Thursday, 28 October 2010

Looking back: F1's first foray with the safety car

The safety car is very much the part of the fabric of F1 these days. Indeed, it led 24 laps of the 55 laps of the Korean race last weekend, and has led 78 F1 race laps this season. That's more than double that of Felipe Massa!

Having been an integral part of the racing scene in the USA since the year dot, the safety car was introduced to F1 in its current form midway through the 1992 season. Minimising disruption of TV schedules from race stoppages was part of the reason for the move, though a desire to potentially 'spice up the show' in a season in which the Williams FW14Bs (more to the point, Mansell's FW14B) were running away with virtually every race also concentrated minds.

Less well known is that there was an earlier attempt at bringing the safety car, or 'pace car' as it was known then, to F1 races. Given their experience, it's little wonder that the idea was abandoned for almost two decades subsequently.

The year was 1973, and up until that point stopping races wasn't the done thing. Races continued unabated pretty much no matter what, even in incidents of extreme horror such as Lorenzo Bandini's fiery and fatal accident in Monaco in 1967.  Not including the 1950 Indy 500 (technically part of the F1 world championship at the time), the first F1 race to be stopped ahead of time was the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix, which ended a few laps early because of rain and mist.

Matters came somewhat to a head with a couple of incidents in the 1973 season. In the South African and Dutch races major accidents had occurred, resulting in various officials, rescue workers and vehicles at the side of the track tending to drivers and fiery wrecks as racing continued at full pelt a matter of feet away. The case in Zandvoort was particularly egregious, with drivers driving through a curtain of smoke and over a track half covered in fire extinguisher powder for several laps, as David Purley tried in vain to save the life of fellow driver Roger Williamson.

By the Austrian race, a couple of rounds later, new measures were introduced, including a pace car which could be introduced to the race in event of a major incident. It was even brought out in an early practice session at the Austrian event, with the cars touring around behind a saloon car for a few laps without rancour. However, when the pace car was first introduced for real in a race, a month later, things went altogether less smoothly.

The scene was Mosport Park in Canada near Toronto, where the penultimate round of the season took place. Mosport Park was a challenging up hill and down dale track, with lot of long, fast corners, mostly with walls nearby. This aspect, along with its narrowness and rough, bumpy surface, meant that its popularity among both drivers and engineers varied. Then there was the weather. It often rained. Or was misty. Or both.

It was to no one's great surprise that it rained on the morning of the 1973 race. The championship was already decided by this point, Jackie Stewart having clinched that in the previous round, at Monza. Ronnie Peterson in his JPS Lotus 72 (one of the most iconic driver/car combinations in the sport's history) took the pole by a distance, as he seemed to pretty much everywhere that season.

Peterson led from the start, but a young Niki Lauda in his BRM slithered up from eighth on the grid to take the lead on lap three, before pulling out a gap of 23 seconds by lap 15 with much style. He was assisted by his rain-friendly Firestone tyres, but the other BRM runners were on the same brand of tyres and were nowhere to be seen. However, at this point, Lauda's tyres began to go off, and the Lotuses of Peterson and Emerson Fittipaldi in second and third began to catch him at roughly the same rate that he'd previously gone away from them. Peterson's rear tyre blew putting him out, but Fittipaldi kept up the chase, reducing the gap to Lauda to eight seconds, and on lap 20 Lauda gave up and came into change to intermediates, which dropped him out of contention (he eventually retired with transmission failure).

This left Fittipaldi leading, with Jackie Oliver's Shadow in an impressive second place, but five seconds adrift of the Lotus. The track had, however, been gradually drying since the outset, and it was clear that the wet-weather tyres everyone was on wouldn't last much longer. So from around the lap 30 mark great traffic jams built up in the pits as all cars changed to slicks. This created a couple of problems: one is that in those days pitstops were not a routine part of F1 races, cars were expected to run the full race distance on one set of tyres and on a full tank of fuel, pitstops were therefore often chaotic and of greatly varying length. The other problem was that these were the days of manual lap charts (before the days of electronic timing), and this succession of pitstops resulted in them 'blowing up'. No one knew for certain what the race order now was.

This is where the pace car came in. Third and fourth place runners Francois Cevert and Jody Scheckter entered and left the pits together on the 33rd lap, then made contact with each other at turn two, putting both into the wall and out of the race. Worse, there was much debris on the track, and this was soon joined by two ambulances and a breakdown truck, as well as several track workers trying to remove the abandoned cars. This was just the sort of situation that the new pace car rule was intended to apply to. But in the words of the Autosport race report: 'what was wrong was that it took some three laps before it (the pace car) came out. And when it did finally appear, it got in front of the wrong car'.

A yellow Porsche 914, complete with yellow flags on the back, appeared on the circuit, but sat in front of Howden Ganley in the Iso-Williams (yes, that Williams), who definitely wasn't the leader. Startline officials seemed adamant, and several requests from those in the pace car for instructions came back with the same answer from the startline: 'stay ahead of car 25', which was Ganley. Even a few 'who, me?' signals from Ganley himself didn't change their minds. And pity the poor workers in charge of the leaderboard on the startline, designed to inform spectators of the running order, who changed their minds of the running order to display virtually every lap.

The consensus, for what it was, suggested that Oliver had leapfrogged Fittipaldi in the pits, and was now leading. The problem if this was true, for Fittipaldi at least, was that he was caught in the safety car queue before Oliver was, meaning that Ollie had gained almost a lap on him in the confusion.

Still, the safety car peeled in eventually, and Ganley led the field and proceeded to drive as if his life depended on it, holding Stewart and Fittipaldi behind him for several laps. There was, of course, a possibility that he was leading. Indeed, virtually everyone drove hard for the remainder of the race, having no idea where they were in the scheme of things.

Fittipaldi eventually made it past Ganley and, if the common theory was right, he had 40 laps to make up almost a lap on Oliver. He then set about this task with astounding brio. He was aided in this by Oliver being troubled by a sticky throttle and Jean-Pierre Beltoise in front of him in his BRM, not wanting to be passed (it transpired though that Beltoise was actually ahead of him on the road, though this wasn't clear at the time). On one lap, Oliver cruised past the pits at greatly reduced speed as he tried to free his sticky throttle pedal. A couple of cars flashed by, one of which was Peter Revson in his McLaren. The significance of this was lost on virtually everyone at the time.

Fittipaldi got on with it, and tore chunks from Oliver's lead on each lap. And, assisted by Oliver's problems, he had caught up with the Shadow a few laps from the end. Fittipaldi passed him easily on the straight on what many thought was the penultimate lap. The Shadow was running more wing than the Lotus, and in Oliver's words of Fittipaldi: 'nothing would have held him back then'.

So many thought that was that. Fittipaldi led over the line, with Oliver in tow, and Colin Chapman threw his hat in the air before what he thought was his victorious driver. The problem was that the chequered flag did not appear.

Then, down the track, Ganley's Iso had Mike Hailwood's Surtees, Revson's McLaren and James Hunt's Hesketh in close company behind him, and the flag was waved in their direction as they crossed the line. It was waved again at Fittipaldi and Oliver on their next time around.

Now the confusion was complete. No one knew who had won, and matters weren't helped as both Fittipaldi and Revson were ushered into the winner's enclosure. One suggestion was 'Let's give it to Hunt, because Hesketh will throw the best party'. It seemed to sum up the situation.

Nevertheless, Revson seemed confident: 'I know who won. You can congratulate me right now'. Officials eventually agreed with him. He was awarded the winner's trophy and, some three hours later and having examined all teams' lap charts, officials confirmed that Revson had won with Fittipaldi second and Oliver and Beltoise close behind in third and fourth.

It transpired that Revson, though behind Oliver after his tyre stop, had like Oliver been fortunate enough to not be caught in the wake of the pace car and had put a almost a lap on Fittipaldi and various others. It also transpired that when Revson flashed past Oliver as the Shadow's throttle was being 'unstuck', he was in fact taking the lead of the race, which he held to the end.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given this experience, the pace car was quietly forgotten about by F1 rule makers, and red flags and re-starts became the weapon of choice in the event of accidents. That was until 1992, which is where we came in.

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