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F1 safety car: What is it and how does it work?

The Formula 1 safety car is an important part of a race and can be frequently seen if there is a crash or an incident on the track.

There are two types of safety car, including a physical car on the track or a virtual safety car (VSC), which can be deployed to control the cars whilst vehicles are recovered, or debris is removed from the track. 

Compacting the field can produce added excitement to a race and can greatly change a team’s race strategy. The purpose of a safety car in F1 is to slow down the cars on the track until a situation is resolved, such as a car that needs to be retrieved or debris on the track. 

The Safety Car Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19 (Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images)

What is a safety car in F1? 

The safety car in F1 is a physical car which is brought onto the track to limit the speed of cars. It circulates at a specific speed so that marshals can come out safely to retrieve broken cars or pick debris off the track. The slower speed of the safety car bunches up the drivers behind the safety car, and no cars are allowed to overtake unless they are told to do so. 

The safety car can also be used during a formation lap of the race if there is wet weather to slow down the drivers and prevent an accident.  

When the safety car is deployed drivers will be shown yellow flags and large illuminated ‘SC’ screens flash on the side of the track to indicate that a safety car is in action and that they must slow down. 

When all incidents have been cleared the safety car will return to the pitlane at the end of the lap and the drivers will be given the signal to continue racing at the start of the next lap. 

When was the safety car first introduced? 

The safety car was first used in Formula 1 in 1973 at the Canadian Grand Prix. A yellow Porsche 914 was brought onto the track after poor weather conditions caused various incidents. The use of the first safety car proved controversial after the driver placed his car in front of the wrong competitor, which caused a part of the field to incorrectly be one lap down. This resulted in it taking several hours to figure out the winner of the race. 

The safety car was officially introduced in 1993, following trials at the French and British Grand Prix in 1992. 

The Fiat Tempra 16V Safety Car leads Damon Hill, Williams FW15C Renault (Photo by: Motorsport Images)

The safety car has been a variety of different models since it was first implemented in 1993. Between its implementation and 1995, the car changed brands throughout the seasons depending on location, including a Lamborghini Countach for the Monaco Grand Prix and the Lamborghini Diablo for the Canadian Grand Prix. 

Over the years many cars have been used as a safety car including a Fiat Tempra 16v at the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix and a Renault Clio at the 1996 Argentina Grand Prix. In 1996, the safety car was standardised with a Mercedes-Benz being brought in to ensure performance. Aston Martin then split the safety car duties from 2021. 

What is a virtual safety car in F1?

The virtual safety car (VSC) 1 does not bring a physical car onto the track and won’t bunch the field of cars together like the regular safety car – it’s instead a set time that the drivers must stick to. With everyone driving at the same speed the gap between drivers stays the same, making it safer for marshals and less disruptive than a regular safety car. 

The race director will use a VSC if they decide that any recovery work can be carried out with the drivers running at a slower pace. 

A VSC board on the entrance to Mirabeau Bas (Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images)

Drivers will be shown yellow flags as well as VSC flashing on illuminated signs around the track. A delta time will appear on each driver’s steering wheel, which tells them how close they are to the VSC time. The delta reduces lap pace to around 30-40% of a normal race pace and drivers are not allowed to overtake each other. 

The virtual safety car was introduced in 2015 following the death of Jules Bianchi at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. The FIA’s accident panel recommended the implementation of the VSC based on a ‘Slow Zone’ system that was used in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

What model are the F1 safety cars?

Two safety cars are in operation during the 2023 F1 season, a Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series and an Aston Martin Vantage. The cars alternate what races they are used for.

Bernd Maylander, Safety Car Driver (Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images)

The Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series has 730bhp which can give the car top speeds of 202mph. The Aston Martin Vantage is slightly less powerful with 528bhp and top speeds of 195mph.

Who drives the safety car in F1?

Bernd Maylander has been driving the safety car in F1 since 2000 and has led over 700 laps in the series. Maylander is a 52-year-old German driver who previously raced in the DTM and finished second in the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours.

Maylander is joined in his car by a co-driver that assists with any operations and communication. The pair are required to stay in the safety car for the duration of the entire race so that they can be quickly called into action if needed.

What are the safety car F1 rules in 2023?

The FIA changed the F1 safety car rules at the end of 2021 following the controversial restart at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. In the last race of the season, only the lapped cars between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton on the track were allowed to overtake the safety car but not others, which allowed the pair to race and saw Verstappen overtake Hamilton on the last lap.

The overtake secured Verstappen his first F1 world championship title of his career and stopped Hamilton from securing his eighth. Since the controversial win, the rule for lapped cars has changed and now they must all pass the safety car before the race is restarted.

Regulations were also changed to ensure that drivers remained a full car length behind the car in front. It came after Verstappen briefly drove ahead of Hamilton before the final lap.

Verstappen attempted the move on several occasions during 2022, which resulted in a rule change. Race director Niels Wittich updated event notes to clampdown on such moves. The update read: “In order to avoid the likelihood of accidents before the safety car returns to the pits, from the point at which the lights on the car are turned out, drivers must proceed at a pace which involves no erratic acceleration or braking nor any manoeuvre which is likely to endanger other drivers or impede the restart.”

Alex Albon, Williams FW45, Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team, are lead to the medical car after a crash at the start (Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images)

What’s the difference between the safety car and the medical car?

The FIA medical car arrives at the scene of any accidents during a Formula 1 race to ensure the safety and health of the drivers. The Aston Martin DBX707 or Mercedes-AMG C 63 S is driven by Alan van der Merwe and will have a FIA certified doctor on board, which is usually Dr Ian Roberts.

The medical car is not as fast as the safety car but must quickly respond to any crashes on track. The car is filled with medical equipment which can help a driver if they are injured.

A difference between the safety car and the medical car is that the medical car will make at least one lap at the start of all grands prix. The car will line-up on the grid behind the drivers during the opening lap which allows the medical car to be closer to the scene if there is an incident on the first lap.

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