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…