How new safety car protocols could make Formula 1® safer

Published 14 November 2014 By: Johnny Champion

Safety Car F1

With one more race to go, it is safe to say that the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship season has seen its fair share of wheel to wheel racing and excitement.

However it has also been a season plagued with several controversial incidents concerning the deployment of safety cars: the long deployment in Singapore to clear up the debris scattered across the racetrack after Sergio Perez’s front wing exploded; the non-deployment in Hockenheim as three marshals were recovering Adrian Sutil’s broken down car from the middle of the pit straight; and most recently, the late deployment in Suzuka as the downpour and darkness intensified resulting in treacherous driving conditions, which arguably contributed to Jules Bianchi's tragic crash. The latest incident has provoked the FIA to further review its safety car protocols, which had recently been revised in June 2014 for the 2015 race season.

The 2015 Formula One Sporting Regulations introduce a new procedure for a standing start after a safety car is brought in following its deployment mid-race (Article 40.13). So the current system of "SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP" being displayed on the official messaging system and the safety car's orange light extinguishing on the lap in which it will be entering the pit lane remains – the only difference is that instead of the race leader dictating the pace of a rolling restart the cars will line up on the starting grid and proceed with a standing restart.1 This change was purportedly introduced with the aim of making the race more exciting.2 As was the case pursuant to the 2014 Sporting Regulations, the 2015 Sporting Regulations provides that whether a safety car will be deployed is at the discretion of the clerk of the course.3

By contrast in the Indycar series (another open wheel single seater formula series based in America) where races are conducted in oval race tracks with banked turns ("Ovals"), whenever a yellow flag is waved, the safety car is also deployed.4 

It has been suggested that to improve the safety of Formula 1®, perhaps the FIA can take another leaf out of the American racing body's safety book, in the same way that it did for the mandatory adoption of the Hans device to reduce the likelihood of basilar skull fractures in the event of a crash.5 A compulsory deployment of the safety car whenever a yellow flag is waived, slowing the field down, can give drivers more time to react to avoid colliding with unforeseen obstacles on the track. 

It is arguable that tragic incidents such as that that involving the late Kevin Ward Jr, this summer in Canandaigua, New York, could have been avoided had there been a mandatory deployment of a safety car following a yellow flag. Ward was struck by the Sprint Car (a racing discipline in America which involves racing around oval dirt tracks) driven by triple NASCAR champ, Tony Stewart. Ward Jr had got out of his stricken Sprint Car and wandered into the middle of the race track in an attempt to voice his frustration at Stewart for putting him off the track the lap before; Stewart was still racing around the oval and collided with Ward Jr (the race was conducted at night on a flood-lit dirt Oval and Ward Jr was dressed in black racing overalls). This incident has prompted NASCAR (another popular brand of motor racing in America synonymous with Oval racing) to announce a rule change which requires drivers to remain in their cars until an emergency crew arrives (save in instance where there is fire and smoke) if their vehicle is unable to continue following a crash.6

However, there are key differences between races held on Ovals and the race tracks used on the Formula One racing calendar ("Courses"). Those relevant to safety being that: Courses result in races generally have lower average speeds; Courses have longer lap times; Courses have more sections where an incident in one section may not necessarily impact cars in another for quite some time; and, newer Courses are designed with large run-off areas to improve safety. Even Indycar acknowledges that these differences impact on the safety of races having rules in respect of races conducted on Ovals and those on "Road/Street Courses". For example, in the latter a “Local Yellow Condition" does not automatically trigger the deployment of a safety car whereas in the former it does.7

When reviewing its protocols relating to the deployment of safety cars what the FIA has todo is to strike a balance between entertainment for the fans on the one hand, and safety of the marshals and drivers. What fans want is high speed, wheel to wheel, overtaking action which the FIA have worked hard over the past few years to achieve by implementing changes such as: not scrutinising every "racing incident" to enable drivers to focus on racing each other rather than on whether the overtaking manoeuvres are permitted or not; technological additions in the form of Energy Recovery Systems and Drag Reduction Systems; and working with tyre manufacturers to develop compounds of tyres with higher degradation bringing an extra element of tyre conservation into the mix. 

How to react when safety cars are deployed has historically been a prime battlefield between the teams' strategists in deciding whether the gain from having a fresh set of tyres after the restart can offset the time it takes for the pitstop under safety car conditions. Although Formula 1® racing is very much about team participation, the fans prefer to see battles won and lost as a result of the work of drivers on the track through uninterrupted racing, rather than between teams' strategists off the track. 

However, interruptions are unavoidable where the safety of marshals and drivers is at risk of being compromised. To that end, the deployment of safety carsis important in reducing the speed of participants, and the associated risks, to permit the safe recovery of obstructions on the track. Some members of the Grand Prix Driver's Association ("GPDA") have mooted the idea that there should be a mandatory deployment of safety cars where there is a heavy lifting recovery vehicle present beyond the safety barrier.8 There is considerable logic in this proposal. Although strict rules concerning the design and structural integrity of the driver safety cell has resulted in more drivers being able to survive huge crashes at high speeds with only minor injuries; Robert Kubica's 300 km/h crash in Montreal in 20079 and more recently Mark Webber's somersault and impact at around 280 km/h in Valencia10 being good examples, these rules have in mind impacts with safety barriers, tyre walls and other low profile race cars and not high-sided recovery vehicles such as tractors. These vehicles pose a real danger to driverseven at low speeds as the unfortunate collision of Jules Bianchi showed.

The effect of reducing the speed of the cars track-wide whenever a recovery vehicle is on track could also be achieved by bolstering the existing flag regime. Under the current system, double-waved yellow flags are deployed at the marshal post immediately preceding a hazard which is wholly or partly blocking the track and/or marshals working on or beside the track.11 Drivers are then required to reduce their speed significantly and be prepared to change direction or stop.12 There is an element of discretion given to the drivers as to what constitutes a "significantly" reduced speed. Overtaking is also not permitted between the first yellow flag and the green flag displayed after the hazard.13 In competitive racing situations drivers will be looking for the earliest opportunity to resume full race speed after negotiating the "hazard zone" - the focus is on increasing speed as close to the permitted point as possible, rather than actively looking out for further obstructions that may lie ahead. As recovery vehicles are mobile objects which do not normally appear beyond the confines of the crash barriers, their presence poses a real risk to the passing race cars. An effective way of focusing the drivers' attention on avoiding such hazards could be the compulsory deployment of double-waved yellow flags all the way around the track whenever a recovery vehicle is on track or within the run-off areas.

It remains to be seen whether the FIA will amend the 2015 Sporting Regulations or the International Sporting Code to provide for mandatory deployment of safety cars where there is a recovery vehicle beyond the confines of the safety barriers and tyre walls. In order to make such amendments the World Motor Sport Council, with the assistance of specialised sporting commissions14, would need to agree the recommendations by absolute majority.15 The recommendations would then be put before the FIA General Assembly and would again need to be agreed by absolute majority.16 However, if changes to the 2015 Sporting Regulations (but not the International Sporting Code) are not made before 10 March 2015, thereafter any changes would require the unanimous agreement of all the teams, save insofar as they were considered a change made by the FIA for safety reasons in which case they would come into effect without any notice or delay.17

The FIA tested a "Virtual Safety Car" system after the completion of the first practice session at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. When the system which was trailed is activated the drivers are required to drive to a specified lap time prescribed by race control. To assist drivers to keep track of their lap time there is a specific tone emitted into the drivers' earpiece telling them to slow down if they are faster than the required pace. 18 This system still confers an element of discretion on the driver as to how much to slow down in certain sections of the race track. Perhaps a system which functions like a speed limiter in the pit lane which is activated automatically whenever race cars enter a zone where there is a yellow flag to restricting the speed of all the cars to a defined speed as they pass through the hazard might be yield safer results as it would eliminate the element of discretion from drivers as to how much speed to reduce when driving through a yellow flag zone. Whilst either of these systems may minimise interruption to the racing action whilst protecting safety, the introduction of a "Virtual Safety Car" system alone may not be sufficient in avoiding the risks which recovery vehicles pose as hazards when they are exposed to low profile race cars. 

What changes to the 2015 Sporting Regulations, Technical Regulations and/or International Sporting Code the FIA will make going forward remains to be seen, but it is to be hoped that such changes will further the objective in making Formula 1® racing safer and not only exciting for the fans but also ensures the safety of the drivers and marshals who make the excitement happen.

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Johnny Champion

Johnny Champion

Johnny Champion is an associate in Stephenson Harwood LLP’s dispute resolution team where he provides advice primarily in relation to contentious and regulatory matters to banks, corporates and high net worth individuals in relation to a range of matters involving arbitration and litigation. He has particular experience in finance litigation, contractual and multi-jurisdictional disputes, and aviation disputes.

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