Then and Now – Safety Car Use in Formula 1…too much?

Photo by: Aaron Andino at

While the first recorded use of a Pace Car in Formula 1 was the Canadian Grand Prix of 1973, this race was a confused affair, with the lap scorers struggling to record the cars through the spray, and the Porsche 914 Pace Car picking up the wrong car when it was deployed, which allowed the leaders to gain a lap on the rest of the field. It is fair to say that this first use of a car to control the pace of the F1 field was not an outstanding success.

It took until 1993 before the use of a Safety Car was written into the F1 regulations.  This followed successful trials at the French and British Grand Prix weekends in 1992.  The change in name was important, this wouldn’t be used to merely control the pace of the cars to ‘spice up the show’, but would only be deployed as a safety measure to allow the cars to continue circulating while marshals were working trackside.  It was an alternative to a red flag and race stoppage.  With TV coverage becoming more important (and the TV rights more expensive), there was a greater need for the show to run to time so that expensive satellite air time could be used to cover the race.  We didn’t have to wait long for this new idea to be used in anger, at the second race of the year in Brazil it rained sufficiently for the Safety Car to be deployed.  A Fiat Tempra had been obtained for the job, and led the field until the weather improved.  Fortunately this was the only use of the Safety car that season (sixteen races).  AT this stage, the choice of car was down to the local promoter, and a variety were used depending upon the arrangements made by each circuit.

In 1994 the Safety Car was used twice, the first lime was at the third event of the year in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.  After a bad accident for Rubens Barrichello on the Friday, and the death of Roland Ratzenberger on the Saturday, a start line crash that sent debris into the grandstand added to the miserable weekend.  An Opel Vectra (even the most powerful in the range) was not up to circulating fast enough to allow the F1 cars to keep sufficient heat in the tyres, and the resultant loss of temperature and pressure is suspected to have contributed to Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident a lap after the race restarted.  The Safety Car made a second appearance in 1994, this time at Suzuka where a Honda Prelude was the car of choice.  It was deployed because of poor weather conditions, and when the rain didn’t ease the race was eventually red flagged, restarting only when the circuit dried sufficiently.

There was just a single use of the Safety Car in 1995, this time it was a Porsche 911 GT2, deployed at Spa when the Belgian round of the championship was affected by poor weather (one out of seventeen races).  In 1996 it was deployed at two events from the seventeen race championship.  In Argentina a Renault Clio Williams was used after Luca Badoer had an accident and left his car in a dangerous position.  Whilst at Spa, Jos Verstappen managed to spin exiting the pit lane, and this required a Mercedes C36 AMG to be deployed.

By 1997, the FIA had realised that some cars were not suitable for the role, and no doubt for a suitable fee, negotiated with Mercedes for the provision of a permanent fleet of Safety and Medical  Cars.  The Safety Car was required at four of the seventeen race series.  The impacted races were Argentina, Canada, Britain and Belgium.  The following year, the Safety Car was required four times from the sixteen races, at Canada (three times in the race), Britain (just once), Austria (once) and twice in Belgium.

In 1999 it was deployed at five of the sixteen events, twice in Australia, three times in Canada including the first chequered flag behind a Safety Car, once in France, twice in Britain and once at the European Grand Prix, held that year at the Nurburgring.

The number of deployments continued to rise in 2000, with six of the seventeen races lapping behind the Safety Car.  Australia required a single use, then a long gap until Austria (one deployment), Germany (two), Belgium (one), Italy (one) and a single use in Malaysia.

There was a slight fall in 2001 to only five of seventeen races being behind the Safety Car in 2001, and at each event it was only required once.   The Grands Prix affected were Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Austria and Canada.  Some locations were certainly showing a greater tendency to attract Safety Car deployments.

The improvement in driving standards continued in 2002, with the Safety Car only required at three races, the ever popular locations of Australia, Austria and Canada.  Each required just a single deployment.  This apparent improvement was short lived; by 2003 the Safety Car was required at seven of the sixteen events.  Twice in Australia, four times in Brazil, once in Spain, once in Austria, once in Monaco, twice in Britain and once in Germany.

The following year (2004) Ferrari had reasserted their dominance (like in 2002), and the number of race impacted by the Safety Car fell to just four, even though the number of race increase to eighteen.  It is possible that the greater field spread in these years meant that there was a reduced probability of cars being close enough together on track to cause incidents that warranted a Safety Car.  Deployments were required in Monaco (twice), USA (twice), Britain (once) and Belgium (three times).

In 2005 the number of impacted races rose again to eight, but the total number of races in the year had risen to nineteen for the season.  The races affected were in Spain, Monaco, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Brazil, Japan and twice in China.  In 2006 the number of races fell to eighteen, but the number affected by Safety Car Deployments rose again to a new high of ten races.  With some races having multiple deployments the number of deployments rose as well to thirteen.  Races affected were in Australia (three times), San Marino, Europe (Nurburgring), Monaco, Britain, Canada (twice), USA, Hungary, Turkey and Brazil.

The total number of races fell again in 2007, down to just seventeen, and the number affected by Safety Cars also fell, but at a greater rate, down to just five races.  The championship that year was closely fought between McLaren and Ferrari, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that close racing means a lot of Safety Car deployments.  The races impacted were in Bahrain, Canada (twice), Europe (Nurburgring), Italy and Japan (twice).

In 2008 the number of races increased back up to eighteen, and the well behaved drivers of the previous year seemed to forget themselves, and exactly half of the races spent some time running behind the Safety Car.  The nine races affected were Australia (three times), Spain (twice), Turkey, Monaco (twice), Canada, Germany, Italy, Singapore (twice) and Brazil.

A rule change in 2009 saw Brawn dominant initially, followed by Red Bull in the later part of the season. This may have contributed to a drop in the number of Safety Car affected races, down to seven of the seventeen Grands Prix held that year.  These were in Australia (twice), China (twice), Spain, Belgium, Singapore, Japan and Brazil. Two more races in total the following year brought the number of Grand Prix up to nineteen in 2010, and this saw a disproportionate increase in the number of time drivers spent following the Safety Car.  Twelve races were affected, with a total of twenty times the Safety car was deployed (a record that has yet to be equalled).  It is worrying to think that if it wasn’t for the Safety Car, there would have been twenty occasions when the red flag would have stopped races that year.  The Grands Prix affected were held in Australia, China (twice), Monaco (four times), Europe (Valencia), Britain, Hungary, Belgium (twice), Singapore (twice), Japan, Korea (three times), Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

There were nineteen race again in 2011, but the Safety Car was less busy, only needing to appear at seven events, although for a total of twelve occasions.  The races affected were Monaco (twice), Canada (a weather related five times), Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan and Korea.   The Canada race brings to mind the fact that increasingly the Safety Car was used at the start of races when the track was wet, partly because the rake of the cars had now gotten so extreme, that in the wet weather the car would aquaplane as the front of the ‘plank’ would lift the front tyres off the road as it hit any standing water.  The wish to have audience friendly TV schedules had also meant that races in the Far East were held late in the day locally, and at a time of year when rain could reasonably be expected at these times of day.

For the first time in 2012 there were twenty race in the season.  Nine races spent some time running behind the Safety Car, although the total number of deployments dropped to just eleven.  Once more the Safety Car made its first appearance at the opening event in Australia, followed by Malaysia, Monaco, Europe (Valencia), Belgium, Singapore, Japan, Abu Dhabi (twice) and Brazil (twice).

With the number of events dropping back to nineteen in 2013, the number of Safety Car appearances also fell to single figures (nine) in just six Grand Prix.  These were Monaco (three times), Britain (twice), Germany, Singapore, Korea and USA.

The new rules in 2014 this time saw an increase in the number of Safety Cars, a total of fourteen deployments affecting eleven of the eighteen events.  Starting as usual at the opening round in Australia and continuing in Bahrain, Monaco (twice), Canada (twice), Britain, Germany, Hungary (twice), Singapore, Japan (twice) and USA.  The tragic events in Japan, with the accident that eventually caused the death of Jules Bianchi, saw F1 react to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar incident.  The Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was proposed, and tested over the final three events of the year. These proved successful and the system was introduced from the start of 2015.   The VSC was to take the place of double waved yellow flags when heavy machinery was required to lift stricken cars to a place of safety behind the barrier.  The Safety Car was still available to be used in place of a red flag, when the marshals needed to be able to work on the racing surface itself (to move cars or clear debris).

In 2015 the number of vents remained at nineteen, the number of Safety Car deployments increased to a total of fifteen, with the new VSC being used on three occasions.  In total twelve Grand Prix were affected, these were Australia, Malaysia, China, Monaco, Austria, Britain (one SC and one VSC), Hungary, Belgium, Singapore (two SC), Russia (two SC), USA (two SC and two VSC) and Mexico.

In 2016 the number of races returned to twenty for the season, and with the VSC now proven, its use increased, being used on a total of ten occasions.  Add to this thirteen Safety Car deployments, and a total of fourteen Grands Prix were impacted, these were Australia, China, Russia, Spain, Monaco (one SC and three VSC), Canada (one VSC), Austria, Britain (one SC and one VSC), Belgium (one SC and one VSC), Singapore, Malaysia (three VSC), USA (one VSC), Mexico and Brazil (three SC).

The number of Grands Prix remained at twenty for 2017, there was one more Safety Car deployment than in 2016 but four fewer VSC.  In total fifteen races spent some time circulating slowly under SC or VSC conditions.  These were China (one SC and one VSC), Bahrain, Russia, Spain (one VSC), Monaco, Canada (one SC and one VSC), Azerbaijan, Britain, Hungary, Belgium, Singapore (three SC), Japan (one SC and two VSC), Mexico (one VSC) and Brazil.  At 75% of the Grands Prix, this has been the highest number of races impacted in a season since the introduction of the Safety Car

In 2018 the season has stretched to twenty one events.  At the time of writing ten of these Grands Prix have been held, and every single one has been impacted by the Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car.  So far this season the Safety Car has been deployed on eight occasions and the Virtual Safety Car used on six occasions.  Australia (one VSC), Bahrain (one VSC), China (one SC), Azerbaijan (two SC), Spain (one SC and one VSC), Monaco (one VSC), Canada (one SC), France (one SC and one VSC), Austria (one VSC) and Britain (two SC).

The following two graphs show the steady increase of the use of Safety Cars (both real and virtual) since their introduction.

I do wonder whether these are now being used to ‘spice up the show’ rather than purely to increase safety for those at the track.  If the Safety Car is there as an alternative to a red flag, then driving standards have dropped off dramatically, and if club racers (where there aren’t such expensive luxuries as safety cars available) had this number of red flags, then they wouldn’t be allowed to continue racing.  I am not against safety, but with every single race held this season impacted by running behind either the SC or VSC there is something wrong.  What are your thoughts?




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I also recall that there were times when a safety car (or VSC) was deployed because a car suffered some sort of mechanical breakdown and it was parked in such a way that the mechanics couldn’t safely remove it. How many times has this occurred?

Alianora La Canta

I’d go so far as to say that last year, VSC would have been used for it.

However, there were concerns that Turn 1 was becoming an established crash zone and one car could follow another into it, even with DRS switched off.


As we say across the “pond”, “Cautions breed cautions.”


a deeply informative article, but didn’t i hear JT say, a few years back, that the VSC would eventually replace the actual car?


Has the fact the teams have figured out how to ‘game’ VSC lead to the situation where a Safety car is still prefered to ensure cars aren’t speeding past marshals?

Alianora La Canta

Yes – before he realised there was still a point to keeping the Safety Car in the armory, and before several VSCs got turned into SCs due to underestimating the size of the problem.

VSCs have turned out to be more difficult to implement, and applicable in fewer situations, than initially hoped.


Insightful stuff Dave. The safety car has become so much a part of the scenery that it really hadn’t occured to me that its use has been ramping up and up. I guess that part of the picture has to be the changes in attitude to Health and Safety across the board. The acceptability of exposing drivers and marshals to risk has changed radically over the years, so the pressure on Charlie Whiting and his guys to deploy the safety car will be ramping up. And I also wonder if the number of cameras and sensors around the circuits is… Read more »


There is probably something in that Dave, though I do remember watching the 94 San Marino GP, and that there was a very strong reaction from Murray Walker to Ratezenburger’s death, and the terrifying accident that Barachello had in practice. We’ll never know if those two incidents would have had as much effect on circuit and car safety as Senna’s death the following day. Probably not, but I doubt they’d have been glossed over. As you say, most people don’t watch sport to see injuries or deaths, though I do wonder about some of the posters on F1 sites who… Read more »

Alianora La Canta

I know two people face-to-face who cheerfully admit they only watch F1 for the crashes and danger element. Suffice to say we don’t discuss motorsport with each other very much…


I hear the same thing about NASCAR


Is the SC deployed now due to high high impact deceleration threshold? I seem to remember that above a certain G force it will trigger the FIA to deploy the SC.


Yeah, I remembered that after I posted. It’s the medical car that gets deployed. During one of the races it was mentioned that the SC was deployed since the MC was deployed.

Alianora La Canta

Medical Car is, unless the marshals are able to quickly verify the driver is out and in a state where they are confident that quick delivery to the Medical Centre is possible.

However, if the Medical Car is on track, that is by definition a slow car, so the Safety Car would have to be deployed until the Medical Car is in a safe location again.

Glenn W

If as much tech was spent trying to improve the speed and efficiency with which stricken cars and debris is removed from the track, as is spent on “the show” perhaps we could reduce the frequency of safety car/VSC deployment. The fact we have marshals with brushes sweeping the track and JCB tractors moving stricken cars seems archaic


Bigger run off areas! Less things to hit, and further from the racing when they do stop. (Only kidding a bit).
What kind of things to you envisage to clear debris and incapacitated cars more quickly?

Alianora La Canta

I think the primary reason is that driving standards have been encouraged to fall due to inconsistent stewarding, over-complicated rules that mean less incentive to try to obey, bad attitudes towards signalling, ever-younger drivers having ever-less experience of the consequences of bad driving and a feeling that junior series are more tightly-enforced than F1 (leading to drivers thinking they can relax their standards upon reaching F1). In the early days of Safety Cars, the concept of unwritten rules still existed, albeit in a hazy form that was better adhered to at the back of the grid than the front. (And… Read more »


Some other thoughts on safety cars. Apart from last weekends tactical call from Vettel about getting the SC to slow down, the call is always that they are too slow. How quick do they need to be to allow the F1 cars to keep their tyres up to temperature? And what sort of vehicle would be necessary to run at F1 warm tyre pace? Maybe the Hypercar manufacturers could use this as a means to push the credentials of their machines. If the SC were a McLaren P1, La Ferrari, Porsche 918, Rimac Concept 2, etc, fans might look forward… Read more »


Not going to be sucked into the ‘what would be the fastest / coolest safety car game’ then, lol. There are incidents when the ‘safest’ response is to group the cars, so the marshals have periods of unconstrained track access. So they’re appropriate for the pace car / safety car. But, notionally at least, the VSC system could provide for that and all other marshaling scenarios, allow the cars to run at faster (tyre warming) speeds away from the incident scene, and minimise the time until racing recommences. So no doubt that will be the future, however, it would still… Read more »

Tom Firth

Slightly off topic but did the FIA really change its name from ‘pace’ to ‘safety’ car to detail its new role? I always just assumed Pace Car was American English and Safety Car was English.

Tom Firth

I’ll definitely take his and your word for it then :-)


The bigger difference is that the “pace car” in the USA gets deployed when any situation requires a caution / yellow flag