So far this season six different drivers have led a Formula One Grand Prix. Along with the three winners, Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen and Nick Heidfeld have also taken turns ahead of the pack. However, there is another man who has spent time at the front of a Formula One race this year whose achievements will never appear in any record book.
Bernd Maylander may not be a name familiar to many F1 fans but he has been leading Grands Prix since 2000 in his role as the official Formula One Safety Car driver.
The idea of the Safety Car is quite simple. When there is something on the track that is a danger to drivers, such as an accident or heavy rain, the Safety Car is deployed in front of the race leader and controls the pace of the field. Alongside the driver sits an FIA observer whose job it is to identify the cars around him and communicate with Race Control. The Safety Car sits in the pitlane all afternoon with the engine running, and is kitted out with TV screens so the occupants can keep a close eye on the race. It has long been used in American oval racing where most accidents result in some sort of track blockage.
The Safety Car has been a regular part of Formula One for the past fourteen years although it first appeared long ago in the chaotic 1973 Canadian Grand Prix. On that occasion its arrival was a complete disaster. It failed to pick up the leader and therefore gave half of the cars a one lap advantage. That also played havoc with the timekeepers who were bereft of today’s technology and it took several hours after the finish to determine who had actually won the race.
After that inauspicious debut the Safety Car did not make another Grand Prix appearance for over twenty years. It next appeared at Brazil in 1993 when a sudden torrential downpour sparked total chaos.
The car used for that race was a South American built Fiat Tempra because back then each circuit would provide their own vehicle and driver. Most circuits, such as Interlagos, simply threw a few stickers on some kind of sports sedan and this meant the quality of the cars would vary dramatically from race to race. Ironically, this was not a safe practice. The Safety Car must be quick enough to prevent the F1 cars from losing pressure in the tyres and temperature in the brakes. Some felt the extremely slow road cars were actually a safety hazard and this became a major talking point when the Safety Car was used for the first time in dry conditions during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Some have blamed the tardy Opel Vectra used at Imola for indirectly causing Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident. The legendry Brazilian crashed at San Marino just after a Safety Car period during which he had spent four laps circulating very slowly. Some have reasoned the subsequent drop in tyre pressure lowered his Williams to the ground so much that it made contact with a bump in the superfast Tamburello corner. It was clear the Safety Car had been too slow on that occasion since Senna had earlier pulled alongside it and gesticulated to the driver to increase his speed.
A drop in tyre pressure may not have been the cause of Senna’s accident (a power steering failure is more likely) but the sluggish Safety Car was definitely a problem that had to be addressed.
The FIA took action and struck up a deal with Mercedes-Benz, making the German manufacturer the official supplier of the Formula One Safety Car. The same car and driver would travel to every event from 1997 onwards ensuring a safe and consistent service. The Mercedes SL63 which will be used this year is the eighth different model the company have provided, all of which have been modified by tuning specialists AMG.
Oliver Gavin was the first official driver and was replaced after three years by Bernd Maylander. The German has a big responsibility because he has to drive quickly enough for the F1 guys behind him, but also with enough margin to ensure he doesn’t make a mistake. No doubt there would be pandemonium if the Safety Car beached itself in a gravel trap.
The Safety Car and the Medical Car get their own practice session on the Thursday of a Grand Prix weekend, and understandably there is a fierce rivalry between the two drivers. After all, it is the only competition they get! Along with circuit acclimatisation, this Thursday session is also used to test the timing system, the cameras, the GPS, and the flags.
Although the Medical Car has been caught up in plenty of drama over the years, the Safety Car has only ever been involved in one accident.
During practice for the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix, Taki Inoue spun and stalled his Footwork halfway around the circuit. At the end of the session he asked the marshals to tow him back to the pits rather than transport his car on the back of a truck. The marshals complied with Inoue’s request but did so whilst the Safety Car was completing its customary lap at the end of practice. The Safety Car was in the safe hands of rally ace Jean Ragnotti but his skill was not enough to avoid an impact with the slow moving Inoue as he screamed through the blind swimming pool complex. The impact was so strong that it flipped the Footwork and smashed it into the barriers, taking a chuck out of Inoue’s helmet. Thankfully the luckless Japanese driver was able to walk away uninjured.
The Safety Car has never had any technical problems since its introduction although it supposedly came close to running out of fuel at the Japanese Grand Prix last year. Maylander was in the lead for the first eighteen laps and there was some suggestion the race was given the green flag because the Safety Car had to pit anyway. This very scenario occurred in a Champ Car race several years ago when Juan Pablo Montoya was racing in the series. The Safety Car was running out of fuel so a second car was despatched, allowing the first one to pit. However, when drivers at the back of the field noticed the original Safety Car pulling off the circuit they thought the race was restarting and accelerated back up to full speed. The end result was nearly comical as much of the field squished up into one big accident.
Collisions behind the Safety Car in Formula One are not as rare as you would think. In three of the last four races that featured a Safety Car period, there was an accident whilst it was on the track. Drivers often spend more time focussing on heating their brakes than on each other.
Bernd Maylander just has to make sure that nobody drives into him.
The Safety Car may start to become a big talking point again in 2008 because many within Formula One believe the current pitlane regulations are unfair. They are not wrong because banning drivers from immediately refuelling behind the Safety Car has already turned some races into a lottery. The rule exists to prevent drivers racing back to the pits at speed once the Safety Car has been deployed, but in the lead up to the Spanish Grand Prix teams have been brainstorming other measures that maintain the level of safety without punishing those who are about to run out of fuel. It will be very interesting to see what they come up with.
Whatever ends up happening, Bernd Maylander will continue to have great pride in the crucial role he plays in Formula One.
Unlike many others he can tell his grandchildren years from now that he led Formula One races for nearly a decade, even if the record books don’t back him up.