Ingram's Flat Spot On
Safety Car Plague
by Jonathan Ingram
There's an easy solution to the messy race in Valencia, home to the European Grand Prix. Change the safety car procedure.
As too often is the case in Formula One, a safety car period resulted in controversy, anger and confusion for one reason. The rules are drawn up in a manner that virtually guarantees problems.
F1's safety car procedures are designed to not immediately penalize the leader and to avoid introducing artificial elements to the competition as much as they are focused on safety. As self-evident in Valencia, the procedures do neither.
The motive behind the rules may be valid in terms of the long road racing traditions of the FIA. According to a recent conversation with Hans Herrmann, the highly successful and retired factory driver for Porsche, part of that tradition included a fatalistic view of accidents until drivers like Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda dragged the sanctioning body into a more modern viewpoint.
The issue of actual safety notwithstanding, the idea in the FIA has always been to reduce the interjection of official decisions into the outcome of the race when it comes to safety cars. On that score, the round of the world championship in Valencia failed miserably. It turned off fans and participants alike, reason enough to re-examine procedures.
Perhaps the FIA's ambitions are too lofty for the down-to-earth, beating and banging that can be counted on in any modern racing series due to stronger cars, better safety in the cockpits and deeper fields of talent. But also the competing teams have a voice in the proceedings over time and they, too, generally comply with the idea that the leader of a race should not be arbitrarily penalized by a safety car period.
It must be added that part of the motivation for this approach is a matter of distinguishing road racing from oval racing, i.e. the American approach. On ovals, it's a matter of practicality to immediately slow down a race in a case of an accident and collect the entire field starting with the leader. The FIA follows it's own philosophy of issuing the safety car onto the course by some other criteria, which I must admit remains mystifyingly odd.
Local yellow flags and the marshalling are sufficient for providing the safety needed by those who have wrecked as long as the remaining drivers participate. But as witnessed in Sunday's race, by not having the field close-up to the leader prior to allowing pit stops -- i.e. the American way -- there were all kinds of opportunities for skullduggery and questions of fairness and whether, above all, safety was served.
In this case, it was fruit basket turnover. Second-placed Lewis Hamilton skittered past the safety car to insure that he would maintain his position. A later penalty, way late, allowed him to retain second place. The rest of the field, meanwhile, was busy speeding to get to the pits faster -- which can't be in the interest of safety during a safety car period. Then they all piled into the pits at the same time. That's what would happen if the safety car always collected the leader, but at least it's predictable and relatively fair over the course of a season.
When all is said and done after a safety car period in F1, the entire field forms a single crocodile for the re-start, which brings the leader back to square one -- and the rest of the field -- to begin with. Ultimately, it's a procedure that is confusing to fans, lacking in some fundamental principles of safety and to large extent fairness. It's also archaic and self-defeating.
Perhaps the worst aspect is watching Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso be brought to heel by the powers that be at the FIA for his post-race expressions of well justified frustration. Having set up a hopelessly confused system, the gate keepers insist that it not be criticized, even when it doesn't work.
One other criticism from these quarters concerns unnecessary complication. Complication seems to be expected in F1 even when more straight forward methods would be sufficient and likely to gain full assent of the teams.
The local yellow comprises the beauty of the European method, one born from road racing and to it. In the case of middling, less severe accidents, the local yellows take the question of calling a safety car out of the hands of individuals acting on behalf of a sanctioning body. The possibility of bunching up the field for the sake of "the show" is the worst problem -- and abuse -- when it comes to the American method, a method that is part and parcel to oval racing.
In the case of Valencia, the F1 method stunk up the race, making the safety car period the focus of the event instead of an outstanding race on a picturesque seaside course by Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.