Saturday, December 22, 2007

The F1 Safety Car's Bumpy Ride

Despite the fact that Formula One may be one of the most written-about motorsports, little information can be found about the history of the F1 safety car. Based on the snippets I have uncovered, I would not be surprised if Ecclestone had personally ordered all writings about safety cars pre-AMG (circa mid-1990s) be destroyed out of shame.

Out of Euro-centric pride, Formula One was late to adopt the pace car concept used for decades in America. Formula One experimented with the idea in fits and starts and called its version the "safety car".

In 1973, the F1 safety car was introduced at the Canada GP in Mosport. The Porsche 914/6 had a whopping 110hp 2 liter flat 6 derived from the 1969 911T. It was driven by former F1 driver Eppie Wietzes. Due to ineptitude, unfamiliarity with the rules, and the lack of computer timers, the yellow Porsche drove in front of the wrong car and set half the field one lap behind-- incorrectly. It took three hours post-race to determine the true winner.

There is a dirth of data about safety cars between the infamous 1973 episode and the early 1990s. I did, however, find some spectacular photos of at-speed Countachs which acted as safety cars in the 1980, 1981, and 1982 Monaco GPs. Go to Lamborghini Registry dot com to view these photos.

Depending on the source, the safety car became an official F1 institution in 1992 or 1993. In 1993, at the rainy Brazilian GP, a 16 valve, locally assembled Fiat Tempra 2.0 estate acted as the official safety car. At 127hp, it was not impressive.

The slowness of the safety cars showed its dark side at the 1994 San Marino GP. Due to an early accident, a safety car proceeded to take over. The bone stock Opel Vectra's brakes were completely worn out after just two laps. It was abysmally slow. The competitors' tires turned ice cold. The great Ayrton Senna crashed and lost his life soon after the Opel pulled into pit lane because of the cold tires. Ironically, it was the safety car that caused Senna's demise. (This issue is very controversial and subject to heated debate.)

Having not learned any lessons from the San Marino incident, the 1994 Japan GP at Suzuka was led by a stock appearing silver Honda Prelude. If it's anything like my old pal JP's Prelude, it handled okay but was slower than a U-Haul truck.

In 1995, it was a marshal's car in Hungary that grabbed headlines, and the collars of blooper show producers worldwide. Poor Taki Inoue, a hapless Arrows driver, had already been hit in Monaco while his car was being towed. In Hungary, after stepping out of his Arrow, Taki was hit at low speed by a marshal driving a Tatra 613, a feat of Slavic engineering.

After all these weird, scary, and tragic incidents, F1 began using a series of AMGs capable of sustained high speed driving, cornering, and heavy braking. Since 2000, the safety car has been driven by the very competent Bernd Maylander.

It is finally in good hands.


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