.

  14. Sav722 said on 10th June 2008, 16:53

    Personally, we don’t need red lights or specific ECU programmes. Just let the cars pit under safety car, I don’t remember too many examples of the field pitting being dangerous.

    Forget silly red lights or complicated ECU programmes – F1 races ran just fine before the red light rule was introduced.

  15. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th June 2008, 16:55

    Sav – it’s not the field coming into the pits that’s dangerous, it’s that they might have had to go through an area where an accident has happened at racing speed. It’s not to do with the red light rule.

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