Friday, 5 February 2010

DSC February Comment

I subscribe to the French language magazine "Le Mans Racing" and jolly good it is too.

In an article last year, editor François Hurel struck a chord with me in a piece he wrote about the use of safety cars to establish a “full-course caution”. I wonder how many readers, like me, were astonished how few safety cars proved necessary in Le Mans Series 1,000kms races last year? In the last three races of the season, in the Algarve, at the Nürburgring and at Silverstone there were a total of precisely zero laps behind the safety car. A jolly good thing that was too, in my view. It allowed the pattern of the races to emerge, rewarded good strategy and enabled the spectators to follow progress more easily. That’s the trouble with a full-course caution – aside from the fact that it interrupts the flow of the race, it also introduces an element of luck: inevitably, however efficiently the safety car (or cars) is / are deployed, you will end up giving an advantage to one competitor, or disadvantaging another. Those familiar with Formula One will recall Singapore 2008. Whether Renault was cheating or not, the safety car period clearly enabled Alonso to win the race and deprived Massa of a world championship title.

For my money then, periods behind a safety car should be avoided at all costs. I grant you that it can spice up a dull race, if a spread-out field is bunched up again, but surely deliberately manipulating a race should only be done in the direst of circumstances?

It’s a bit of a culture thing. In the USA, full-course yellows are commonplace. And are frequently – it seems to me – called on a whim. But racing in the USA grew out of ovals, often extremely short ovals, where a full course yellow is perhaps the only way to ensure safety when there is an incident, short of stopping the race altogether. This, surely, is how the practice arose in the first place. Racing in Europe, though, began on long road courses, where most of the circuit lay beyond the direct view of the race control building – and this has led to a different culture.

At Le Mans, the first use of a safety car was as recently as 1981 (I call that recent – does that make me old?). Then, they were called pace-cars, and were regarded very much as an ‘import’ from the USA. However, in the intervening thirty years, ‘pace car periods’ have become very much a feature of racing the world over, and not just endurance racing. The ability to make a good restart from behind the safety car is these days regarded as a vital element to a driver’s skill set.

I have been at the Nürburgring 24 hour race the last two seasons – and unsurprisingly, the organisers do not use full course cautions, nor do they have the phrase ‘neutralise the race’ in their vocabulary. It would be madness to sit behind a safety car when the lap is 25km long.

What they do have though is the concept of a ‘neutralised section’ of track. Without the use of a safety car, they force drivers to slow down by using cones to restrict the available width of the track and enable marshals to work on cars or damaged barriers safely. Drivers have to slow down, just as you do on the public highway when lane closures occur on the motorway due to road works. Sufficient marshals are available to wave yellow flags, transgressions are reported, but most importantly, drivers are responsible and slow down sufficiently to minimise risk. On occasions when this happened during the 2009 race, it appeared to the folk in the media centre that there was merely an increase in lap times (was it maybe raining on the far side of the track?), and for the fans in the non-affected areas, the on-track action continued unabated.

Surely there is a lesson to be learned here somewhere? Due to a combination of circumstances, the organisers end up without spoiling the spectacle of the race, yet are able to keep the cars competing against one another and keep the race flowing.

What about the weather though? Particularly at the Nüburgring, where fog can be a hazard. But there have been occasions elsewhere recently when the safety car has been deployed in the face of particularly heavy rain. Last year’s Petit Le Mans event is an obvious example, but I am also thinking of the closing stages of Le Mans 2007, when we saw torrential rain, TV pictures showing Emmanuele Pirro holding a piece of card, with “Safety Car?” written by hand, and reports of team managers going to race control, requesting that the race be neutralised.

Now I find all this ‘appealing’ to race organisers a bit unpalatable. As I noted in last month’s column, there seems to be a general malaise these days, in which sportsmen (and women) in every field use whatever means necessary to try and achieve their ends, and are regarded as merely showing ‘commitment’ when they do so.

The question of safety cars in extraordinary weather though, is a very difficult one. The trouble is, that once you send the safety car out because of rain (or fog, or any other extreme weather condition), you need to find a good time to withdraw it again.

One of the reasons I am so averse to safety cars is that two of the most dangerous parts of the race are the deployment of the safety car (as some drivers have a tendency to miss it, and do not slow down, others over-react and slow down excessively), and the restart after the safety car is withdrawn, when cars are bunched-up and drivers are unsure how much grip is available under race conditions.

So often we’ve seen a long period of running behind the safety car followed by another caution period immediately afterwards as another incident occurs at or shortly after the restart. Someone with far more experience in these things than I once suggested to me that Ayrton Senna would still be with us if safety cars did not exist in Formula 1 – but I think that is another debate, and not one to which I feel qualified to contribute.

Suppose, just suppose, that safety cars were not deployed at Petit Le Mans last year, and suppose, just suppose, that the race had not been stopped. Here’s an imaginary conversation between Allan McNish and me.

PT: What are conditions like, Allan?

AMcN: Awful, the car’s undriveable!

PT: OK, bring it into the pits, we’ll wait for conditions to improve.

AMcN: What? You’re kidding me, we’ll lose positions!

PT: You have no choice. It’s either that or crash.

AMcN: You don’t understand! I’m a racing driver! It’s up to the organisers to stop the race!

I know, it wouldn’t happen, would it? The reason why it wouldn’t happen is that most racing drivers these days have stopped thinking about their responsibilities as human beings and focus single-mindedly on racing and driving the car as quickly as it will go. Felipe Massa was recently quoted as saying that he forgets about his wife and newborn child when he gets in his racing car and only remembers he has a family when he gets out again. Whether or not this is wholly true, I would not call it wholly responsible.

Listen to interviews with the great drivers of the fifties, Moss, Fangio, etc. and they all say that they would leave a margin when racing, in order to have some room for manoeuvre when they needed it – and they did need it, since often lives depended on it – and not just their own.

In the recent snowy conditions that prevailed in this country, I left the car in the garage for two days. I took a judgement and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. My decision was influenced by the fact that technology and my boss permitted me to work from home. A friend who has some snow chains, fitted them to his car and went off to the hospital, where he works in A&E. My wife felt less comfortable in the conditions, and didn’t move her car for the whole week. The point is, we each evaluated the conditions, took account of the circumstances, made a judgement and lived with the consequences.

I’m not really having a moan here, honest I’m not. All I’m asking is that we in this sport – all of us, drivers, organisers, team members, media and even spectators, take our responsibilities more seriously. I didn’t say that racing drivers these days can’t think, indeed many that I have met are far more intelligent than I am. I’m not saying that full-course cautions should never be used either, just that they are used too often, and they can cause more problems than they solve. If a well-respected race director gave a proper race briefing, explaining to drivers and team managers the (very limited) circumstances under which safety cars would be deployed, I think we might just get some better, fairer races, without jeopardising safety.

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