Since 2000 the FIA has entrusted the task of driving the safety car to Bernd Maylander, a former successful touring-car racer. He knows how to keep the pace during the safety period just high enough so that the Formula 1 cars’ tyres and brakes do not cool down too much. Maylander started his career in karting at the end of the 1980s. In the following years he progressed to Formula Ford, the Porsche Carrera Cup, the FIA GT Championship and the German DTM touring car series.
Q&A with Bernd Maylander
Q: Tell us about the official Formula 1 safety car?
Bernd Maylander: From the 2018 season onward, the safety car is the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT R. Developing 577 horsepower, this unique vehicle concept ensures outstanding driving dynamics. The safety car has to guarantee high performance in order to lead the Formula 1 cars around the track, as the cars´ tyres and brakes would cool down too quickly, while their engines could overheat. The safety car weighs an impressive 1,555 kg and offers space for the driver and his co-driver in two AMG sports bucket seats with six-point seat belts ensuring optimum lateral support. The safety car is connected to race control via two monitors and two cameras on the roof.
Q: When are you deployed onto the track?
BM: According to the official regulations of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the car is deployed 'if competitors or officials are in immediate physical danger but the circumstances are not such as to necessitate stopping the race', for example after an accident or in severe rain showers.
Q: What’s the role of the official Formula 1 safety car?
BM: It takes up its position at the front of the field and leads the Formula 1 cars around the track at reduced speed until the dangerous situation has passed. All the cars, beginning with the race leader, must line up behind the safety car.
Q: Who decides when you should take to the track?
BM: The decision is made by the FIA race director, Charlie Whiting. He also decides when the safety car phase is finished.
Q: How are the drivers informed about the safety car phase?
BM: The drivers are notified by the marshals and light-panels that show yellow flags together with the letters ‘SC’. Additionally the driver is informed via radio by the team and a warning light inside the cockpit flashes until the safety car phase is over.
Q: How long does the safety car remain on the circuit?
BM: It will remain until the hazardous situation is under control and the FIA feel that it is safe to resume racing. The laps completed during the safety car phase count as normal race laps. If the specified number of laps is completed, a race can also come to an end behind the safety car.
Q: What influence does a safety car phase have on the race strategy?
BM: As a rule, the teams use a safety car phase for an unscheduled pit stop, because it involves a much smaller loss of time than if the field is racing at full speed. If a team manages to bring its driver into the pits at exactly the right time, it can result in a crucial advantage. Because the field is pressed up close together during a safety car phase, it also increases the excitement for the spectators.
Q: Since when has the safety car been used in Formula 1?
BM: Its first introduction was in 1973 at the Canadian Grand Prix. However, the FIA laid down clear guidelines for the role of the safety car in 1992.
Bernd Maylander’s race weekend
“Generally I arrive at more remote locations on Wednesday evening, to get a feel for the local conditions and settle in. I arrive even earlier in Melbourne, usually on Tuesdays. There is a substantial support programme in Melbourne, so we perform the safety car test on Wednesday afternoon. For European races, I arrive early on Thursday morning. We meet at the race track at around 10.00 am and have a short meeting in the FIA office, where we go through the important documents for the race weekend, such as race schedules, circuit maps, rules and regulations etc. It is important for me to know the track, in particular its hazards, inside out. Should the track have changed since last year, I get in the safety car and drive to the changed spots on the track to get a closer look and be prepared.
“I get changed into my race overalls and am in the safety car at 1.35 pm. The safety car has the special honour of being the first car to go out on to the circuit each race weekend. The first track test, between 2 pm and 3 pm, is very important, because both the car and the track are being tested, as well as the radio system, the GPS systems, and the cameras. I forward our test results to FIA race director Charlie Whiting, who knows all the rules inside out and decides whether a track is up to standard. Whenever I notice something unusual on the track, such as short or misplaced kerbs, for instance, I inform Charlie Whiting in our meeting after the test.
“I usually spend the evening exercising or I go for dinner with the teams and sponsors. It depends on which city we are in - cities like Melbourne and Shanghai for example offer so many possibilities that it would be a shame to waste the evening at the hotel.”
“On Friday, we get an early start and leave the hotel at around 7-7.30 am. At the circuit, we have a brief meeting with Charlie Whiting, the press, the technical and software department and with my team. Afterwards, we perform another GPS test of the circuit - this test is performed daily from Thursday through to Sunday. It’s very important, because a tracking system is built into the safety car and all other Formula 1 race cars, which not only provides an exact location of the vehicles, but also transmits the flag signals on the side of the track to the display in the car. Tests have shown that the driver can see them much better on the display - this goes a long way towards increasing safety on the circuit.
“I follow the practice session on the monitor in the FIA trucks, but I am not in my car, because there is no safety car during the practice session. If there is an accident during the session, the practice will be stopped. The Formula 1 drivers’ briefing takes place at 5 pm. During the driver briefing, the previous race and the current race are analyzed and we discuss what can be improved and how. This meeting, with all Formula 1 drivers, test drivers, FIA race stewards and myself, is led by Charlie Whiting. In the evening, I try to exercise or again go out for dinner."
“Saturday morning, the FIA arrive at the track very early and have another meeting, followed by a GPS test. I always watch the third practice session. Directly after qualifying, the countdown starts for the first F2 race. The F2 race on Saturday afternoon is pretty much the same as the Formula 1 race, just at a different time and with different cars. Saturday evening, I tend not to stay up late, because I want to be fit for the all important race day. As of Saturday, I regularly look in on our weather service to get the latest updates. In the past years, heavy rains have increasingly made the deployment of myself and the safety car necessary.”
“On the big day, we arrive at the track even earlier. It is nice watching the circuit slowly come to life and feeling everyone get excited about the day ahead. The toughest part of the day for me begins right after the GPS test. After the second F2 race, the Porsche Supercup takes place and at 1 pm, the showdown for the Formula 1 race begins.
“At 1.10 pm, my boss Charlie Whiting brings the official Formula 1 safety car to the starting grid and hands it over to me. I check the camera and the radio function one more time and make sure I get the most recent weather update - a very important part of my race preparation. At 1.50 pm, I join my co-driver in the car. We adjust our helmets, buckle up and check the radio frequency.
“At 1.55 pm, we leave the starting grid and park the car in the agreed parking position for the first lap. As soon as all cars have completed the first curve, Race Control tells us to move the safety car to the parking position for the rest of the race. During the race, I am constantly in the safety car, following the race on the monitor in my car and listening to the radio, which connects me to Race Control. Our mechanics also follow the radio from the pit lane.
“If the weather conditions worsen, or an accident occurs, I communicate with Race Control several times. I give them my opinion of the situation and I wait for their feedback. Race Control then decide whether I will be deployed or not. Along with the information I provide, Race Control takes the information of the weather station and the teams into consideration. When I get a command, I confirm it by stating what I am currently doing. It is like the relationship between an airplane pilot and air traffic control: when the pilot receives the order, he confirms it and also re-confirms his new position.
“If Race Control sees a potential need for the deployment of the safety car, I get the command ‘Safety car stand-by!’ After preparing for deployment, I wait for further commands. ‘Safety car stand-down!’ means the dangerous situation has passed, and there is no need for me to go on the track.
“If I hear ‘Safety car GO!’ I immediately drive onto the circuit and try to get in front of the leading car quickly, so that all the cars in the race can line up behind me. If I don’t succeed, I wave through all cars until the leading vehicle is behind me. During a safety car phase, safety is, obviously, essential, but I still need to maintain a certain level of speed. The speed prevents the race cars from overheating due to lack of cooling air. The teams also have a say and can influence the velocity. They inform Race Control if they want me to speed up or slow down.
"The safety car often seems slower than it is, but in actual fact, I tend to drive at my limit during the safety car phase. This means that in Monza, for example, on the main straight I drive at approximately up to 280 km/h. Just look at the figures: A Formula 1 race car on average is 35-45 seconds faster with every lap it completes, depending on the length of the track. This means that a Formula 1 car can overtake the safety car every three laps. It’s pretty incredible how well the safety car measures up.
“I stay on the circuit until the hazardous situation has been overcome. This is ultimately decided by Race Control. At the end of the second section, I switch off the warning lights. Before taking the next possible exit, I turn into the pit lane and the grid is released. Overtaking is not permitted again until after the cars have crossed the start/finish line.
“If the race finishes without a safety car phase - which is thankfully the case more often than not - I wait for the last car in the race and follow it. With this, I notify the marshals that there are no other cars coming behind me and that they can enter the circuit. If no support race takes place, my day usually ends there. After all the hard work and excitement, I like to relax and spend Sunday evenings at home.”