The safety dance

You can still hear the wails of anguish from Maranello this morning, but what’s done is done. The Safety Car intervention almost certainly prevented Fernando Alonso from finishing on the podium of the European Grand Prix. Alonso certainly felt that way, and having spent the balance of the race seething in his cockpit he rather petulantly suggested that the result had been deliberately “manipulated”.

Absolute bunkum, of course. Such a thing would require planning – and, above all, a motive. All we have is opportunity and effect; in any case, when two cars come together as violently as Mark Webber’s and Heikki Kovalainen’s did, the FIA’s race director has rather more important tasks to perform before he can get around to plotting Ferrari’s demise (I may be wrong, and it may be a great big conspiracy after all – sadly, my tinfoil hat is away being cleaned).

So, rather than entertaining these absurd notions or second-guessing the competence of the race director, Charlie Whiting, perhaps we should consider the role of the Safety Car itself. What should its philosophy be?

What I mean is this: should the deployment of the Safety Car be allowed to influence the outcome of the race, over and above the inevitable effect of closing up the field?

In this regard you can divide motor racing into two distinct camps. In sportscars, where multiple classes are racing at once, competitors have grown accustomed to the inadvertent distortions a Safety Car deployment can create. It comes out, it does its job, and if your car is on the wrong piece of road at the wrong time and gets caught out, tough luck. The best sportscar teams have evolved strategies to turn Safety Car deployments to their advantage – or at least to minimise the disadvantage.

On the other side of the fence – predominantly in US racing – the full-course yellow has become part of the entertainment portfolio. How often have you watched a NASCAR race and witnessed the peculiar phenomenon of a minor incident late in the race being used as an excuse to “throw a yellow” and artificially close up the field, thereby guaranteeing an exciting finish?

The most difficult and controversial aspect of any Safety Car deployment is the business of picking up the leader during the initial scramble. True to form, in Sunday’s race the leader – Sebastian Vettel – was already several seconds up the road when the Safety Car emerged. Second-placed Lewis Hamilton was passing the pit exit at the time and vacillated over whether to pass the Safety Car; by the time he’d done so the SC had crossed the white line, rendering the move illegal. Alonso and Felipe Massa were then stuck behind the Safety Car while Vettel and Hamilton were free to press on to the pitlane (‘free’ in the sense that they still had to observe a mandatory lap time, which several other competitors didn’t).

In order for the Safety Car to have as little impact as possible on the outcome of the race, one of two things then had to happen: either the race director would have had to contact McLaren and Red Bull and order them to have Hamilton and Vettel slow down and allow themselves to be passed by the Safety Car; or the car would have had to wait at the pit exit for another lap and then pick up Vettel. The former option was do-able, at a push (but if this were to become an official policy, what would happen if one of the drivers in question was out of radio contact?). The latter option just doesn’t bear thinking about.

When a serious accident occurs, racing must stop immediately. The deployment of the Safety Car cannot be put ‘on hold’ for fear that someone may lose out. Tough luck. Don’t blame the FIA, blame the dingbat who put their car in the wall. Or, better still, don’t blame anyone at all. Just get over it.

That said, I’d love to know why 12 laps elapsed before Lewis Hamilton was investigated for passing the Safety Car…

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  • Comments (7)
  1. The real problem Ferrari and Alonso faced, if they’d stop and think about it for a few moments, isn’t what Lewis Hamilton was doing in front of them but what everyone else was doing behind them.

    Going back to closing the pit lane (well nobody can complain about running out of fuel any more can they?) would have solved a lot of Ferrari’s problem and then only rearrangement of the SC train by either slowing Vettel/Hamilton or letting everyone else through would be required.

    • JZ
    • June 28th, 2010

    Hmm. You sound a tad bitter, Stuart. Any chance you’re also stinging over that Sunday World Cup result? (I can relate, I suppose.)

    Perhaps it’s a similar kind of grief over the Abruzzi’s miserable exit that has Luca making such obnoxious statements like what he said today: “That is a very serious and unacceptable event that creates dangerous precedents, throwing a shadow over the credibility of Formula 1.”

    Oh, the hypocrisy! Memories of the 2006 season, of Alonso’s grid penalty for “blocking” Felipe Massa during qualifying at Monza (Was that Monza?) come flooding back, followed by a wave of other dubious-at-best rulings that have favored Ferrari over the years throwing more than just a shadow of credibility on his precious sport….

    I suppose it’s about time we had something moderately juicy happen off the track. I was just thinking over the weekend that it’s been some seven weeks since your “Slow news year” post of May 10, and not much had happened since.

    What I can’t understand is why Lewis passed the Safety Car in the first place. Seriously, what the hell was he thinking? It was running the red light in the pitlane at Montreal in 2008. Sheesh! These are basic motoring fundamentals that go beyond racing. You don’t run red lights, you do not attempt to pass the ambulance when the sirens are on…

    • antoine
    • June 29th, 2010


    You don’t run red lights, you do not attempt to pass the ambulance when the sirens are on…

    …and you never, ever overtake a Skoda Octavia vRS on the motorway…

    • Stuart C
    • June 29th, 2010


    You sound a tad bitter

    I don’t really follow football, so it all went over my head. As a rugby fan I’m well acquainted with the travails of the national side since their world cup win in 2003, not to mention the ups and downs of Bath…


    Ah yes, they’re almost always unmarked plod.

    • Sasquatsch
    • June 29th, 2010

    The reason why Hamilton passed the safetycar was obvious, because he had every right if he could beat it to the safetycar line at the end of the pit exit. His slight hesitation caused him to lose that race.

    @Stuart: The reason why it took so long was that the margin was so small that it could only be confirmed after a triple check.

    From F1 Fanatic

    “Bear in mind that there was probably less than a car’s length in it between Lewis and the safety car. Also, there was no back-up timing loop at that point, so Whiting wanted to see footage of the incident. This, initially, was from an angle that was not conclusive and so there was a delay while aerial footage was sought. This confirmed that Hamilton appeared to be guilty but that it was indeed a close call. There was more to check. Depending on where the timing transponders are placed on a car – for instance if one was at the back and the other at the front, you can have a situation where one car that appears to be ahead of another one actually records the same time. So, when it’s that tight, installation positions have to be checked, times and distances noted and calculations made.”

    • Stuart C
    • June 29th, 2010


    Imagine the grief if the transponders weren’t mounted in a uniform location on the F1 cars…

    • Steven Roy
    • July 4th, 2010

    I love Ferrari and Alonso getting all out of shape about this and throwing words like scandal around. A team having a technical veto on other teams’ technology is a scandal or a driver winning because his team mate deliberately crashed is a scandal but this was nothing of the sort.

    A safety car is always going to affect the race somehow. Someone can have a 50 second lead and if the safety car picks up the leader and is out for a couple of laps he will lose it. Had Lewis gone marginally faster he would have been ahead of the safety car and the advantage he gained would have been OK. I just can’t understand how Alonso was able to remain so angry for the whole race about one minor incident. It really is pathetic that he can’t just let it go after he has told the team to protest. If I was Ferrari and paying him all that money I would expect him to spend his Sundays getting his car in the best condition he could rather than trying to get Lewis Hamilton or anyone else into a worse position. It is not as if he would have done anything different.

    I really don’t see why it took race control so long to reach a decision as it was crystal clear from the overhead camera and they have a team of people in front of a video wall showing all the feeds. I also don’t understand why they waited till after the race to penalise those who were speeding during the safety car period then invented a 5 second penalty that does not appear in the list of available penalties. All of them should have been give drive throughs during the race. Like the Hamilton penalty these should have been announced before the race went green.

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