The Virtual Safety Car was brought in to create
a more immediate and flexible tool for neutralising the race. When the Virtual Safety Car is activated,
all cars must slow down to a prescribed pace pretty much immediately.
Its advantages over a normal Safety Car or just waving yellow flags are:
It can be deployed instantly, forcing all cars to reduce their speeds at the touch of
the button. That way, all areas of the track are quickly made more safe.
It does not bunch the cars up – instead it pretty much maintains the gaps between
the cars. Of course there are times when you might prefer
to bunch the cars up – if you need a lot of marshalls out on the track to clear up
an accident, bunching up the cars behind the Safety Car creates a long quiet period when
there are no cars in a particular zone It can also last as long as you need – you
don’t have to wait for a whole number of laps to pass or for backmarkers to unlap themselves,
as under the full Safety Car. So how does the Virtual Safety Car actually
work? OK so let’s use the Albert Park circuit,
host of the Australian Grand Prix as our base of operations. The track is 5.3 km long and
a good racing lap time is about 1 minute 28 seconds.
So, we can imagine ourselves driving around the track during the race, pumping out these
theoretical 1 minute 28 lap times, lap after lap. This is how the FIA imagines us under
normal racing conditions. Obviously we’re not doing these exact times, but this is how
the FIA models the idea of a normal racing lap.
Now, once the Virtual Safety Car is called, no matter where we are on the track we have
to shift to a lap time that’s no quicker than a Virtual Safety Car lap time.
What’s a Virtual Safety Car lap time, then? Just as the FIA modelled your ‘normal racing
lap’, they’ll also model a Virtual Safety Car lap, which is about 30% slower than normal
racing speed. And this VSC lap is modelled to be a direct stretch of the way laps are
driven: 30% slower across every part of the lap. That means if the normal racing lap takes
10 seconds to drive the pit straight, the VSC lap will take 13 seconds. If the first
two corners normally take 3 seconds, the VSC will take 3.9 second, and so on.
It’s literally as if we hit a slow motion button on our model racing lap.
Under Virtual Safety Car, a driver’s times are measured every 50 m against the Virtual
Safety Car lap time. As a driver is trying to stick as closely as possible to the VSC
time, sometimes they might be a bit over that time, sometimes they might be a bit under.
It would be unfair to penalise a driver for ever driving faster than the VSC as, unlike
with a real safety car, they have no visual reference point on the track as the Virtual
safety car doesn’t exist. They’re obviously going to dip back and forth.
So at this point we need to introduce the idea of marshalling sectors.
The lap sectors we’re most familiar with are the 3 timing sectors used through sessions
to measure pace. These are the sections of the track where cars are timed against each
other and you’ll hear commentary like ‘Leclerc is two tenths down in sector one.
But there’s another type of track sector called the marshalling sector and these sectors
are the ones used by race officials, directors, stewards and marshals as they are more accurate
at identifying bits of the track. Each track has 20 marshal posts, which is
where the lights, flags, safety car boards etc. are displayed. The space between these
posts are the marshalling sectors and these are the sectors referred to throughout race
control and stewarding notes. These sectors are also the zones in which yellow flag areas
are activated, which you’ll see on the mini-map graphic on TV during races.
So, returni ng to the Virtual Safety Car – the rules state that the driver must be driving
to a time no faster than the virtual safety car laptime and to enforce that all a driver
has to do is make sure they are slower than the VSC at least once in any each marshalling
sector. What this means is that the driver has to make sure they’re behind the Virtual
Safety Car at least once in a sector. This ensures that drivers can’t just race
off as they need to keep waiting for the VSC to effectively re-overtake them. That’s
why it’s called the Virtual Safety Car, because it’s just like each driver having
their own pace car that they have to stay behind. They just can’t see it, because
it doesn’t actually physically exist. Instead, on their dashboard they’ll be told
every 50 metres how far ahead or behind of the Virtual Safety Car they are and adjust
their pace accordingly, making sure they’ve fallen behind at least once a sector. It’s kind of like the ‘ghost car’ in
Time Trial modes on video games, except instead of trying to beat the ghost car laptime, you’re
trying to keep just behind it. The only other rule is that the driver must
be behind the Virtual Safety Car when the light goes green again.
So when the VSC period is coming to an end, the drivers will get a warning. Some time
10 to 15 seconds after the warning, the virtual safety car period will end, green flags will
be waved and they can drive at full racing speed again. At the point the green flags
are waved, drivers must be behind the Virtual Safety Car; their lap times must be slower
than the VSC at that point. The beauty of this system is that is keeps
the gaps between the cars the same because activating the VSC is like hitting slow-mo
on all the cars at the same time. It doesn’t allow the drivers to get closer or further
apart if they’re all following the same prescriptive lap time.
The only way to get an advantage through this period is to be very canny about sticking
close to the VSC time and being quick off the restart, as with all safety car periods.
Sebastian Vettel complained about the Virtual Safety Car after the Spanish Grand Prix saying
the drivers were cheating the system by driving crazy lines to exploit a loophole.
His exact words were, “I think everybody’s aware you can have a faster way to go under
VSC than just follow the delta – by saving distance. So, I think we should have a system
that hasn’t got this loophole, because it forces us to drive ridiculous lines around
the track and everybody’s doing it so I don’t think it’s a secret.”
Now, this doesn’t actually make any sense. You can’t outdrive the VSC lap time, as
we’ve covered. It doesn’t matter what crazy lines you drive, you can’t beat the
minimum time. You could theoretically drive a line that’s slightly shorter over the
whole lap but that’s really only going to gain you fractions in fuel. It really was
a strange comment. So that’s the Virtual Safety Car system
explained. I think it makes the most sense if you literally think of it as an invisible
pace car that each driver has to stay behind as they drive through whatever part of the
lap they’re in. The safety car ‘delta time’ that you’ll hear referred to simply
gives the driver a reference as to where the virtual safety car is compared to them.