50 years of the F1 Safety Car

The Safety Car is a familiar sight in Formula 1 races today, appearing whenever there is a serious incident to manage the racing cars which must remain in convoy behind it at controlled speeds. This is to allow for removal of cars involved in accidents or debris from the track to be done safely. Sometimes, the Safety Car will also be deployed if weather conditions are very bad (ie heavy rain) to maintain safe speeds for a while before resuming the race.

It’s now 50 years since the Safety Car made its first appearance in Formula 1, at the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix. The need for a Safety Car came about after a variety of incidents at the wet GP, including a collision between Tyrrell’s Francois Cevert and McLaren’s Jody Scheckter. The race officials made a decision to put a lemon-yellow Porsche 914 on the track to manage the cars during the wet conditions for safety reasons.

First use of a safety car during a race was at the 1973 Canadian GP.

Pace Car Control System
The introduction of the Safety Car was controversial although the Commission Sportive Internationale (the FIA’s then sporting body) had run a test at the Osterreichring a month earlier under the concept of a ‘pace car control system’. Nevertheless, the value of the Safety Car was seen and the age of the F1 Safety Car was born.

“The Safety Car is such a successful measure and now so ingrained in motor sport culture that I think we sometimes take for granted the enormous positive effect it has had on safety in racing,” said  FIA Formula 1 Race Director Niels Wittich. “It is one of the key tools at our disposal for dealing with hazards – be that related to incidents, weather, or people or vehicles on track. The ability to quickly neutralise a race, and ensure the security of the 20 drivers on track and anyone who might be on track due to incidents cannot be overestimated. And its impact has only become more and more effective as technology has improved the car and the equipment inside it. With the aid of GPS, live camera feeds, improved communication streams, it is now effectively a part of race control on the track.”

More than any other, the man who has had responsibility for the release of the Safety Car over the past 3 decades is Herbie Blash. After joining the FIA in 1995, Blash served as Deputy Race Director until 2016. He returned to Race Control in F1 last year as a permanent advisor to the FIA.

“My first encounter with the F1 Safety Car in Race Control was in 1996 and it wasn’t without its difficulties. It was in Argentina and we used a Renault Clio. It wasn’t ideal,” he recalled.

Different types of cars used
The Renault was one of many cars used in the years following the Pace Car’s 1973 debut. But after races had been led by vehicles with differing performance levels – including a Lamborghini Countach for several years in the early 1980s in Monaco and the Fiat Tempra at the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix, in the late 1990s – the FIA took steps to make the Safety Car a consistently powerful force for safer racing.

Before the official F1 Safety Cars from Mercedes-AMG appeared, organisers used cars with varying performance at race – which was not a satisfactory approach.

First official F1 Safety Car
“The first Safety Car I think [late FIA F1 Race Director] Charlie Whiting was involved with was in 1997, and after that, it really was a case of incremental development,” recalled Blash. “Every year after that, improvements were made – to the car, to the technology inside it and to the procedures.”

A key development was the arrival of Mercedes-Benz (later Mercedes-AMG) as supplier of Official Safety Cars to the FIA, starting in the latter stages of the 1996 season with a C36 AMG, and with a permanent driver at the wheel.

“For the first few years, we had Oliver Gavin as the Safety Car driver,” said Blash. “But Oliver began racing in Formula 3000 and so couldn’t drive the Safety Car for that series when we wanted to expand its use to that series on F1 weekends. We therefore needed another driver.”

Enter Bernd Maylander
The search for a skilled driver who wanted a full-time driver led to racing driver Bernd Maylander. “I had not the best season of racing with Mercedes in 1998 and I wasn’t too happy,” Maylander said.. “Mercedes made me an offer to race for them at Le Mans but I wanted to do as many races as possible, so I started with Porsche in the national championship and also raced Le Mans. So that was the reason I was at Imola that weekend, in Supercup, when Herbie and Charlie asked me to help. Of course, I said yes.”

Bernd Maylander
Bernd Maylander

When Gavin left to race in the USA, Maylander was invited to take on the full F1 season. And 23 years later, now 52 years old, the German is still at the wheel of the Safety Car, albeit a vastly different vehicle to the CLK 55 AMG he drove at the 1999 San Marino Grand Prix.

“The CLK 55 AMG was big and powerful – I think it has something like 355 horsepower – but compared to what I’m driving now, it’s very different. Back then everything was so much simpler. We already had radio in the car but the back-up was a hand-held radio. We had no screens inside… nothing,” he recalled.

No equipment in the cockpit
Blash added that in the early days of his involvement with the Safety Car, radio was the only form of communication and monitoring available. “The technological developments associated with the Safety Car have been fantastic. When Charlie [Whiting] and I first really started with it, we were on handheld radios, and that was the extent of the communication. If I remember correctly, too, in Brazil, Charlie would use a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on it,” he said.

Mercedes-AMG and Aston Martin also supply high-performance models for use as Medical Cars during races to get the doctor to a crash site quickly.

“Now we have fantastic communication and a wealth of data to help us. GPS positioning allows us to monitor everything, we have all of the TV feeds in race control and the CCTV cameras. And of course, all of that information is available to Bernd and Richard [Darker, the Safety Car co-driver] in the Safety Car itself. Now, it really is like they have a mini race control in the cockpit,” he said.

For Maylander, the pace of development has accelerated, too. “I think it’s made a huge step forward over the last 15 years,” he observed. “The first couple of years of my time, we were happy if the radio communication covered the full circuit. Now we have so many tools available to us to make sure that we do the job as effectively as possible, it’s amazing. And that communication system is key. Think about when we are racing in wet conditions, even the ability of Race Control to listen to the communication of all the teams has made a huge step forward in terms of safety. I’m reporting what I feel about the conditions, the drivers are telling their teams what they are experiencing and in the end, a decision – a good decision – can be made by Race Control and that makes racing much safer.”

Aston Martin join Safety Car programme
Today, Mercedes-AMG supplies the FIA with the GT Black Series, while Aston Martin, which joined the FIA’s Safety Car programme in 2021, provides a specially prepared version of its Vantage sportscar which Maylander also drives.

The two high performance cars have been adapted to house all of the technology required to lead 20 of the fastest car and driver combinations on the planet safely round a circuit in often demanding conditions. Both cars feature screens that enable the co-driver to monitor the Formula 1 field with the international TV signal being displayed on one while the other gives the Safety Car crew access to timing and telemetry, including high-resolution GPS tracking of every car across a circuit map. Data management for the visual communication tools is handled by an InCar Hotspot with WLAN.

Making races safer
“What has the Safety Car given us? The answer is in the title – we are safe,” Blash concluded. “If it has achieved anything, it has made incidents safer for everyone involved. You know, we have had such incremental development of Safety Car procedures that people tend to forget what it was like before. What did we do when the rain was so heavy that it was difficult to continue? Nothing. And that’s the difference. Now we have a Safety Car that neutralises the race, allows us to continue and protects everyone on track, drivers, marshals, spectators – everyone.”

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