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In more recent years, the Safety Car can sometimes become a ‘shot of adrenaline’ into a race which has turned a bit stale. A frontrunner’s wounder and a backmarkers lifeline, they offer the drivers a chance to climb into higher positions after the grid is bunched back up again. With the safety of all personnel on track being such a big part of life in Formula One, the idea of a Safety Car setting a slow pace for the cars on track so any incidents can be dealt with seems like a no brainer nowadays, but it wasn’t always.
The first instance of a Safety Car being used was in the 27th season of the Formula One Championship at, unsurprisingly, the Canadian Grand Prix in 1973. The yellow Porsche 914 was outfitted with two yellow flags on the rear and was the centre of controversy over the fact of who actually won the race. In awfully wet conditions at Mosport Park in Ontario, François Cevert and Jody Scheckter collided on lap 32, causing race control to deploy the Porsche onto the track. However, the Safety Car incorrectly positioned itself in front of Howden Ganley, allowing some drivers including the eventual winner, Peter Revson gain an extra lap on the rest of the field. The result of the race was debated for hours after the chequered flag with Ganley and Revson arguing over who won.
In the early 1980’s, the Monaco Grand Prix showed why it is known as the ‘Jewel in the F1 Crown’ with the use of a Lamborghini Countach as a pace car. Reportedly driven by Prince Rainier III himself, it has made its way into many fans hearts as a real beauty even though it was never officially used as a safety car in the four races it was present in.
The Safety Car was used several times before the FIA officially introduced them to the sport in the 1993 season. A notable moment in the inaugural season of the SC was at the Brazilian Grand Prix. The Fiat Tempra was first called out on lap 27 after a crash between Ukyo Katayama and Aguri Suzuki but it was after the chequered flag where it came to the rescue of the winner and fan favourite, Aryton Senna. After taking the victory for the second time at his home Grand Prix, Senna’s McLaren MP4/8 was surrounded by fans who had made their way onto the track. Unable to move, the Tempra parted the crowd and Senna caught a lift from it, hanging out the window and waving to the die-hard fans as he returned to the paddock.
In the following year, the vehicle of choice for the Safety Car had many fans wondering if it was one of the factors that had played a part in the tragic death of the great Aryton Senna. At Imola in 1994, an Opel Vectra was deployed at the start of the race after Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto was involved in an accident which injured bystanders after debris flew into the crowd. Before the race started, Senna had expressed concern over the pace of the Safety Car and asked Gerhard Berger to raise it with the stewards in the drivers’ briefing. On lap 6, the Vectra pulled in to resume racing and it was only a lap later when Senna left the track at Tamburello. With the official verdict of his death being cause by a steering column failure, many theorised that the slow pace of the Safety Car resulted in colder tyres for the drivers and therefore the reason Senna couldn’t stay on the road.
The 1996 Argentine Grand Prix was the last time we saw a non-Mercedes Safety Car, as a Renault Clio was brought out after Pedro Diniz clashed with Luca Badoer who’s Forti FG01 ended up flipped over in a gravel trap. Since then, a Mercedes has been deployed as the Safety Car in Formula One over 230 times. With the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix ending under the Safety Car, it marked the first time Mercedes finished with a One, Two and Three as Lewis Hamilton beat team-mate Nico Rosberg in Shanghai. The current Safety Car in the 2020 season is the Mercedes-AMG GT R which is driven by Bernd Mayländer who has led over 700 laps in his Safety Car career since 2000. A recent scary moment at Imola saw Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel speeding past track marshal’s as they were released from behind the safety car to unlap themselves, a moment which is hopefully analysed by the FIA so that it doesn’t happen again.
[This was originally posted in November 2020 on DriveTribe.com]