In a perfect illustration of how solutions often bring problems of unintended consequence, the British Grand Prix’s safety car start – which caused such a fan outcry – actually has its roots in the 1994 San Marino GP.
It was in reaction to the tragedies of that weekend that a raft of safety measures was rushed in – one of which was the stipulation of the underbody plank defining a minimum ride height. A possible contributory cause of the Senna accident was his car grounding out over the bumps preceding Tamburello, suddenly stalling the downforce generated from the underbody. The plank was to prevent cars running low enough for this to happen.
But in conditions of heavy standing water the plank brings hazards of its own. It isn’t so much aquaplaning of the tyres that is the biggest problem, but that of the plank. Once the car gets lifted above the surface of the water by that big flat surface area, the driver is effectively in a fast-moving, non-steering, non-braking sled. This is also the case with tyre aquaplaning of course, but the recovery from that tends to be rather quicker.
That in itself needn’t be a deal-breaker. In extreme weather the cars could be set up with whatever ride height is needed to keep the plank from behaving in this way. But that would require the set-up to be changed – which cannot happen under the current parc fermé regulations, introduced in 2003. Stipulating that the car has to start the race as it began qualifying has been a very effective cost-saving measure, preventing the construction of special qualifying engines
But understandably, at Silverstone many felt denied the drama of arguably the most exciting part of a Grand Prix weekend: the standing start and the wheel-to-wheel dicing that invariably follows for a few corners. The length of the safety car period only intensified the fans’ ire. The apparently ludicrous situation of cars pitting immediately for intermediate tyres, as soon as the safety car released the pack, seemed to confirm an excessively high level of caution in race control. But even that is not straightforward and has a historical regulatory background. Conditions at Fuji in 2007 were so appalling that not to have started the race behind the safety car would probably have wiped most of the grid out in very short order, so Charlie Whiting issued a technical directive that subsequently became enshrined in regulation: that teams could not fit anything other than full wet tyres for the safety car start. It was forbidden, in other words, to fit intermediates in the knowledge that the safety car would guide you through the worst of the weather – and then burst free in the lead as all those who’d more conscientiously fitted full wets were forced to pit as the track began to dry.
The deeper the tread, the more water the tyre can clear but also the more those tread blocks bend and overheat as soon as they sniff a dry surface. So once Whiting’s Fuji race directive became a regulation, from the perspective of the supplier designing its tyre range – deciding the ideal changeover points from wets to inters to slicks – it became obvious that the wet no longer needed to be very resistant to overheating on a drying track. It could therefore be made full-extreme, with very deep treads, because it was effectively no longer required for actual racing (though Lewis Hamilton showed at Monaco this year that it is still possible to use it this way). Unburdened of the requirement of having to deal with much in the way of standing water, the intermediate could therefore be made usable into much drier conditions – and become a more flexible, usable race tyre.
So although the safety car probably did stay out a couple of laps longer than was strictly necessary, cars peeling immediately in for inters wasn’t so much to do with that as it was to do with the fact that the wet really has become not much more than just a safety car start tyre.
What I’m suggesting here is we don’t automatically come down too hard on the decisions made on the day by race control. We should recognise instead that it was forced into this narrow window by years of accumulated regulation forcing development in a certain direction, which has had unintended consequences. Probably the simplest – and therefore likely the best – idea to come out of this is that of a safety car-led reconnaissance period, with the field circulating for a few laps then, when deemed no longer a plank-floating hazard, the grid lines up still on wet tyres and has the standing start everyone wants to see.
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