Safety cars and virtual safety cars form an important part of modern Formula One, and they are something we see very often over the course of the season.
Known in the United States as the pace car, the safety car gives the drivers the opportunity to make a free pit stop while everyone else is going slowly, and it can completely change the outcome of a race.
However, the safety car is not there for show. It is there, in essence, to save lives. When there is an incident on track, the safety car can be deployed to lead the drivers around the track at a reasonable and controllable speed, guide everyone through the site of the accident and ensure that no harm can come to any of the drivers, marshals, or spectators. This can be while there is a stricken car on or just off the circuit, or while there are marshals working on removing it.
If the track is extremely wet and slippery after rain, the safety car can even be used to begin a race if performing a normal start would be too dangerous. Likewise, if the safety car then leads the drivers away and it is found to be too wet, the race can be stopped ready for the safety car to lead them away again if and when the conditions improve.
The virtual safety car was created after Jules Bianchi’s horror crash at Suzuka in 2014, which would eventually claim the talented Frenchman’s life nine months later. When a Safety Car is considered excessive after an incident, a virtual safety car can instead be deployed to ensure that all the drivers stick to a minimum delta.
It is also used for when localised yellow flags are not enough. Drivers are expected to slow down under yellow flags, but they are given no delta time to stick to. As a result, the drivers can end up going too quickly into the yellow flag zone as they try and lose as little time as possible. This could then result in them losing control and hitting either the stricken car, or those trying to recover it. If we look back at most races, how many times did we see drivers slowing down significantly for local yellows? The VSC means that they are obliged to go slowly, thus extremely decreasing the chances of being involved in potentially life-threatening accident.
Though they are a common sight in F1, safety cars and virtual safety cars should be viewed as a very special aspect not just of F1 but of racing in general. Without them, we would be seeing many more incidents of drivers running into other drivers’ stricken cars, or worse, making these safety measures extremely vital in our sport.
Featured image by Wolfgang Wilhelm, courtesy of Mercedes AMG