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Stand and deliver - A closer look at the 2015 safety car restart rule change

Published by Christine

The World Motor Sport Council’s recent updates to the future F1 regulations have, as always, raised eyebrows. I’ve been quite unmoved by a lot of the changes that Formula One has undergone over the past few years, but even I can see that deliberately messing with the undertray material to try and force the return of sparks is unnecessary and about as gimmicky as it gets. The recent rule addition that is getting most of the attention, however, is the introduction of standing starts after a safety car period.

Start as you mean to go on

Initially, it wasn’t clear how this could work, but the FIA have clarified exactly how the new safety car process will play out next season. In theory it should now go something like this:

F1 race start Austrian Grand Prix
Credit: Allianz SE
  • Incident occurs
  • Safety car is called
  • Cars slow behind the safety car as per usual
  • Lapped cars are given the instruction to pass the train and rejoin the back of the pack
  • Once cars are in the right order, the “safety car in this lap” message will be given
  • The safety car will pull into the pit lane
  • Cars are required to pull to a stop on the grid, in the current running order
  • The gantry lights will show, just as at the start of the race
  • Race is restarted

The FIA’s reason for doing this appears to be to make restarts more interesting and spice up the racing action. Whoever made this suggestion surely missed the point entirely if they think the restart is the worst part of a safety car period, and ought to be looking at delays relating to the lapped cars overtaking. They are also missing a significant opportunity for safety improvement that might have helped this change go over a little better.

If, instead of just pulling the cars to a halt at the end of the safety car period, they actually did away with the safety car and just called for a red flag, cars could stop on the grid and allow whatever clean up of whichever incident has occurred to continue unhindered. Marshals could safely flood the track without major concern for their wellbeing, and we wouldn’t need to watch those heartstopping moments when a brave marshal makes a dash for some debris.

There would also be less chance that a following car, innocently meandering around a lap, will run through the accident area and pick up debris or punctures. It doesn't seem fair for another car to be caught up in the aftermath when they had nothing to do with the original incident. It could equally be argued that motorsport isn't designed to be fair and these variables add to the drama of a race.

There is a compromise to be had here, because a proper red flag period involves stopping the cars, switching off the engines, and getting the mechanics out from the garages with their laptop starters. That takes time, but it’s time that would be spent trailing behind the safety car anyway. In an era of fuel saving, and trying to promote green principles, it might be better to have the cars stationary rather than traipsing around in an actual procession (something F1 has been accused of at the best of times, let alone the worst).

The safety car leads the way in Monaco
Credit: Allianz SE

I'll stand by you

Obviously starting an F1 car from cold would burn additional fuel and the FIA would need to do a study on the crossover period - how many laps behind the safety car are equal to or more than the fuel used firing up on the grid. They may have already done these calculations and decided their option is the best, but if so, they haven't shared any of that data. Letting us know what is behind this decision would help enormously, but that's a post for another day.

Full grid starts would mean team personnel making an extra appearance during the race, which is a great opportunity to highlight and remind that F1 is a team sport. It might also raise the profile of some of the lesser known mechanics, there are plenty of personalities in the garage we need to see. The proposed setup doesn’t involve switching the engines off, but does involve movement in the garages anyway. Those strategists and engineers perched on the pit wall are required to move back to the safety of the garage, all bar two personnel per team.

We already heard from some of the drivers that aren’t keen on the change. Daniel Ricciardo suggested it wouldn’t be fair on drivers who had already had their hard-earned lead quashed by the safety car. Fernando Alonso wasn’t so worried, saying he’d tried rolling restarts and standing restarts and either works.

Race Director Charlie Whiting has tried to ease any concerns. He highlights the two areas that have been reported to him - the fairness of the ruling and the danger of standing starts on worn tyres - and he dismisses them both. Particularly regarding the tyres, Whiting suggests if a driver's tyres are too worn they should come into the pit lane anyway.

If you say a second standing start is dangerous, then it presupposes that the first one is as well. Of course, you are more likely statistically to have incidents at standing starts than at any other time in the race. But no driver wants that to happen and no driver will cause it to happen. I don't believe there is any added risk personally.

- Charlie Whiting, FIA Race Director

With the FIA issuing at least two clarifications on the proposed regulation tweak and brushing away any of the complaints from within the paddock, it looks as though this rule will be one that sticks. As with most unpopular decisions, it may be that it gets tried for one year to see how it works out. Whatever happens, Formula One's governing body have stuck their neck out with this one and aren't going to back down. This time next year, either they'll be feeling smug, or they'll have a lot of explaining to do.