The safety car has been a feature of Formula 1 racing for nearly two decades. Fans of the sport
enjoy and managers dread the tactical chaos that ensues whenever it’s deployed. Usually brought out in response to a crash to slow drivers to a reasonable pace while the field is cleared, it throws an unpredictable spanner in Formula 1’s otherwise reasonably predictable works.
The safety car first jumped the gun in 1973, where it did so quite literally in the Canadian Grand Prix. The car took its position in front of the wrong driver, dividing the pack - who usually bunch up in the vehicle’s wake - in two, leaving part of the field a lap down. It took hours after the end of the race to sort out who had actually won.
Perhaps as a result of this mishap, the next time a safety was introduced was in 1993, at the Brazilian Grand Prix. This time it enjoyed official status, and a Fiat Tempra was used. Since then, the safety car has been a standard feature of the sport, carrying a driving ace and pushing the vehicle to its own limits to keep the F1 monsters behind at bay.
The current safety car is the Mercedes SLS AMG GT, in a souped-up gull-wing variant of the SLS AMG outputting 591hp. The vehicle is becoming ever more a staple of the sport - in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 Singapore Grands Prix the vehicle was deployed at least once during the race. In fact, it’s likely that the safety car will continue to see this increased usage - in 2010 the safety car was deployed 21 times, driving for nearly 500 kilometres.
It’s no breeze driving the car, either - at the 2002 Brazilian Grand Prix, driver Alex Ribeiro, 53, (himself a former racing driver from Brazil, having raced in 20 F1 Grands Prix) went to investigate a crash involving Enrique Bernoldi’s Arrows at turn 2. Ribeiro was noted for performing chaplaincy at F1 crash sites, and for his public proclamations of faith daubed across whichever vehicle he was racing at the time. Just as he clambered out of the vehicle to check on the driver’s health, Nick Heidfeld’s Sauber swung by at 100mph and removed the driver’s door. Amazingly, neither were injured. Sauber team manager Beat Zehnder was quoted as commenting “It is clearly the duty of the medical car to help as fast as possible at the scene of any accident...it was just bad luck.”
So, the lowly safety car comes with some big credentials. It’s a stunning machine, and its drivers are some of the bravest in the sport. Add that to the list of reasons why it spells great fun whenever it’s deployed.