By Patrick George
In the event of a crash or some other dangerous situation on the track, many forms of motorsport deploy a safety car that leads the race cars around at a safer speed. But in the wake of Formula One driver Jules Bianchi's terrifying crash at the Japanese Grand Prix, F1 officials are testing a system that could make safety cars obsolete.
At this weekend's U.S. Grand Prix, after the practice rounds on Friday, teams tested a new "virtual safety car" program that forces them to reduce their speeds to about 35 per cent less than a normal dry lap time. The idea is that it will force drivers to slow without the need for a safety car.
The BBC reports that drivers are aided by a display on their dashboards, and if they exceed the specified speed limit, they will be penalised. During the testing, a certain section of the track was put under a yellow caution flag, and drivers had to achieve a specific time through it.
F1 wants a system to limit lap times when officials feel an incident could be cleared relatively quickly, but when workers, marshals or recovery vehicles need to be on track to return it to racing condition.
It is an extension of the system currently used when a safety car is deployed. Drivers have to slow down to a pre-determined lap time "delta" while waiting for the safety car to pick up the leader.
The system is being tested to try and improve safety in the wake of Bianchi's crash at Suzuka, where he collided with a tractor used to clear Adrian Sutil's wrecked car off the track from an earlier incident. Bianchi suffered severe head injuries and remains in critical condition. (The Marussia team maintains that Binachi did slow down under yellow flags, contrary to some reports.)
After Friday's tests, drivers said it remains a work in progress, according to Sky Sports. Here's Jenson Button:
"There are positives and negatives. When you're wheel-to-wheel and the system comes on you can't just hit the brakes like we are now to get the speed down," Button said.
"In that respect it's very tricky. I like the idea but you do spend a long time looking at your steering wheel. With the way the Safety Car boards are now and with the lap that we do when there's no Safety Car you can dip below the time and you get away with it because as long as you cross the finish line positive [against the target time] you are okay.
And and Romain Grosjean:
"The delta time goes minus nine tenths, minus six, plus three, minus two… I found it very difficult to follow. You open a bigger gap, like two or three seconds, but then it goes green it's lost," the Lotus driver explained.
The FIA will likely continue testing and fine tuning the system through the rest of the 2014 season. Will it be able to prevent crashes and keep the track safer if it's implemented? I think there's a good chance we'll find out next year.
Photo credit Getty