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Will Bianchi accident lead to a change in Safety Car rules in Formula 1?

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Will Bianchi accident lead to a change in Safety Car rules in Formula 1?
Oct 7, 2014, 12:28 PM

In the aftermath of Jules Bianchi's horrific accident in Suzuka, questions are now being asked about the role of the Safety Car in modern Formula 1...

In the aftermath of Jules Bianchi's horrific accident in Suzuka, questions are now being asked about the role of the Safety Car in modern Formula 1 and whether the rules on its deployment need to be changed.

There have been mixed views within the F1 paddock as to whether a Safety Car should have been deployed on lap 42 when corner workers were moving Adrian Sutil's broken Sauber car on the outside of the fast Turn 7 in worsening weather conditions.

Some have argued that the very presence of a heavy tractor in the run off area in such conditions should have automatically led to a Safety Car being deployed to slow the field. The problem with waved yellow flags is that there is no agreed speed to which a driver must slow down in a yellow flag zone. F1 engineers have told this site that in practice the drivers lift for a fraction of a second and then press on.

In contrast when a Safety Car is deployed all cars must travel at a set speed, which is agreed at the start of the race weekend.

As with any accident, the FIA has launched an investigation into Sunday's accident. The arguments for sending a Safety Car out were that the conditions were worsening, the light levels fading and some cars (like Sutil and Bianchi) were out on worn intermediate tyres which had done over 20 laps and had little rubber or tread left. F1 engineers have told this website that in those circumstances when rain is falling a worn intermediate tyre loses temperature very quickly, in as little as a lap, and then the grip level drops dramatically.

That said, close study of Bianchi's sector times shows that his sector times on Lap 41 were similar to the three previous laps, so the performance was still there before his accident.

In addition, there were marshals with a tractor working in the run off area of a circuit that was increasingly wet.

FIA Race Control

Race Control has very sophisticated equipment these days for viewing every situation out on track from a radio system with all chief corner marshals, CCTV cameras, TV cameras and a complex software system with GPS data and other tools. It also controls a light system which displays yellow lights in the cockpit of the F1 cars as well as bright lights at the side of the race track, in addition to the flag marshalling system. In fading light these would have been hard to miss for the drivers passing through the recovery area. The flags are secondary.

This year has seen two controversial moments with Safety Cars; in Hockenheim there was no Safety Car deployed despite Sutil's car (again!) partially blocking the track on the pit straight. And in Singapore the Safety Car was out for what was considered a very long time to clear up some debris from Sergio Perez' Force India car.

So should the outcome of this terrible incident in Suzuka be the blanket protocol that a Safety Car is always deployed when there is a car or debris on the track that needs recovering?

1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve was raised in US style racing, wining the IndyCar championship and the Indy 500 before his move to F1 in 1996. He argues that in all circumstances when a car or debris from a car needs recovering the safety car should be deployed as it is in America,

"The rules have to be changed concerning the safety car. When I was racing, and afterwards, I was always saying that any time there is an accident there should be a safety car," he said. "There should not be room for judgment. If someone has to go out to pick up a car stranded on the track, it’s simple.

"Accident — safety car. And that’s it. It should have been like that for years. America has had that forever."

Former F1 driver turned TV pundit Martin Brundle had an accident at Suzuka in 1994 in similar circumstances in which a he missed the vehicle but a marshal was hurt and he always cringes when he sees a JCB-type tractor working just off track with cars still racing. With circuits like Suzuka at over 3.5 miles around it is not practical to have the cranes we see at many of the street venues. The mobile tractor units are the best option that has been evolved, so it is more likely for the Race Control itself to adapt, rather than the course vehicles.

"I nearly lost my life against one of them, I just missed it and hit a marshal. I closed my eyes and I thought that was the end," Brundle said after Sunday's race. "The tractors are just too high and you are sitting down low. I've been saying this for a long time. You are going into the barrier if you go off there. There's no way of recovering, you are going too fast."

Study of the amateur video of Sunday's accident on Vimeo shows that Bianchi was fortunate that the trajectory of his car was not five metres to the left, as he would have hit a marshal and then gone underneath the tractor.

Equally if the tractor had not been there Bianchi would have gone through the gap in the tyre barriers at speed and that would have been a very serious accident.

It is hard to eliminate all risk the question, the question is what is the right course of action for F1 from here? Clearly more emphasis on obeying yellow flags is one area that will be looked at.

Pit stop F1

A Different kind of F1 racing

F1 needs to react to what has happened to ensure an accident like this never happens again. But it also needs to avoid knee jerk reaction.

A Safety Car protocol such as Villeneuve advocates, of course, would make for a very different kind of F1 racing, with strategy likely to be utterly changed by the more frequent deployment of safety cars. It would serve to close up the field more regularly, which would help the show in years where there is a dominant car and it would generally make the racing more unpredictable, especially if it falls at a bad moment for a leading car, relative to a rival who has just pitted.

Typically four or five cars don't make it to the finish in each Grand Prix, although at the end of the V8 era it was often less with such solid reliability. This will evolve with these hybrid turbo cars in the next couple of seasons to the same level. And sometimes with reliability issues the car is retired in the pit lane, rather than out on the race track.

On some of the modern circuits with vast run off areas, it would seem overkill to send out a Safety Car when marshals are working a long way off the circuit to remove a broken car.

Also it would lead to a review of the new rule regarding standing starts after safety cars, due to come into the sport and it would lengthen the time duration of the race.

In terms of its effect on the racing, a mid-race Safety Car is always a tricky one for strategists to call, it’s a fast decision to ‘stop’ or ‘stay out’; it’s definitely in a grey area, unless it’s a one stop race and your driver hasn’t yet pitted, but there aren’t many races like that today. If a new rule is brought in, one of the key decision areas would have to be whether and when pit stops are allowed.

Strategists deal in probability management and, aside from freak weather conditions, Safety Cars tend to happen around pit-stop windows, because drivers are pushing hard just before and just after stops and the differences in relative tyre performance are large, hence the accidents. The Safety Car deployment in Singapore with Perez' incident is a good example.

What do you think? Should the Safety Car rules be changed in F1? - Leave your comments below

Should the rules be changed so Safety Cars are always deployed for recovery of cars or debris?
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