Comment – The Safety Car

The 2010 editions of the Monaco and European Grand Prix have both featured prominently in the Formula 1 headlines for all the wrong reasons: controversies regarding the safety car and its attendant regulations. In Monaco, the talking points concerned the last-lap pass of Michael Schumacher on Fernando Alonso as the safety car returned to the pits. The scope of the Valencia scandal was far greater, with no less than half the field being directly impacted by the safety car’s deployment; whether by a massive swing in track position, or by being handed a penalty for an infraction. Never in a single Formula 1 season have we seen as many controversies regarding the safety car as we’ve had in only half of the 2010 season. Perhaps the most disturbing fact regarding the aforementioned events is that there is no clear answer to any of the problems each event has posed. Clearly, the 2010 FIA Sporting Regulations contain significant ambiguities when it to comes to the many safety car rules. Recognizing the current state of affairs, an Extraordinary Meeting of the Sporting Working Group has been scheduled for this upcoming Wednesday before the British Grand Prix weekend. All twelve teams will be present, and the FIA will be represented by Race Director Charlie Whiting.

So what exactly are the safety car regulations that are causing the aforementioned problems? What should the FIA do to ensure that future safety car usage is fair, transparent, and, well, safe?

Article 40 of the 2010 FIA Sporting Regulations comprises the regulations applicable to the safety car. While the typical introductory fare is included, the first rule of interest concerns a significant change to the safety car regulations that was first implemented for the 2009 season:

Art. 40.10 (2010): “Whilst the safety car is in operation, competing cars may enter the pit lane, but may only rejoin the track when the green light at the end of the pit lane is on. It will be on at all times except when the safety car and the line of cars following it are about to pass or are passing the pit exit . A car rejoining the track must proceed at an appropriate speed until it reaches the end of the line of cars behind the safety car.”

Article 40.10 is the root of not only Ferrari’s precipitous fall from the top 4 in Valencia, but also Michael Schumacher’s being held by the pit-exit light while the entire field passed him by. Both the Ferrari and Schumacher issues stem primarily from one allowance contained in Art. 40.10: that cars may immediately pit under the safety car. As we saw in Valencia, depending on the timing of the safety car’s deployment, allowing cars to pit under the safety car can be a dream for some and a nightmare for others. The line between positive and negative outcomes under the current rules-set comes down primarily to pure, unadulterated, dumb luck. However, the ability to immediately pit under the safety car hasn’t always been allowed in F1, and is a rare allowance in the world of motorsports.

Article 40.10 essentially reverts the F1 safety car regulations to those of the 2006 season. In 2007, the FIA inserted a rule into Art. 40 which foreclosed the opportunity for cars to immediately pit during a safety car period:

Art. 40.6 (2007): “From the time at which the “SAFETY CAR DEPLOYED” message is displayed no car may enter the pit lane for the purpose of refuelling until all cars on the track have formed up in a line behind the safety car and the message “PIT LANE OPEN” is shown on the timing monitors. A ten second time penalty (see Article 16.3b) will be imposed on any driver who enters the pit lane and whose car is refuelled before the second message is shown on the timing monitors. However, any car which was in the pit entry or pit lane when the safety car was deployed will not incur a penalty.”

The 2007 version of the safety car rules were essentially modeled after those of F1’s North American counterparts. The implementation of the closed and open pit lane rules was two-fold: no driver could be gifted a massive change in track position by virtue of luck as we saw in Valencia this year, and the FIA would not have to worry about cars continuing at a high rate of speed to the pits once the safety car message was posted. However, the 2007 rules proved problematic for two other reasons: F1 strategy at the time rested largely on knife-edge fuel calculations that often required fuel stops when the pits were closed, and unlike North American racing, F1 only has one pit box for each team, as opposed to one pit box for each car in the field. With only one pit box per team, one team driver was likely to benefit from the safety car by pitting first, while the other was handed a substantial drop in track position by pitting second. During the 2007 and 2008 seasons, teams often resorted to double-stacking their cars in the pit lane, with one car waiting while the other was serviced so as to minimize the damage to the second driver’s race as best the team could.

In an effort to alleviate the problems posed by limiting pit lane access during a safety car period, the FIA moved to the current version of Art. 40.10 for the 2009 season. While we never witnessed the true extent of the mayhem this particular rule-set could provide until Valencia this year, the one obvious question to ask is why the rules don’t revert back to the 2007 version now that in-race refueling has been banned? The one major problem posed by the 2007 safety car rules is no longer an issue in 2010, as teams can only pit their drivers to change tires. By immediately closing the pits until the entire field is collected by the safety car, the FIA wouldn’t have to worry about cars running out of fuel or controlling the speed of drivers circulating up to the safety car. Instituting ‘delta times’ as pseudo-speed limits and multiple ‘safety car lines’ to control overtaking is an overly-complicated way of trying to make a bad set of rules work.

The last glaring deficiency in the 2010 safety car regulations relates to Michael Schumacher’s last-lap pass of Fernando Alonso in Monaco:

Art. 40.14 (2010): “If the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.”

The confusion and controversy in Monaco was the result of the FIA posting a message that the safety car would return to the pits on the final lap, signaling to Schumacher and Mercedes GP that the race was ‘going green’ for the last 500 yards or so between the final corner and the checkered flag. Schumacher took this opportunity to pass Alonso’s Ferrari in the final corner; a move which ultimately handed Schumacher a penalty for violating Art. 40.14 that dropped him out of the points. Compelling arguments were made that Schumacher had, or hadn’t broken the rules based on the FIA’s issuance of the “SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP” message. Now, the obvious solution to this situation, and any situation like it that may arise in the future, is to have the safety car stay on track through to the race finish. After all, leaving the safety car on track during a race finish under full-course caution is the way everybody else in the world handles such matters. Nobody, not even the FIA, can give any reason to the contrary.

Hopefully F1’s teams and the FIA take the foregoing matters seriously, as there is no bigger concern in sports than the appearance of fairness and legitimacy in application of the rules. Look no further than the 2010 World Cup and its numerous reffing controversies to understand the importance of these matters. When teams spend countless years and hundreds of millions of dollars to reach a result in F1, the least the sport’s governing body can do is to provide fair and transparent rules to govern the races.

posted by Trey Blincoe

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