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Sunday, April 30, 2006

The safety car in F1

Allianz examine the past, present and future
If there is a dangerous situation in Formula One, the Race Director sends the safety car onto the track. Especially after an accident or during heavy rain showers, the safety car drives to the front of the field and leads it around the track at reduced speed until the danger has passed. During this phase, there is an absolute ban on overtaking.

For a racing driver, there is usually nothing worse than sitting in his car with his helmet and overalls on, having to watch helplessly as the field cruises round the track. But Bernd Mayländer; driver of the safety car again at the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, is always pleased when his services are not needed. “The best moments are the ones when I have nothing to do,” says the 34-year-old German.

The safety car is an important safety factor in Formula One. The FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting, decides when it should be used, which is 'whenever there is an immediate hazard but the conditions do not require the race to be interrupted,' as it says in the regulations. Once the safety car is on the track, all the cars beginning with the race leader have to drive in formation behind it.

During a safety-car phase, the cars may drive into the pits and return to the track at any time. However, they then have to continue driving at reduced speed until they have reached the end of the queue behind the safety car.

Once the dangerous situation has passed, the safety car switches off its warning lights and drives one more full lap on the track before turning off into the pit lane. However, the drivers can only overtake after the cars have passed the start/finish line. The laps in a safety car phase count as normal race laps.

There is no safety car for emergencies in everyday traffic. However, the display bridges on motorways have a similar function, as they can display warnings or speed limits adjusted to the present needs in the case of accidents, difficult weather conditions or congestion.

For the future, additional electronic aids are being developed. The electronic systems and sensors in modern passenger cars will exchange more and more data with external communication networks. “This networking has great potential, for instance, in the case of accidents, where it could make the deployment of the emergency services more efficient, safer and, above all, faster,” says Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser from the Allianz Centre for Technology. “For example, an electronic alarm could warn other car drivers about upcoming accidents and signal the arrival of emergency vehicles.”

Whenever the safety car comes into play during a grand prix, it means more safety, but not necessarily less excitement. If a team manages to bring its driver into the pits at the right time, it can gain a crucial advantage – the cars on the track are moving slowly and so this stop involves a far smaller loss of time. That causes excitement, just like the end of a safety-car phase: when the tightly packed field is given the all-clear again, there are often breathtaking overtaking manoeuvres. As a rule, the safety-car phase is a disadvantage for the race leader, because he loses the lead that he had painstakingly built up.

But the benefit in terms of safety for everyone involved compensates for this disadvantage. “Of course, it is sometimes quite frustrating to drive for several laps behind the safety car,” says WilliamsF1 driver Mark Webber, “but we don't complain because it improves safety for all of us.”

The first safety car was used in 1911 at the Indianapolis 500 race. However, it didn't pull the field together because there was danger ahead, but simply so that the spectators could fill up their soft drink cups and popcorn buckets without missing too much of the race. Since the FIA set up clear guidelines for the use of the safety car in Formula 1 in 1992, the sporting competition and, above all, safety have taken priority over the spectacle.

Mayländer has been the driver of the safety car since 2000. His busiest year was in 2003. During that season, he and his co-driver Peter Tibbets were called upon 13 times – including five times at the waterlogged Brazilian Grand Prix.

Source Allianz


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