The FIA together with Mercedes-Benz had their own car launch recently, mirroring those of the Formula One teams by showing the world their 2010 challengers. Unlike a Formula One car though, the FIA’s is designed with safety in mind, and with this comes the new safety car for this season, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. The SLS will replace the SL63 that has been calming the pace of Formula One for a couple of years, although the FIA have stated the C63 AMG estate will continue its duties as the sport’s official medical car.
Of course, with such a dangerous sport as motor racing, it is hoped the SLS will never see much more than the rear of a Formula One grid during its time as the safety car, Maylander always following the grid down the main straight at the start of every race before pulling in to the end of the pitlane. However, although not wanted, it is very likely the SLS will at some point join the race to slow the cars will a track can be cleared.
The SLS AMG is powered by a 6.3 litre V8 engine with 571bhp. It is worth noting that a Formula One engine is limited to a 2.4 litre V8, although the performance between the two are significantly different, with the SLS getting to 100kph (62mph) from stationery in 3.8 seconds. A Formula One machine would be nearing 160kph (100mph) in this time.
While this may be one the best safety cars the sport will have seen, Formula One has seen a sharp incline in the performance of the safety car in recent years. Having to control a pack of racing drivers is no easy task and while the sport’s current choice of Mercedes-Benz do a reasonable job, it wasn’t always that way.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Formula One first saw a safety car, the Europeans taking longer to adopt the convention in comparison to the Americans (and I use those terms loosely, F1 usually being considered America’s open-wheel equivalent). In ’73 it was the Porsche 914/6 that had to lead a field of Formula One cars, and with a 110bhp generated from a 2.0 litre flat 6 engine, it did a good job of slowing down the drivers. In fact, too much of a good job, some might suggest.
Unfortunately, while the Porsche 914/6 was driven by ex-Formula One pilot Eppie Wietzes, the introduction of new rules concerning his role confused most others. At the Canadian Grand Prix, Wietzes was sent out to control the field, but ended up driving in front of the wrong car, causing half the remaining drivers to be sent a lap down incorrectly. Without electronic timers at the circuit and on the cars, it took the race officials three hours to figure out the actual finishing positions of each of the drivers. It could be said that it’s a good job the sport has moved on since then, but when the timing system failed in Hungary last year, confusion once again reigned supreme.
In 1980, Formula One upgraded the safety car to something with a bit more grunt, and Lamborghini were charged with leading the field, using the famous Countach to act as the pace-setter. However, it wasn’t until 1993 that the safety car was finally written into the rule book, with clear instructions as to what the teams and drivers could and could not do while the safety car was on the track. During the Brazilian Grand Prix that year the sport used a local-built Fiat Tempra 2.0 estate.
Opel Vectras were used in 1994, and the safety car once again became embroiled in controversy. The fatal accident involving Ayrton Senna has, to some, been put down to the ineffectiveness of the safety car. The Vectra was far too slow for a Formula One car and the brakes on it were worn out after just a couple of laps. This resulted in the tyres on Senna’s Williams being very cold at the restart of the race, which some have said contributed to the accident that followed moments later.
Learning from this, Formula One upgraded the safety car once again to a Honda Prelude, but still the car was not standard at all races and most circuits used locally-built machines, presumably with the intention of advertising their own automobile manufacturers.
Perhaps the most humorous situation a safety car has found itself in was during the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix. Again using local cars, a Tatra 613 was sent out at the control of a marshal to assist Taki Inoue who had retired his Arrows. The Arrows caught alight and as the marshal arrived at the scene, Inoue jumped out of his car only to be hit by the Tatra. Inoue escaped serious injury, but the photograph of the young Japanese driver bouncing on the bonnet of the marshal’s car will never be forgotten.
Following these worrying incidents, the FIA introduced a standard machine to act as the official safety and medical cars. AMG, who build high-performance versions of Mercedes-Benz’s cars are used and since 2000, the safety car has been driven by Bernd Maylander.
Looking at the internal photograph of the new SLS, we can see it isn’t quite as standard as the one that will go on sale soon, the car featuring two screens, one presumably showing the director’s take of the race and another presumably showing a rear view via a camera.
While the safety car still produces controversy, with two races having finished behind Maylander and Michael Schumacher completing an extra lap of a race due to the Ferrari pilot crossing the start/finish line on the final lap while in the pitlane. The reason for finishing the race in the pitlane was due to a penalty being handed to the German for passing while under the control of the safety car.
Needless to say, Bernd Maylander will once again be driving this year and leading another race. Hopefully, the reasons for Maylander’s inclusion in a grand prix will not be serious.
Image © Mercedes-Benz.