Opinion: Why safety cars are an outdated institution

The above headline might make some people feel uncomfortable. After all, we have become so used to seeing more races with safety cars (SC) nowadays than those without them, so we have never really dared to question it.

Opinion: Why safety cars are an outdated institution
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However, there is an argument that safety cars are actually anti-competition, and that there are better ways to neutralize a race in the 21st century.

Before we start: let's exclude oval racing from this discussion since full-course cautions are part of the spectacle there and have a long tradition in this type of racing. We are talking about ‘regular’ circuits and what consequences safety cars bring.

The Safety Car leads Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20, and Esteban Ocon, Renault F1 Team R.S.20

The Safety Car leads Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20, and Esteban Ocon, Renault F1 Team R.S.20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Formula 1: Why let drivers get their lap back?

In Grand Prix racing, caution periods may have a less destructive effect than in the rest of the motorsport world, as there are still notable performance differences among the cars. But the current rules, which allow lapped cars to get their lap back, remains very unfair.

Consider this scenario: In a downpour Lewis Hamilton loses control and ends up in the gravel. Because he is in a dangerous spot, he is allowed to be recovered whilst losing a lap in the process. At the same time the safety car is deployed.

Because of the safety car rules, Hamilton is allowed to get his lap back and lines up at the back of the pack. He even has a chance to pit and change for fresh tyres. Since there are still plenty of laps left, he still finishes in the top 10.

Markus Winkelhock, Spyker F8 VII leads behind the safety car

Markus Winkelhock, Spyker F8 VII leads behind the safety car

Photo by: Sutton Images

This is not a fictional scenario – it happened exactly like this at the 2007 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring (above). Hamilton was unlucky, though, as there were no points for ninth-placed finishes at that time. He missed the final point by 1.5 seconds.

But he might even have won the race if dry tyres had been the thing to go for at the time of his pit stop under yellow. Indeed, he gambled on grooved dry weather Bridgestones that were in place at that time instead of slicks.

As a result of what happened at the Nurburgring, it was decided afterwards that these lapped car rules weren't fair and they were abolished. But they were reintroduced in 2012 – for the outrageous reason of a leader gaining too much of an advantage on their nearest challenger at the restart with lapped cars in between them (like Singapore 2011) after his lead had already been destroyed by the SC.

Another unpleasant consequence of this rule: The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix required eight laps of SC just to get a single front wing cleared off the track and the cars put into the right order.

Safety car leads the field in bad weather conditions

Safety car leads the field in bad weather conditions

Photo by: Alessio Morgese

WEC and IMSA: Safety cars are a no-go in multi-class racing

It's the same story at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Whenever a safety car is deployed (and it happens way too often with now 62 cars circulating the Circuit de la Sarthe), the first thing we have to check is whether a huge gap has been created in one of the four classes.

The reason is that there are three safety cars on track. This is a situation that creates nothing more than confusion, anger and unfair advantages as whole classes get torn apart in what is effectively a game of roulette.

The lucky driver who can just sneak by the safety car before it pulls on to the track will immediately gain a third of a lap by lining up last in the SC train ahead. In contrast, the unlucky ones end up first behind the next SC on the road, losing a third of a lap in the process.

Safety car on track

Safety car on track

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

In ultra-competitive classes like GTE Pro and LMP2, the competition frequently gets destroyed as a result of this old-fashioned rule at Le Mans. Furthermore, in categories with such fierce competition and with 24-hour races today being pure sprint races, there's almost zero chance for the classes being brought back together again once they are torn apart.

Even in regular WEC races, a safety car can have a detrimental effect on the competition. For example, if the overall leader has just lapped the majority of a smaller class but missed out on the class leader before the SC got deployed, that class leader would gain almost a lap straightaway.

Pace Car

Pace Car

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

IMSA has found a system to bypass at least the latter problem. First, the pit lane opens for prototypes only and one lap later for GT cars. Lapped GT cars get their lap back once the prototypes have stopped (it’s the same for lapped prototypes that also benefit from the wave-by).

This may be fair from a sporting point of view, but just as in Formula 1, it leads to cautions being way longer than they should be. Most recently, spectators at the Daytona 24 Hours had to endure a 35-minute long caution as a result of confusion about the correct order after the pit stops.

Safety car on track

Safety car on track

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

IndyCar and DTM: Safety cars are like roulette

Both IndyCar (on road and street courses) and DTM share the same fundamental flaw when it comes to cautions. A safety car, or pace car as it is called in the U.S., should never be deployed if the pit lane is closed at the same time as it causes heavy disruptions that are irreversible and can decide complete championships.

It's the same story over and over again. Cars having already completed their pitstop become the new leaders, whilst those still to do their pitstop – sometimes due to better fuel mileage – get screwed big time. In most cases those drivers have no chance to recover the lost positions, though they did nothing wrong.

Honda Civic Pace Car in action

Honda Civic Pace Car in action

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

There are many examples in IndyCar, while Nico Muller suffered the same fate in the DTM last year in Race 2 at Zolder, contributing to his lost championship campaign against Rene Rast. In both IndyCar and DTM, drivers basically have to do their pistops at the first possible moment to protect themselves against an unlucky caution. However, if there is no SC, the advantage switches to the late stoppers, as they can use their tyres more evenly.

This isn’t sport; it’s a lottery.

Everyone in IndyCar and DTM knows about this problem. But there seems to be a lack of interest for change that is hard to comprehend. Usually, officials try to avoid discussions on this topic by claiming unpredictability to be a part of the game in motorsport.

But, honestly, we cannot accept such excuses if we want to solve the problem. Yes, motorsport should be entertaining and unpredictable. But by no means should that unpredictability be confused with unfairness.

Safety car

Safety car

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Super GT: The worst possible ‘solution’

Super GT is trying to get around the aforementioned problem with multi-class racing by replacing a bad set of rules with an even worse one. Both classes (GT500 and GT300) line up next to each other down the start/finish straight with GT500 leaving before GT300, whilst lapped GT300 cars get their lap back.

So far, so good, as this solves the previously mentioned problem of classes being torn apart due to a caution. However, it creates a far more severe issue. In Super GT, the pit lane remains closed until the race is restarted.

This leads to cars that have not yet stopped facing a double penalty. On the one hand, they lose all positions just like in IndyCar and DTM to cars that have already done their pitstop. But they also lose just as much time as if they had pitted under green. This rule had serious consequences to the championship outcome in 2020, and it can be farcical at times.

All these examples show the fundamental issue with safety cars. Every racing series has its own way of dealing with the safety car issue. However, the responses trigger further complications and ultimately show why safety cars are bad for competition.

Stoffel Vandoorne, ART Grand Prix, passes under a 'VSC - Virtual Safety Car' board

Stoffel Vandoorne, ART Grand Prix, passes under a 'VSC - Virtual Safety Car' board

Photo by: GP2 Series Media Service

There are better solutions at hand

Much better solutions from a sporting point of view have long been developed, if used properly – like the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) and the (European) Full Course Yellow (FCY): In both cases, speed is significantly reduced, but the gaps remain.

Issues early on with unexpected braking moves creating dangerous rear-end collisions have long been addressed and resolved. Race directors are in touch with all cars nowadays, providing the opportunity to announce the beginning and the end of a race neutralization via countdown and thus eliminating any surprises.

Even in the case of radio communication failure, the countdown can still be visually displayed in the cockpit – of course, in addition to the good old flag signals as the last backup option.

Virtual Safety Car lights being tested

Virtual Safety Car lights being tested

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

VSC and FCY have obvious benefits: Gaps remain the same and the interruption can be lifted as soon as the danger zone has been cleared. Needlessly lengthy cautions due to giving cars their laps back and other gimmicks are completely eliminated.

For now, just one issue remains: Pit stops under FCY or VSC are much less costly than pitting under green. As things stand today, the competitive distortion has just been shifted to the pit lane. Several races in F1 and WEC have been decided by lucky pitstops under VSC or FCY.

However, there is a simple fix for this: Close the pit lane during FCY/VSC with only emergency pitstops allowed for a splash of fuel when a car is out of gas or to change a damaged tyre. IndyCar has had this rule in place for their regular cautions for a long time and it works.

With everyone driving slowly, the emergency stop would only lead to a minimal loss of time due to the standstill, if the speed limit in the pitlane is the same as it is on track. 100 percent fairness would still not be achieved, but it would be the least unfair solution with irregular time losses being reduced to a few seconds.

Le Mans slow zones

Le Mans slow zones

Photo by: Autosport

Time to move to the digital age

Slow Zones are another possible solution worth consideration. However, they share one drawback with the safety car. A fair Slow Zone would have to be lifted just before the first vehicle that has been affected by it arrives at the scene again.

This means the Slow Zone could be in place for longer than it has to be. Removing it earlier would give an advantage to cars that passed through the zone one less time than others. This could become an issue, especially in multi-class racing or races with different pit strategies.

And even if removed, participants could still evade an additional pass through the Slow Zone with a cleverly timed pit stop. So FCY and VSC are the better solution from a sporting point of view.

However, the Slow Zone could be an adequate way to locally neutralize the race just after the start without having to sacrifice racing action in the clear sections of the track.

Times are changing: VSC, FCY and Slow Zone are new solutions of the digital age. The safety car is a leftover of the analog era.

It’s time to adapt to the new reality.

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