‘Motor Racing is Dangerous’ is a well-worn cliché – there are signs of warning at every circuit in the world. But it is also true that racing is safer now for all concerned than ever it has been in the past, and the future promises only for greater improvements in safety to be made.
When an incident occurs during a race of which drivers need to be made aware, flag signals are used. A waved yellow flag means “Danger, slow down, be prepared to stop. No overtaking” Of course, slowing down is not always the safest thing to do; and drivers’ preparedness to stop varies somewhat. At least the prohibition of overtaking is an absolute, describing something that can if necessary be penalised.
In the days when I first starting watching motor-racing, the only alternative to waved yellow flags was a red flag, which signified a race stoppage. And for a race to be stopped in the sixties or seventies, it had to be a pretty severe incident: a blocked track or a driver trapped in his car; that kind of thing.
When races were stopped, they would usually be re-started fairly quickly, and the result would be calculated ‘on aggregate’, by adding together the two parts of the race. This could be confusing and sometimes complicated, but at least it was fair to all concerned.
Some races were even planned as two-part events, with the aggregate result being used for deciding overall positions. Although there was no computer technology to help in those days, at least everyone was used to the procedure and it was not unusual for a driver scoring a couple of solid fourth places to end up on the overall podium, and no-one really complained.
This was the era, thirty years and more ago, when the motor-racing world was emerging from its deadliest phase; when cultural acceptance of risk was undergoing change and when litigation was starting to become the first resort of the victim. People with responsibility had to have contingency plans and were being held accountable. Causes had to be found for accidents and blame had to be apportioned.
At the same time, motor-racing was being televised: brought into living rooms the world over, and the schedule became the king. The TV magnates did not want to have to spend valuable satellite time if the race had been delayed by an hour or two. Weekend timeslots tended to be sacrosanct: the football results at 5pm on a Saturday; Songs of Praise on a Sunday. Folk would complain in their thousands if their favourite was displaced by some late-running car race from somewhere.
The ‘casual’ spectator had to be attracted and retained; and making things ‘interesting’ often meant making them complex, and that limited the overall appeal. If the first car across the line wasn’t the winner, then who was? And why?
This was the context, then, in which Safety Cars (originally termed Pace Cars), were introduced to European racing in the early 1980’s. When there was a serious incident on the track, the race would not be stopped, it would merely be suspended, neutralised, and everyone would continue to circulate, but in a line behind the Pace Car until everything was ready, whereupon the green flag would be waved and racing would continue.
Nowadays, Safety Car Periods are common in virtually every branch of circuit racing, and many and various are the procedures to be followed in the name of fairness. This is particularly true with endurance races, where pit stops are an intrinsic part of the race, and very often cars are racing in different classes within the race. And while stopping a Grand Prix and restarting it over the remaining distance is a reasonable course of action, stopping and restarting a six, twelve or twenty-four hour race is dubious at best, as we experienced at the Nürburgring this year.
The nonsense of the Daytona 24 hours (in particular), in which no real racing happens until the final dash to the flag, makes a mockery (to my mind) of its claim to be an endurance race. A race of strategy, yes, and with great media appeal, no doubt. But a proper ‘endurance’ race? I’m not so sure.
There have been calls from various quarters in recent times for a rethink. Code-60, GPS speed monitoring, wave-by and drive-past procedures, use of several safety cars, separating the cars from different classes: these are all mechanisms to deal with the basic ‘unfairness’ that arises from bunching the cars up behind a Safety Car and then releasing them again.
My original intention with this article was to explore ways in which use of the Safety Car could be made unnecessary, but in preparing my case I have begun to wonder whether there is one. If we could rid ourselves of the Full Course Caution, would we actually do so?
Lack of driver discipline in reacting to yellow flag zones on the track has contributed to the propensity to use Safety Cars to ensure that racers slow down sufficiently to allow track officials to rescue drivers and move stricken cars from dangerous positions without compromising their own safety. Even if drivers showed yellow flags more respect, there is still the problem of barrier repair. I found it unacceptable that there ended up being not far short of five hours behind the Safety Car at Le Mans this year, mostly caused by the need to fix barriers. I’m not in a position to endorse the products of TecPro, SAFER or ProLink, but I wonder if Armco barriers are as misguided a solution as catch fencing was in the seventies?
But that is tangential to my topic. It merely explains why races without lengthy Safety Car periods are ever more rare. For me, part of the special attraction of endurance racing is because it runs - at least it should run - uninterrupted. It is meant to be a hard slog: a marathon without respite. I could easily run 26 miles and 385 yards if I stopped and rested every half-hour. (Actually, I probably couldn’t, but there’s no point letting facts get in the way of a good story.)
To my way of thinking, a full course caution is an artificial interruption and should be avoided at all costs. If a Safety Car is the only way, then for goodness' sake, its time on the track should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Predictability in any sport is not a good thing, though, especially in these days of short attention spans and TV remote control units. The possibility that a Safety Car intervention might be just around the corner provides a level of uncertainty for fans and race engineers alike. And taking the right decisions when a Safety Car does appear can cause the complexion of a race to change completely.
When the Audi ‘v’ Peugeot battle was at its height, Audi Race engineer Howden ‘H’ Haynes said to me: “The Safety Cars make it interesting. Without any Safety Car Periods, there’s nothing to do.” The trouble is that today’s endurance racers are so reliable that he’s probably right, especially working for Audi.
It’s just that this year’s playing field in the World Endurance Championship has been so level that, more often than not, the Safety Car periods have disrupted the races rather than enhanced them.
On the other hand, looking back at the six hours of São Paulo, Toyota’s strategy, when it realised that the Audi was faster, was to stay on the lead lap in the hope that a Safety Car period would occur, nullifying the Audi’s speed advantage, while still enabling it to take advantage of its better fuel consumption. In the end, of course, we were denied a really exciting race for the lead, but it means that even if Audi has the faster car, a win for Toyota in any of the remaining WEC races is certainly not out of the question.
It hurts the purist in me to admit it, but I don’t think that there is any point in trying to avoid Safety Car periods altogether. They are here to stay, no matter what. No matter what rules are imposed to close the pit lane entrance, to wave GT cars past or to always arrange for the leader to be immediately behind the Safety Car, it will always end up that the smart guys on the pit wall will exploit those rules, and someone, probably with justification, will feel aggrieved. Although everyone will tell you it’s on safety grounds, the fact is that it’s the best way to ensure that races remain unpredictable, that the slower car can still win, that the races are more likely to be entertaining and that the strategists still have something to work out!
The Americans may have had it right all along - but for the sake of proper racing, it is vital that Safety Cars are used only as a last resort, and circuits must be organised so that ‘neutralised periods’ are as short as possible.
What do you think?