Sebastian Vettel made a strongly-worded criticism of Formula 1’s restart procedure last week, following an incident during the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
The Ferrari driver was one of six who encountered a group of marshals on the circuit during a Safety Car period in the race at Imola. The drivers had been released from behind the Safety Car in order to complete a lap of the circuit and rejoin the rear of the queue.
This obviously involved driving at speeds significantly greater than the Safety Car was lapping at. Several of the drivers were therefore surprised, despite the presence of yellow flags, to discover the marshals on and at the side of the track approaching Acque Minerale, the approach to which is blind. Vettel described the situation on his radio at the time as “very, very dangerous”.
He was undoubtedly correct in this regard, and FIA F1 race director Michael Masi confirmed afterwards they would “evaluate changes” in light of the incident.
Vettel later claimed that similar situations could be avoided entirely in future by making changes to F1’s race control software. The Ferrari driver argued that instead of sending cars all the way around the field to gain an extra lap, they could drop to the rear of the field an have an extra lap credited to their totals.
“The reason why we are physically un-lapping ourselves is because we can’t work out a software which actually just resets us,” said Vettel. “So we have to do the extra lap, which sounds quite embarrassing, but I believe it’s the truth.
“So I guess going forward we would just probably put some effort into a software that the lapped cars are not forced to physically un-lap themselves but you can just reset the lap on the screen and put them in the place that they are. I think that would be the solution.”
There is a clear problem with the solution Vettel proffered, however. Any driver who gained a lap in this way would do so without putting an extra lap of wear on their tyres or using an extra lap of fuel from their limited allocation.
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This would make what is already a very advantageous situation for these drivers even more beneficial. Not only would they gain a significant amount of race time, as they already do, but in Vettel’s scenario they would also do so at no cost. Artificially altering the race situation in this way could also give rise to other unintended and undesirable consequences.
Unsurprisingly, then, it’s an idea which F1 has already previously rejected during discussions around its restart rules. This happened before Masi took over as F1 race director, as he explained on Sunday.
“That was looked at many years ago when the regulation was first put in,” he said. “And the discussion at the time, from what I’ve been advised, is that the teams were actually not in favour of that because you’re talking about different tyre degradation, different fuel loads, and what are the further consequences around that of just doing it as a software change versus what the sporting downside would be in an overall sense.”
The reason drivers are allowed to overtake the Safety Car and regain a lap is so that at restarts front-running drivers are not separated by lapped cars. Moving the backmarkers out of the way creates a greater opportunity for racing.
Formula 1 has not been wedded to the rule. It was originally introduced, then rescinded, and reintroduced in 2012. While F1 is unlikely to drop it again, Masi acknowledged the need to look closely at its safety implications again in light of the Imola near-misses.
“We reviewed the following week the whole process around it,” he said. “We’ve made some procedural changes which were discussed with the team managers and the drivers at the respective meetings on Thursday and Friday night. All of which both groups were completely supportive of.
“So there’s been procedural elements that have changed regarding the suggestions of what can and can’t be done for future, 2021 and beyond. It’s a topic that’s on the Sporting Advisory Committee agenda, which is a group representing the FIA, F1 and all of the team managers.
“We’ll discuss it overall and see what the positives, negatives and unintended consequences are. Because I’ve found over the years that anything you do is a knee-jerk reaction in a regulatory sense will generally have an unintended consequences.”
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