Friday, 22 June 2007

Should the 2007 safety car rules be changed?

TTS's ‘Exposing the Hamilton Myths’ post yesterday raised an interesting question over the 2007 safety car rules: do they encourage teams to bring their cars in earlier than expected?

At Monaco, Canada and Indianapolis, Mclaren have felt the need to factor in the safety car in their strategies, bringing their cars in early to avoid a safety car situation. Arguably, this has prevented a straight fight between Alonso and Hamilton making the true performance difference between the two drivers very difficult to assess.

To recap, on the deployment of the safety car the pitlane is declared closed while the cars line-up behind it. Backmarkers will be allowed to unlap themselves by overtaking the safety car (when signalled to do so by its green light) and slowly make their way around the track. Under the safety car no cars are allowed to enter the pits for refuelling until all the cars are lined up behind the safety car in race order (at which point the pitlane is declared open). Doing so will result in a ten second penalty – as Alonso and Rosberg discovered to their detriment at Canada.

The new system has its advantages. It generally makes things fairer. Under the old rules, on deployment of the safety car, whether drivers could make a pit-stop and get out unaffected pretty much depended on chance, i.e. where drivers were on the track and whether or not they been got picked by the car. Indeed some drivers could make huge gains by simply being in the right place at the right time.

Another product of the old system was the inevitable mixing up of front-runners with backmarkers which complicated restarts. Personally I think this is one of the good things about the new rules. It’s great that we now have a proper drag race once the safety car peels off.

However the main weakness to the new rules is the ten second penalty for entering the pitlane even if the driver is forced to stop because he is at risk of running out of fuel.

This combined with the fact that drivers can no longer make a pit stop on the same lap that the safety car is deployed acts as a major incentive to anticipate the safety car and pit a couple of laps early as Mclaren have done.

Of course, Mclaren are in the position where they can afford to bring their cars in early. They haven’t been in a position where they are racing another team and need to utilise the advantage that comes with a light fuel load. But it does seem to contradict the idea that they are genuinely letting their drivers race.

In short, the new safety car rules could promote a culture where pre-empting the deployment of the safety car becomes a norm for Mclaren (or any other team), robbing fans of an honest fight between their drivers. So should the rules be changed in anyway?

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