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The Virtual Safety Car Doesn't Always Have To Mess Up F1 Race Results

Illustration for article titled The Virtual Safety Car Doesnt Always Have To Mess Up F1 Race Results
Photo: Charles Coates (Getty)

Ever since its introduction to Formula One, the Virtual Safety Car has been one of the more frustrating regulations due to the fact that it can often alter the outcome of a race by being deployed at its most critical juncture. But it doesn’t always have to be that way—and now there’s a video explaining how.

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We’ve written about how F1's Virtual Safety Car works before on Jalopnik, but we’ll give you a quick rundown in case you need a refresher. Basically, the VSC is not actually a real car coming out and leading the field, like a normal safety car would do. It is instead a lap time determined by the FIA that all drivers have to follow (usually equivalent to about a 30 percent reduction in the speeds found at any point in the track).

Theoretically, all of the gaps between cars would be maintained so that when the VSC is lifted, everyone can go back to racing as if nothing ever happened. But it doesn’t always work that way.

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As we saw at last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, it causes some problems regarding pit stops. Charles Leclerc was leading the race with a two-second gap when he pitted for tires under green, where he lost 24 seconds. But because Lewis Hamilton pitted later, under VSC conditions, he only lost fourteen seconds, which pushed him into the lead of the race. That’s a ten-second gain on an opponent just because of the quirks of the VSC.

YouTube’s Chain Bear has once again teamed up with Autosport to provide an explanation of what happened while also pitching some ways that the VSC could suck a whole lot less:

F1 fans are in two minds about what to do here. Some have suggested closing the pit lane entrance during VSC conditions to prevent these jumps from happening. Others say that random variables are the spice of life, and we shouldn’t bar any teams from benefitting from something unpredictable (after all, don’t those surprises often make for exciting races?).

Chain Bear pointed out that the VSC is technically only supposed to put the race on hold while on-track incidents are taken care of which means you shouldn’t be able to make any position gains. But since there’s nothing in the rules forbidding that loophole, it’s going to be exploited. This is racing, after all.

To prevent this, closing the pit lane is honestly a pretty simple idea. But there are also downsides. If a driver is planning to pit only for a VSC to come out and the pit lane to be closed, they’d have to stay on old tires that would be useless—or even dangerous—when the race went back to green flag conditions.

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So, if a driver really needs to pit, there could be a caveat. They could stop, but they’d have to sit in the pit lane for a certain amount of time to equal out the seconds they’d otherwise gain. Similarly, the pit lane speed could be dramatically reduced, so it takes even longer.

Whether people agree with the neutralization of uncertainties or the preservation of randomness usually depends, though, usually depends on which driver benefits and/or which gets screwed over. Leclerc fans were probably pissed that he lost out on an otherwise convincing win due to the VSC—but it was harder for Hamilton fans to rag on the system knowing that it had benefitted the Mercedes driver.

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So, yes, it is possible to make those strange VSC quirks suck a lot less than they currently do. But whether it’s a good thing or not still remains to be seen.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

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Ever since its introduction to Formula One, the Virtual Safety Car has been one of the more frustrating regulations due to the fact that it can often alter the outcome of a race by being deployed at its most critical juncture. But it doesn’t always have to be that way—and now there’s a video explaining how.

And the regular safety car doesn’t? Come now. One freezes the field and potentially gives people cheap/free pit stops. The other completely compresses the field and takes all distance advantages away, undermining a lot of track position strategies. The VSC is by far less disruptive than the previous option while still being more impactful than simple local yellows. It does that job fine and it’s absurd to call it frustrating.

Part of racing is dealing with the possibility of a disruption due to someone else’s incident or weather.

Closing the pit lane entrance should be done for no other reason but safety. All it does is further undermine people and fuck them over when an incident happens just before a scheduled stop. Even Indy has realized it was a stupid policy and has more or less backed off it any time the pit entrance and exit aren’t obstructed by the crash. The downsides (of which there are quite a bit) don’t outweigh the benefit (of where there is almost none).

Fundamentally, the only really legitimate gripe is that if it begins and ends in a fraction of a lap someone might have been forced to go slow through a section where it hurts them more (like a main straight) than the person they’re trying to outrun/catch, but the remedy for that would just be requiring that the VSC ends when the leader is in the same place they were when it came out.

Planning for whether a safety car or VSC might happen is just another facet of race strategy, like guessing how someone else will schedule their tire stops, if you’ll come out of in traffic when you want to do yours, and if it will rain or not. Unless you can point to a chronic pattern of the same people or teams getting screwed no one is going to convince me that the VSC as it currently is creates a fundamental fairness or competition problem worthy of correcting.

Bottom line: The VSC doesn’t “mess up” race results any more than weather, safety cars, or tire strategies. Teams gamble. Teams good at strategy will get it right more often, but they’ll still get it wrong sometimes. That’s life (and racing).