AMG Mercedes Formula One Safety CarHeading into this season, there were changes to certain rules in Formula 1 including those which concerned the period when the Safety Car was on track.

The Safety Car is only deployed when there has been a crash or some other such incident which has caused the race officials to conclude the circuit is in a condition which makes it unsafe for the cars to continue at race speeds. Because the lap times were therefore increased as the cars were driving much slower, it was an ideal time to make a pitstop to take on more fuel as you would in essence lose less time relative to the cars still on track.

Because of this, when it was announced that the Safety Car had been deployed, the drivers would make a dash back to the pits - often at speeds not much slower than full race speed, so that they would lose as little time as possible during the pitstop procedure. This caused the governing body, the FIA, some concerns as it was concievable for these drivers to have another accident or add to one which had already caused the Safety Car to come out in the first place.

So this year, they revised these rules so that effectively the pitlane is closed as soon as the Safety Car takes to the track, thus removing the need for cars to continue at high speeds - also while the Safety Car is on track, there is no overtaking anyway. Previously the cars lined up behind the car in the order that they caught up with it, which often led to there being a mixture of leading cars and lapped cars all mixed up - but the revised rules now allow these lapped cars to overtake the Safety Car in order to regain their true position at the rear of the pack.

Once this has been done, the pitlane reopens so that cars may pit - as this is going to be after a lap or two behind the Safety Car then there isn’t a huge train of drivers racing back to the pits as there would be back in the “olden days”.

Thankfully, the Safety Car isn’t something that we see in F1 all that often and last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix was the first time we got to see these new rules in action. And it was also the second, third and fourth times we got to see it as well! This GP always has a high chance of there being a Safety Car period, but to see four is unusual.

As with any rule change, there were some teams who benefitted from them and have therefore not complained too much, and there have been some teams who coped with them disasterously and have called for them to be amended immediately. Whenever something new is introduced, there is always going to be a period of transition where the changes will take some time for people to understand and in effect get used to them.

With the Safety Car not being used at every race, then it means this transition period will be longer than for any changes to qualifying for example.

Looking at the complaints, there are the usual mumblings which are directed at the whole idea of change in general - and these are the kind of complaints that would be made about any change no matter what it was.

The big losers in the Safety Car periods in Montreal, were Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg, Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso. Massa and Fisichella both pitted while the Safety Car was out, but made an error which even normal road drivers know not to do - they drove through the red light at the end of the pitlane without stopping. When the Safety Car is approaching the area of the track where the exit of the pits rejoins the circuit, no cars are allowed to exit the pitlane as this is deemed as being too dangerous considering there may be a Safety Car plus up to 21 F1 cars bearing down on that area.

As this was blatent driver error, there’s not a lot anyone could do to improve this area - there have been calls for the red light to be more prominent, and also questions raised over whether the light should have been on at all. Whether it should have been on or not, the drivers should have obeyed it.

Alonso and Rosberg weren’t so lucky. The previous Safety Car rules encouraged drivers to make a pitstop even if it wasn’t necessarily planned for that particular lap, such was the advantage to be had that teams often rearranged their whole race strategy to take advantage of the good fortune of there being a Safety Car period. The rule changes were really designed to cut down on this kind of behaviour - not to stop drivers making extra pitstops as such, but to cut out the mad dashes back to the pits that so often happened.

In Canada, neither Alonso nor Rosberg wanted to take advantage of the Safety Car period, they were simply running out of fuel and needed a top-up. McLaren and Williams both argue that they had no choice but to bring in their drivers even though the pitlane was officially closed, otherwise their cars would have run out of fuel. For these two drivers to be penalised with a 10 second stop and go penalty seems a bit harsh, and effectively ruined their races.

If the race director had deemed their pitstops unnecessary then the penalty would be suitable, but surely there is a way to determine just how necessary a pitstop is - this is the technological pinnacle of sport after all. The teams are rightly very guarded as to the fuel levels in their car, but the obvious answer would be for the information regarding this to be available as a live feed to the race director - a feed which wouldn’t be available to other teams or (unfortunately) the viewing public, but would allow them to decide whether or not a driver really had less than a laps worth of fuel left in the tank.

The other option, if the rules are not changed, is for teams to bring their drivers in early every time - thereby pitting while there is still a couple of laps worth of fuel in the tank, then if the Safety Car comes out on their in-lap they will have enough fuel left to see them through the lap or two until the pitlane reopens.

Personally, I’d like to see this investigated a little further. The rules which allow the cars to reorder themselves back into the correct race order made the restarts better in my opinion as there were no backmarkers in between the main contenders which should have allowed more potential for overtaking.

But the penalties for Alonso and Rosberg were harsh in the extreme and I think it’s this area which requires a slight rethink.