Bad safety car rules catch out Heidfeld

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Nick Heidfeld, Fernando Alonso, Barcelona, 2008, 470150

Formula 1’s ill thought-out safety car rules ruined Nick Heidfeld’s race today. The BMW driver was leading when the safety car came out following Heikki Kovalainen’s crash, and even though he had two laps of fuel to spare he was forced to pit while the pit lane was closed, meaning he incurred an unavoidable penalty.

How long is it going to take them to fix these rules? We’ve known since last year they weren’t working properly. I even pointed it out in the 2007 season preview.

Everyone remembers the row that broke out at McLaren over their management of the safety car rules at Monaco. And at Canada Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg’s races were spoiled by the appearance of the safety car.

Complaining about the rules after today’s race BMW’s Mario Theissen acknowledged the teams are trying to get the rules changed before those two races, which often see several safety car appearances:

We tried to call Nick in but it was maybe two seconds too late – he had just passed the pitlane entry so there was no choice.

We could do another two laps and then we had to call him in. We knew it would be a 10-second penalty but there was nothing we could do about it. I know the team managers and the FIA are discussing this rule already and I hope they will come up with a solution soon.

It would be good if we get something before these races.

They clearly need to put in a short-term fix, such as only having the pits closed for a maximum of one lap, so that team know to always leave one lap’s worth of fuel in their cars.

In the long-term, I think they should just ban refuelling (which they couldn’t do tomorrow because the teams would need time to build larger fuel tanks). Allow the cars to make tyres stops if they want, but ban refuelling during the races.

It doesn’t make the races exciting anyway – I can’t remember a single race where I thought “wow, what an exciting strategic contest” but I can think of dozens that left me buzzing because of a scintillating pass or battle for position.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 38 comments on “Bad safety car rules catch out Heidfeld”

    1. Maybe it could be changed so that the pits open as soon as all cars have caught up to the safety car. No idea whether or not that would work or not, though.

    2. Assuming it’s early enough in the race, I agree with Rohan – as soon as the last car passes the pit entrance then the pitlane should open.  That would mean they could start pitting next time round and as the safety car would be in the way then they couldn’t rush round just to pit.

    3. Pedro Andrade
      27th April 2008, 19:29

      Rohan: I believe that’s exactly what happens now.

    4. I just have a question about these safety car rules.  The way I see it, F1’s SC rules are practically identical to the caution rules Indycar and NASCAR have.  Why do their teams seem perfectly alright with it while the F1 teams keep on having problems with it?  I’ve always thought of it as: if the NASCAR and Indycar teams can live with it, surely the F1 teams can live with it too?

    5. Indycar has a related but separate system, at least on ovals (not sure if it’s the same on street courses): if this is nonsense correct me, I might have misunderstood it. If the SC comes out, the pitlane closes. If you absolutely need to stop, you are allowed to come in, but literally ONLY for a "splash and dash" – enough fuel to keep you going until the pitlane opens proper, and then you can make your pitstop proper.

      That’s better, but not perfect – it’ll still ruin your track position.

      But I think the American oval mentality tend to chalk up this misfortune a bit differently to the European road race mentality – they have so many "full course cautions" (SC’s) that people’s races are routinely ruined by this sort of thing and so noone really bothers about it. Couple that with the fuel-saving ethos of the oval races and you see that this sort of thing tennds to just be accepted as "one of those things". In F1 SC’s are fairly uncommon (Canada apart) and people getting screwed happens a lot less (though still too much and too drastically for my liking).

    6. I just think we forgot to mention in all this how well Heidfeld was doing – he still had 2 laps of fuel in the car. Could have given Hamilton a run for his money today (the Ferrari’s definitely toned down their engines – they were quicker than it seemed today)

    7. This rule has to change! Imagine the final race of the season, two guys head to head for the title and one of them is bitten by this stupid safety car rule giving the other guy the title – how hollow would that be! I agree in the long run we should ban refueling, it is expensive and dangerous.

      Why not give retrospective bans for drivers that go through the 3 yellow flag posts before the accident area too fast. Make these big and punishing penalties to scare drivers off from driving fast while there are yellow flags and a safety car. If they have the power to remove them from the result of that race or the next one, I am sure drivers would respect that.

    8. Michael Counsell
      27th April 2008, 23:23

      I think they just need to be cleverer about picking up the leader, getting everyone queued up and opening the pitlane.  Heidfeld had to have some kind of penalty otherwise he would have gained a massive advantage over everyone who could have pitted legally and emerged behind Heidfeld.  All they had to do was shuffle him to the back of the queue the stop go penalty is excessive.

      Safety cars are random events that can happen and is one of the reasons for wanting to top earlier than your rivals, its just a strategical aspect that evens itself out in the end.  On the other hand stopping early can put you behind slower cars who haven’t stopped yet or there might be a gap.  Its just as uncontrollable as a safety car coming out but more common and less damaging.

    9. I don’t agree on several points, Michael:

      How would Heidfeld have gained a massive advantage? He was in front of a queue of cars, all of which had about 20 laps more fuel than him?

      And it doesn’t "even itself out in the end" – last year Alonso and Rosberg got screwed at Montreal and that it was – it never happened to anyone else (as far as I can remember anyway). The points Alonso might have scored that day would have been quite handy come Interlagos…

    10. theRoswellite
      27th April 2008, 23:31

      Agree with Scott Joslin, the key question from Keith was, "How long is it going to take them to fix these rules?"  The answer may be right after a championship is ruined.  Hopefully not. 

      You’ll have to forgive the FIA, they’re a bit preoccupied at the moment.

    11. Don’t worry, Roswellite.  At the rate this championship is going, I don’t think we need to worry about it getting ruined this year.

    12. In these days of telemetries and computers smart enough to know all manner of things, why don’t the FIA only punish someone for pitting under SC when they didn’t really need to? After all, surely it would be a small matter to find out who was doing their last last on vapours of fuel and therefore had no choice but to pit, and those who were just taking advantage of the situation.

    13. Can’t they just impose a maximum speed limit round the track, so that not only people needing to pit would do so safely and without gaining excess advantage over others, but also reducing the possibility of drivers spinning while trying to catch the Safety Car queue again? Oh sorry, that was prevented when Bernie took out the fibreoptic loop at the end of 2002 because he couldn’t get the team bosses to pay £40m to subsidise his strategically and tactically flawed foray into digital pay-per-view television…

    14. Frequent safety car ‘interventions’ normally will lead to (the strategic race) loosing its steam… The racing momentum being disturbed.

      How about going for the extreme? …No safety car, just yellow flagging! Sounds crazzzzzy, but will be exiting racing.

    15. It will be unfair to change the rules now, because it has already affected some drivers already, even if these same drivers get penalized in future again, it will be consistent with the current rules. While the rule hopes to solve one problem, it creates a problem of its own and does nothing to reward the hard work of drivers and teams, rather it only serves to punish. F1 is not musical chairs.

    16. Maybe…
      Scrap the rule
      every driver running through the sector that has the yellow flags must either be
      A) Under the control of the safety car or,
      B) Operated with their pit lane speed limiter on.

      That way you could still dive in the pits and fang around to catch up with the queue, but you would be at a safe speed at the incident.

    17. There is another way to deal with this surely…

      When the safety car is deployed we note the race order.

      Anyone can pit during this time.

      Everyone then returns to the order they were in before the pitstop.

      Anyone who stopped under the safety car gets a stop and go to compensate for the "free" pitstop which they have to take within the usual six (from memory) laps.

      If we keep refueling then this seems the fairest way.

    18. Robert Mckay
      28th April 2008, 8:32

      We could just get rid of refuelling altogether.

    19. Or just leave the pit lane open and make sure the driver’s know they cannot speed in the area of the incident. They have a radio so they will know where it is and just make sure the punishment is severe – banning of certain number of races or docking of many points as two examples.

    20. Alex Andronov  (There is another way to deal with this surely…When the safety car is deployed we note the race order. Anyone can pit during this time.Everyone then returns to the order they were in before the pitstop.)
      The problem with your suggestion Alex is that it would go aginst early pit stoppers from the lap before the safety car, as they would rejoin the race further down and would have to stay there.

    21. michael counsell
      28th April 2008, 14:19

      The rule is the same for everyone Heidfeld was just unlucky.  If the safety car came out a few laps earlier drivers behind Heidfeld may have had to pit during yet Heidfeld wouldn’t.  They would then end up leap frogging him when he did pit.  It’s just unlucky that he was the only one who had to do it.  There are always winners and losers but the priority is safety.  Heidfeld lost 4 points this race but gained 2 or 3 in Melbourne due to the same reasons.

    22. As Robert and others suggest, ban fuel stops. Have cars start with a full tank to last the whole race, and we’ll all see what the real performance of the cars are. They can still pit for tyres, but there will be no short or long fuelling just racing, that’s what we want, keep it simple.

    23. All the cars run an FIA Electronic Control Unit thingy. (Sorry not being very techy today). Well why can’t they implement a speed \ rev limiter on it as soon as the SC is deployed. That way all the cars are limited centrally by race control? Obviously a drastic limit would not work but a 10 \ 15 second pre-warning to reduce speed should be enough to avoid any mechanical failures due to sudden rev limitation?
      The speed reduction could mean that the pits could remain open during SC periods.

    24. "The rule is the same for everyone Heidfeld was just unlucky.  If the safety car came out a few laps earlier drivers behind Heidfeld may have had to pit during yet Heidfeld wouldn’t.  They would then end up leap frogging him when he did pit.  It’s just unlucky that he was the only one who had to do it."

      I think there’s two separate issues here. I don’t think the issue is Heidfeld losing track position – that’s probably always going to happen to someone (it usually did under the old rules anyway). But the problem is more to do with why the rules are such that Heidfeld had to get a stop-go penalty because if he didn’t come in at that time he would have stopped on track anyway! That’s the dumbass thing!

    25. Chalky, I think there would be huge safety implications with that – could you really rely on a signal broadcast from the centre of the track to reach all the cars and have them all deccelerate at exactly the same time? If just one car got the signal just a second or so late it could cause a major crash.

    26. My dad came up with an idea – insist that everyone going past a yellow flag (under any circumstances, not just a Safety Car) must deploy the speed limiter. This would be connected to a big light at the back of the car (he suggested green to avoid confusion with the rain light, which currently lights up for both rain and pit lane limiter usage) so that people behind the first car would know that the driver in front had engaged the limit (to avoid collisions through speed differentials). Enforcement could be done using yellow-flag marshalls holding speed measurements at their posts (a few posts’ grace being given to drivers because of the vagaries of where a car may be in relation to the posts when the flags begin to wave) and a stop/go penalty would be sufficient punishment.

      These requirements would be waived for anyone who was in the Safety Car queue, since the Safety Car would dictate what was a safe speed. Inability to keep up with the Safety Car, inability for drivers to navigate the course safety even with the speed limiter engaged or inability to see the extra light due to spray would all be grounds for a red flag.

      Since Safety Car periods involve full-course yellows, the moment a Safety Car was deployed everyone would need to hit their speed limiters and therefore all be at a safe speed. The pits would remain open for anyone wishing to use them, without penalty. In fact, you could theoretically dispense with the Safety Car altogether, though it would probably remain to make it easier on overheating components.

    27. Keith – Yes I thought of that, hence the 10 \ 15 second warning before deployment. All drivers would see the waved yellows with the SC board and prepare to slow down ready to deploy the limiter. Then after a set time deploy the limiter.
      Also, all the teams have radio contact now. Plus, I would assume that each cars limiter should be able to report back to the FIA race control that it is functioning correctly before any changes are made. Any faulty units would require radio contact to the driver to deploy a manual limit.

    28. or just get rid of refuelling :D

    29. That’s still my favourite Chalky 8-)

    30. just rev limit to 10000 for all the cars when the SC appears.

    31. I’m surprised the teams haven’t started pitting their cars when they have, say, three laps worth of fuel left as opposed to being on fumes – that way if the SC does come out and close the pitlane they have a margin of error whilst they wait for it to open.

      But clearly compromising optimal strategy on the off-chance the SC will come out at the exact moment you need to pit is not a preferred option.

    32. wt… chalky already said that :)

       I agree!

    33. The punishment must fit the "crime". There are to much punishment for no intentional "crime". It is a little bit sadic.

    34. Whatever happened to red flags?

    35. Never thought an idea of mine would get this far! :D
      FIA looking at using the ECU to provide a speed limit on deployment of the safety car. See:

      The report states that any change will be too late for Monaco and Canada, 2 tracks that you’ll almost guarantee a safety car coming out.

    36. So they’re not going to have this fixed for Monte-Carlo or Montreal then? That could be a problem…

      We had a discussion about whether the safety car rules might end up affecting the championship last year: Debate: Will the safety car decide the title?

    37. It’s going to be a frustrating few races while this rule is sorted out. Hopefully the new rule might work reasonably well. Still, the delay may well change the course of the championship.

    38. Singapore and Valencia are bound to have lots of safety car action as well, and look at where they are on the calendar…

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