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 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 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).
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).
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.