Despite more than 700 laps in pole position, very high-profile appearances almost every weekend, only insiders know who he is: Bernd Mayländer is the man inside the safety car at Formula 1 races. “Everyone knows the safety car. Some people know my name. But not many people know my face,” said the 51-year-old German. He will once again be on the track in Jeddah, Sunday, March 19, for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Mayländer has been working for the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) for 24 years. Behind the scenes, he ensures the safety of drivers and stewards at the F1 Grand Prix. His mission is to neutralize the race when an incident occurs, by placing himself in front of the single-seater cars to regroup them in a pack, at moderate speed. “When the FIA offered me the job in 1999, I immediately accepted, even though I had no idea what to do,” said the former Formula 3000 and Grand Tourer (DTM) driver. “The very next day I was sitting in the car, and a year later I was doing all the Grand Prix races.”
“Bernd has become a key figure in the paddock!” said Esteban Ocon, a French driver for the Alpine team. “Not only does he have great responsibilities in our sport, but he is also someone who is very well-liked. He is always smiling and available to give advice. I often had good chats with him before I went out on the track.”
When the yellow flag is waved and a white plate with the words “SC” appears, all the F1 drivers lift their feet from the accelerator. They know the protocol: The safety car and Maylander are entering the track. “I’m always nervous when I arrive at the track, because you have to adapt very quickly to the conditions: rain, fog, accidents. My co-driver takes care of the radio contact and the light system, and I concentrate on driving ,” said the German.
Two car models share the heavy task of taming the race: a 730 horsepower Mercedes-AMG GT and, since 2022, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Both of these cars can go very fast. “Up to 325 km/h!,” said Mayländer with a sparkle in his eye. “I’m still a driver at heart, but my role is not to set the fastest time. I am a safety car driver. And in the job title, there is the word ‘safety.'”
‘It looked like a turtle!’
The safety car brings the pace down a notch, adapting it to critical situations. But this fact is far from being unanimously accepted by drivers. In 2022, the world champion Max Verstappen was furious at the end of the Australian Grand Prix: “The safety car was driving so slow, it was like a turtle. Unbelievable. To drive 140 [km/h] on the back straight, there was not a damaged car, so I don’t understand why we have to drive so slowly. We have to investigate!”
If the safety car is a source of debate, it is also because its intervention can reshape a race. When the safety car intervenes, the drivers are no longer allowed to overtake each other, but the grouping it creates reduces the gaps between them to nothing. Some drivers also take advantage of this to go to the pits and put on new, more efficient tires. As for the low speed, it cools the tires and reduces grip, which is a major performance factor in Formula 1.
“Race control decides the speed,” said Maylander. “Of course, I understand when the drivers complain. But they don’t have all the elements to judge the speed to adopt, unlike race control, which has cameras, marshals on the track and precise weather data. It’s a job that teaches humility , and so much the worse if the car seems awfully slow compared to Formula 1.”
FIA Statement on @F1 Safety Car https://t.co/5p0uHGo6mu
“Sometimes there are criticisms from some drivers, but it’s never against Bernd,” said Ocon. The Frenchman knows Mayländer well, having worked with him at Mercedes-Benz, in 2016, in the DTM championship, and then in 2019 when he was still an F1 reserve driver: “He is a great driver, with a lot of experience. He is 100% focused during the lapse. I’ve never seen him make a mistake.”
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But the pilots still try to test the limits. “When I’m in front of them, they try to push me. They all have their own way of reacting. I could recognize them in anonymous cars,” said the German driver. “Michael Schumacher was very hard on me, he would put himself in my blind spot. Lewis Hamilton is hard to follow, he brakes, then accelerates again. Valtteri Bottas is very calm, always at the right distance. As for Max Verstappen, he used to push me to the limit at the beginning of his career, but he has since adopted a much more strategic approach. It’s a perpetual challenge, I don’t have the right to make mistakes.”
Brief history of #F1 safety car and it’s usage through years! First appearance in ’73, but officially introduced &… https://t.co/fB51NFTytA
‘Like an airplane cockpit’
Those who do not respect the regulation distances face penalties. On October 2, 2022, at the Singapore GP, Sergio Perez almost lost a victory. Once he crossed the finish line, the Mexican was given a five-second penalty for leaving too much distance between him and the safety car. “I wasn’t happy about this situation because it’s a cooperation between the driver and me. But there are rules and you have to accept them,” said Mayländer.
While he has worked with generations of drivers on the track, the German has also witnessed the evolution of the discipline. “On my first missions, in 2000, the safety car was close to a production car, with a manual radio and leather seats,” said the man who sometimes had to take the freeway to bring the vehicle back to Stuttgart. “Now we have multiple screens in the cabin, digital radios, GPS mapping and even an impact analysis tool when a crash occurs. It’s like an airplane cockpit.”
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The driver saw new safety technologies emerge in the 2010s, such as the virtual safety car (VSC). Adopted after Jules Bianchi’s fatal accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014, this virtual form of safety car takes the form of a warning light in the racing cars. It forces drivers to slow down in a dangerous area, or risk disqualification.
“At first I thought it might cost me my job,” said Mayländer. “But you have to think differently. Safety comes first, and this is an excellent measure because it allows for an immediate slowdown.” However, the use of VSC remains highly debated. Using this regime, Verstappen was able to gain six tenths of a second in four lapses over Charles Leclerc at the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, eventually winning.