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How the F1 safety car has evolved since 1973 — from Porsche 914 to Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series

Gregory Leporati   

How the F1 safety car has evolved since 1973 — from Porsche 914 to Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series

This article is part of "Behind the Wheel," a series about the highly competitive and high-tech world of Formula 1.

Bernd Mayländer has led a lot of laps in Formula 1 — but not as a competitor. Ever since the 1999 San Marino Grand Prix, the 52-year-old German driver has been behind the wheel of the Formula 1 safety car, leading the pack safely around the track after a crash or incident.

His longevity in the role has surprised even him.

"I certainly didn't expect 24 years ago that I'd still be doing this," Mayländer said with a laugh. "But I'm still enjoying it and didn't think time would go by so quickly. Just to be a little part of this great sport — it's amazing."

The safety car plays a major role in today's F1. When an accident or crash happens, or if weather conditions get particularly bad, the safety car is sent out and all competitors must slow down and follow it. Driving at a reasonable pace, Mayländer guides the Formula 1 cars slowly around the course, ensuring that track marshals can remove debris and the medical team can tend to injured drivers.

But the safety car dates to long before Mayländer's involvement. In fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first deployment of a safety car in F1.

Business Insider chatted with Mayländer about the history of the F1 safety car and some of his most memorable moments in the sport.

A rocky start

The first F1 safety car was a "lemon-yellow" Porsche 914, and it made its debut at the rain-soaked 1973 Canadian Grand Prix. It was a far cry from the kind of sports cars used today. A rear engine provided the tiny car with about 80 horsepower.

"I wasn't watching TV at the time because maybe I was too young," Mayländer said. "But I do remember seeing pictures of it — still a phenomenal car."

The safety car, then referred to as the "pace-car control system," went through just one test before its debut at the '73 race. Its deployment caused a fair bit of confusion. Some racers were unsure whether to line up behind it, and the results of that race would later be disputed because of the mishap.

A variety of suppliers

In the years following its debut, the safety car bounced around between various manufacturers and was not a constant presence at races until the '90s. Notable safety cars included a Lamborghini Countach, deployed for several years in the early '80s in Monaco, a Fiat Tempra, and a Renault Clio.

Of all these old safety cars, Mayländer pointed to the Lamborghini as one he wished he could have driven.

"I've never driven a Lamborghini in my life," he said. "And the Countach, that was something very special."

Standardizing the process

Toward the end of the '96 season, the International Automobile Federation made moves to formalize the safety-car process. Mercedes became the official safety-car supplier with its C36 AMG model, and the British driver Oliver Gavin was named the first permanent driver of the safety car.

Bernd Mayländer makes his safety-car debut

Mayländer's first time behind the wheel of the safety car came at the '99 San Marino Grand Prix, driving a Mercedes CLK 55 AMG.

"I remember everything from that first race weekend," he said. "I was nervous, just a young race driver at the time, thrust into this Formula 1 role."

Today, Mayländer has multiple TV screens and monitors in his car to follow the action, but that wasn't the case in '99.

"We had a hand radio when we started — and that was it," he said.

The longest race

One of the wildest races Mayländer recalled was the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix — a rainy event that saw record use of the safety car (which led the pack for roughly 45% of the race).

"It was the longest Formula 1 race ever, if you count the red flags," Mayländer said. "We had to stop twice to refuel the safety car. So even for me, that was a proper race, driving nearly 150 kilometers."

The British driver Jenson Button of McLaren ultimately won in dramatic fashion, clawing back from last place to first after five pit stops — the most ever by a race winner.

"That was a special one," Mayländer said.

Abu Dhabi controversy

One of the most notable safety-car moments in recent memory was the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which decided that year's World Drivers' Championship. The safety car was deployed after a late crash — but instead of ending the race under caution, race control controversially called to resume with just one lap to go, allowing Max Verstappen, on fresh tires, to pass Lewis Hamilton for the win and championship title.

"For sure, that was a big race, but I treated it like a normal situation," Mayländer said. "It was just another procedure, and obviously what happened afterwards was outside of my job. It doesn't matter who is world champion — for me, just do your job, do as good as possible, full stop."

It's more than just driving a car

Mayländer does much more than just set the pace after an accident. He notifies race control of any debris on the track and, during rainy conditions, reports on surface conditions and whether there's standing water anywhere on the circuit.

Fans at home often hear F1 drivers complaining on their team radios that Mayländer should drive faster so that they can keep their tires warm. In fact, drivers in the lead will often inch up as close behind Mayländer as possible to try and speed him along, though the affable German pays it no mind.

"It's a game, and I know the drivers want to keep the performance in their tires," he said. "I'd do the same if I were in their position. But for me, it makes no difference — I'm there for safety."

Today's safety cars

In today's F1, the safety car alternates between a Mercedes-AMG GT Black Series and an Aston Martin Vantage. Both cars have V8 engines, about 730 horsepower, and can reach nearly 200 mph.

"Formula 1 is always evolving and developing, and so, too, is the safety car," Mayländer said.

"These are real race cars — the downforce and everything," Mayländer, who in the '90s was an accomplished endurance racer, said. "It's quite nice to have two suppliers now working together. I enjoy learning how to drive these wonderful cars. Even at my age, I never stop learning."

On a typical race weekend, Mayländer will log hours of practice time driving the track, making sure he understands all the braking points. He considers old-school tracks, such as Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and Suzuka International Racing Course in Japan, among his favorites.

"I really love them all, though," he added. "All the circuits have special characteristics."

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