Saturday, July 31, 2010

Understanding F1 Safety Car

The Safety Car – nowadays a supercharged Mercedes SL piloted by an experienced race driver – neutralises the race in situations where an incident or set of circumstances has exposed competitors or marshals to immediate danger. The Safety Car slows the competing cars to a speed that ensures the safety of those concerned. This could be to protect marshals clearing an accident, or it could be for a sudden extreme downpour that has made the track dangerous. Any time advantage a driver has built up over a rival before the Safety Car came out is nullified as the cars bunch up together. It might give the chasing driver a second bite at a race that had previously been as good as lost. If the Safety Car comes on the track anywhere near your intended pit stop window, it could be very good news. In this situation a driver normally pits immediately. The amount of time he loses to his rivals is obviously far less at Safety Car speeds than it would be if they were still racing flat-out. This can be such a big advantage that you might see a team bring both its cars in together in this situation, even though they’re allowed to work on only one car at a time. The time that the second guy loses while waiting for his teammate to be replenished is far less than he’d lose if he had to do another lap at Safety Car speed.
Another thing to consider is the probable length of the Safety Car period. If the incident looks serious, you can probably bet that the Safety Car will be circulating for a long time. These slow laps still count as race distance, and so your average fuel consumption is going to be significantly lighter than you’d planned for. Depending upon what stage of the race it occurs, a smart strategist works this to his team’s advantage, maybe converting from a two to a one-stop strategy.
Sometimes the implications are quite bizarre. At Malaysia in 2001, Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello – who were in first and second places – went off on the second lap as they hit a treacherous mix of oil and heavy rain water. Both rejoined but were now back in 10th and 11th places. New leader David Coulthard spun later on the same lap and pitted immediately. He changed to wet weather tyres and quickly resumed. The Ferrari drivers pitted together, but because they were so far back, they did so in the knowledge that the Safety Car had just been scrambled, which was not the case when Coulthard had pitted. With the field circulating at Safety Car speeds, the Ferrari pit team had longer to decide what tyres to put on their pitted cars – all they had to do was make sure they rejoined before the field lapped them. They reasoned that, with the Safety Car controlling speeds in the wettest conditions, they could afford to fit intermediate tyres. It was a decision that won them the race.

F1 Race stoppage

If an accident blocks the track, the race is stopped by red flags shown at every marshalling post. If this occurs more than two laps into the race but before 75 per cent of the allocated distance has been completed, the race is restarted 20 minutes later, with the grid formed by the race order on the lap prior to the red flag. The cars must line up on the grid and cannot make for the pits. No fuel can be added to the cars on the grid. Because the results in this instance are an aggregate of the elapsed times of each competitor from the two parts of the race, it’s quite conceivable that strategies will be unaffected. Any advantage carried by one driver over a rival is still maintained in the aggregate result, even if not on track. But consider, say, the McLaren driver who was leading the Williams rival until pitting just before the stoppage. The slower Jordan and Sauber cars directly ahead of him – which might previously have been out of his way – are now holding him up because the restart has bunched them all together. The Williams rival who has not yet pitted is on a clear track and is brought in earlier than planned in order to take advantage of the McLaren’s delay and get out still ahead. Lots of celebration at Williams, glum faces at McLaren. Stoppages that occur after 75 per cent distance can throw the race wide open for different reasons. In this situation, the race is considered over, and the race order on the lap preceding the stoppage becomes the result. This would be very bad news for any driver who had pitted just prior to the stoppage. Who said life was fair?

Don’t Get Caught Out

What would have been the perfect race strategy under normal circumstances can be ruined by an unforeseen incident or set of circumstances. An intruder taking to the track to demonstrate against alleged unfair dismissal by former employees Mercedes lost McLaren victory in the 2000 German Grand Prix. That couldn’t have been anticipated. The timing of the intruder’s track walk brought the race under a safety car period at exactly the wrong time for McLaren – which coincidentally used Mercedes engines! Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello was the beneficiary and took his maiden Formula One victory. Conversely, what had been a flawed strategy can be rescued from oblivion by a race incident or sudden adverse weather. Sometimes such situations create a magical split-second opportunity of advantage for the sharper pit lane strategists.