The History of Formula 1 Safety Cars

The safety car has become an integral part of motorsport in recent years. This includes Formula One, where the blistering speeds need to be brought down to lessen the chance of further collisions after a crash. There have been a few changes to safety cars and their doctrine in the past; let’s take a look through their history.

File:F1 Safety Car 2008 Canadian GP 003.jpg
ph-stop, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Robert Kubica lines up behind the safety car at the 2008 Canadian GP

The First Safety Car

The first use of a safety car was at the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix. Race organisers experimented with the system by sending a conspicuous, yellow Porsche 914 onto the track to bunch up the F1 cars following multiple accidents.

It wasn’t a great debut for the safety car however. The Porsche accidentally placed itself in front of the wrong car and thus confused timekeepers as to who was leading the race. To this day, many of the drivers in that race contest that they won the event, despite official records stating otherwise.

r/formula1 - The first time a safety car was used during an F1 race - Canada, 1973.
Source: Reddit. The first safety car, a yellow Porsche 914, at the 1973 Canadian GP

The Early Years

The safety car wasn’t officially introduced until the start of the 1993 season. A few tests in the previous year deemed it to be vital in minimising risks following incidents on track.

Between 1973 and 1993, there was another trial of the Porsche 914 conducted at the ’76 Canadian GP, as well as a one-off appearance by a Lamborghini Countach at the 1983 Monaco Grand Prix.

Many drivers complained about the slow speeds demanded by the safety car; this was because it caused engines to overheat and tyre temperatures to drop.

Some speculate that cold tyres may have played a part in Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The Brazilian driver was in first place, stuck behind a sluggish Opel Vectra as it rounded the racetrack while an earlier accident was being cleared. The impatient Senna pulled alongside the safety car several times, telling the driver to speed up as his tyres were getting too cold. Cold tyres means less grip, and this may have inadvertently caused Ayrton to go straight on at the Tamburello corner.

Italy 1994, Opel Vectra 4x4 | Ayrton senna, Ayrton, San marino grand prix
Source: Pinterest. The slow Opel Vectra at the 1994 San Marino GP, with Ayrton Senna tucked close behind

From 1993 to 1996, the safety car changed depending on the track. Therefore, we got to experience various vehicles over this short timeframe. Some of them were proper exotic machines, whereas others were dull motors you would see regularly on the street. From the boxy Fiat Tempra at the ’93 Brazilian GP to the eye-popping Lamborghini Diablo at Montreal in 1995, you truly never knew what you were going to get.

Mercedes Takes Charge

Since 1996, an agreement with the FIA has meant that all safety cars have come from Mercedes-Benz, more specifically their AMG division. The power and speed of these German-made machines has been steadily increasing over the years.

The current example, the Mercedes AMG GTR, has been in use since 2018. It has an output of 577 bhp, which is startlingly close to the numbers generated by the Formula 1 cars themselves. Hamilton, Verstappen and the rets have no trouble keeping up with the safety car though, as they have stickier tyres and weigh less than half as much.

The very first Mercedes safety car, the C36 AMG, had a measly power output of 276 bhp in comparison.

File:FIA F1 Austria 2021 Safety Car (Mercedes).jpg
Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Invisible Safety Car

One type of safety car isn’t even a physical entity. The Virtual Safety Car (VSC) has been in use from the 2015 campaign onwards. It was introduced as an additional safety measure following the death of Jules Bianchi at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

It aims to reduce speeds of F1 cars as they round the track in the event of a minor accident which doesn’t require a full on safety car. In this way, drivers are significantly less likely to spin off course into the path of recovery equipment or other stricken competitors, just as Bianchi had done on that fateful day.

The Modern Day

In 2021, an Aston Martin Vantage was used in an alternating fashion with the Mercedes AMG GTR. This is set to continue into 2022 and further seasons.

File:Aston martin vantage safety car f1 2021.jpg
Yoyodu10, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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