For the second time in successive races, the field started the Six Hours of Shanghai behind the Safety Car. Given the fact that the Free Practice and Qualifying sessions had all been held in dry – and in some cases, sunny – conditions, this was probably a sensible decision. The same thing happened three weeks before that in Fuji - although the rain was somewhat heavier, practice had been held on a dry track. Indeed, it was the second time in three years that the Six Hours of Fuji was started behind the Safety Car – maybe there is a lesson somewhere there for the calendar-maker?
I have written previously about starting a race behind a Safety Car and while I have to admit reservations about the purity of such a start, I suppose it is best summed up as the ‘least-worst option’. The pity of it is that 22 minutes (in the case of Shanghai) and 38 minutes (in the case of Fuji) of the 360 minutes scheduled racing were lost.
In 1977, I was at Brands Hatch for the World Championship of Makes Six Hours, which in dire conditions, had to be stopped after 37 laps. It was restarted as a 2h 45m race, once conditions had improved somewhat, but annoyingly, those first laps were deemed not to ‘count’ and the efforts of drivers in part one went unrewarded. I was standing in a puddle of ever-increasing dimensions as I waited for the decisions to be reached, and although track conditions improved towards the end of the afternoon, it was all rather dismal.
In 1982, again at Brands Hatch, again it was raining and the 1,000kms race again had to be stopped – after just nine laps. This time though, it was calculated as a two-part race, with times from the first twenty-minute part being added to the time for the rest of the race (a little over five hours) to create an aggregate result, albeit 27 laps short of the scheduled distance. This allowed Jacky Ickx (sharing with Derek Bell) to take victory, even though he didn’t manage to get past Teo Fabi’s Martini-sponsored Lancia, which won ‘on the road’, by just 1.7s, but which had finished the first race 6.4s behind the Rothman’s Porsche.
Had the rules for 1977 applied in 1982, then not only would Fabi and Patrese have won the race at Brands, but also Ickx would not have been world champion!
Although a Safety Car (then called a Pace-car) was first used at Le Mans in 1981, it took until the end of the decade before its use – to ‘neutralise’ the race – became widespread in racing across Europe. Particularly at Le Mans – for obvious reasons – but in all forms of racing: endurance racing, single-seaters, touring cars, the circumstances in which a race would be stopped became fewer and fewer. As a result, ‘aggregate’ races became consigned to history. Having the race decided ‘on the road’ became of critical importance, even if it meant that big leads were wiped out at a stroke as the Safety Car pulled onto the track. ‘Picking up the leader’ became crucial as well, of course, which meant that cars continued to circulate at racing speed, while the Safety Car driver chose his moment to accelerate. It seems to me that the aim of ‘Safety First’ was already being compromised as officialdom tried to implement safety procedures.
It wasn’t long before teams began to build the inevitable Safety Car period into their race plan, and race organisers were left playing catch-up trying to deal with the perceived unfairness that arose.
As a result, procedures became ever-more complicated, in the interests of preserving safety without compromising the race, and teams became ever-more adept in developing tactics to make the best of things. In US sportscar racing, it is rare for a Safety Car period to be less than 20 minutes – surely in this time, the race could have been stopped and restarted?
Worse though, is that different organising bodies have adopted different procedures. With a simple waved yellow flag it is easy. Drivers learn from their first race its meaning: “Great danger ahead, no overtaking, slow down, be prepared to stop.” But with a Safety Car Procedure it is not so simple. Mistakes were made: not only by drivers, but by officialdom as well.
In this year’s World Endurance Championship, there are three different and distinct ways of providing a safer environment to allow incidents that occur on the track to be handled, in addition to the ‘traditional’ yellow flag (see above), without having to resort to the dreaded ‘race stoppage’.
First, of course, there’s the Safety Car. But the procedure for using the Safety Car is different, depending whether we’re at Le Mans or not. And either case that’s different from procedures in the US, where many of the WEC drivers are occupied on non-clashing races.
Second, there’s the Full Course Yellow – similar to the so-called ‘Virtual Safety Car’ procedure in F1, but entirely different from a Safety Car procedure, in that drivers are required to keep to a blanket speed limit, imposed at the same time on the whole circuit. Theoretically at least, this should lead to ‘no bunching’, but Lewis Hamilton jeopardised even that theory by his antics at the US GP.
And third, there is the Slow Zone – again, requiring drivers to keep to a speed limit (80km/h), but only for a specific, and hopefully short, section of the track.
I hope you, dear reader, are keeping up here. Because if you’re not, then what chance the 100-odd racing drivers that take part in every round of the WEC?
At Shanghai, there were four periods of Full Course Caution, and at Fuji there were three. In three of those seven periods, pit stops were made by one or more of the Porsches and Audis that were at the sharp end of those races. Quite obviously, there is a lot to be gained from pitting during a FCY period, and if teams did not realise this initially, it is now common knowledge. Only two of these periods lasted for more than ten minutes, the rest were five minutes or less. In terms of laps, only one period was for more than three laps.
If the Safety Car is used, then the pit lane is closed for the first three laps. This rule is in place, not for safety reasons, but to avoid that some cars gain an advantage. There doesn’t seem any logical reason to me why the SC should close the pit lane, but that a FCY period should not – the advantage to be gained is identical. In fact, at Shanghai and Fuji, the SC laps were quicker than those spent under FCY conditions, so the chances of a car running out of fuel was actually greater – except for the fact, of course, that the SC was only used at the start of both races.
In the tennis match of rule-making, the ball is now in the FIA WEC Endurance Committee’s court to close this loophole and close the pit lane during a FCY period.
Although the option of a Slow Zone has been available to race director Eduardo Freitas, it has not been used since Le Mans. Bearing in mind the carnage that ensued as SZ procedures were not properly implemented - on more than one occasion - at Le Mans, one can see the wisdom of this. But, it is only by implementing these things, and learning from the experiences, that we will get to a satisfactory position.
It is interesting, that in drivers’ briefings, they are told that, in the implementation of a FCY, there is a “reaction time” element: enabling drivers (in effect) to choose the moment when they reduce speed to 80km/h. This is entirely sensible, since you don’t want to be hitting the brakes halfway through a long, high-speed corner. The main problem with the existing SZ procedure is the transition into and out of it. Preceding any Slow Zone is a yellow flag zone, through which drivers have to slow from racing speed to 80km/h. After the Slow Zone, the green flag indicates an immediate return to racing speed is possible. It is in the transition zones where the problems arise, particularly due to less-experienced drivers in some of the less powerful cars.
It seems to me that race officials need to recognise this and make suitable allowance in the procedure, to make the Slow Zone a more effective tool. At the moment it is under-utilised and wasted, in my opinion.
Familiarity with the procedure, whatever it is, undoubtedly helps, as does a clear message in driver briefings. These days, telemetry and GPS data are available to Race Control, so identifying transgressions and dangerous driving should not be as subjective an issue as in former times. If penalties for dangerous driving were draconian but fair, and safety rules and procedures were consistent, not just during a season, but across different series and championships, regardless of territory, organising body or racing discipline, then drivers would respond, and perhaps could then trusted to behave appropriately when following safety regulations.
It will never be possible to completely remove the element of chance and luck from racing. But to ensure that safety procedures commensurate with the times in which we currently live are feasible, drivers, race officials – in the control tower and on the circuit – as well as the spectators, need to know and understand what is going on. Then, and only then, will it be possible to create maximum safety with minimum disruption.