Formula 1: Safeguarding the Fast Lane

Author: Bianca Leppert

Mar 20, 2024

Bernd Mayländer has a job many people dream of: For over 24 years, he has been the official Formula 1 safety car driver. But what exactly does that mean? In this Interview, the 52-year-old German gives us a look behind the scenes.

How do you become a Formula 1 safety car driver?

Let’s put it this way: There is no email address to send your references to (laughs). When I was racing in the Porsche Supercup in 1999, I was asked if I wanted to drive the safety car in Formula 3000. A year later, I was asked to do the same in Formula 1. I was absolutely certain: That’s what I’ll do. It’s also a matter of mentality: I stand for fair sport and neutrality. However, I never expected to be going into my 25th season - but I’m not thinking about quitting either. After all, experience plays a central role. It's not a matter of half a second. After all, the safety car is a safety vehicle.

How does a safety car contribute to making a Formula 1 race safer?

The best races are the ones where there is no safety car phase. I may be on site and not be involved, but that also means that nothing has happened. Basically, the safety car phase reduces the risk of drivers triggering a dangerous situation. Typical moments include an accident or when a car stops due to a technical defect, which can be dangerous to recover on narrow circuits such as Monaco, Baku, or Singapore. Heavy rain is another scenario. The cars tend to aquaplane, so the speed has to be reduced. As soon as a potential danger is imminent, the race is neutralized using the so-called virtual safety car. This was introduced in 2016 and can be deployed more quickly because it virtually tells the driver in the cockpit how much to slow down.

How fast do you go with the safety car?

That depends. The top speed was 306 km/h at the Las Vegas Grand Prix. But that is the exception. Formula 1 cars go at around 350 km/h. During a safety car phase, it’s all about finding the ideal speed to allow the drivers to maintain the energy in the tires and brakes – that’s around 240 km/h on the straights. In the curves, you are always driving at the limit because the difference in speed between the safety car, a sports car, and a Formula 1 car is enormous.

"The best races are the ones without a safety car phase."

Bernd Mayländer, FIA F1 safety car driver

Have you ever had a moment where you went over the limit?

Never on a dry track. But when it rains, I drive with a road tire – not a special rain racing tire like the Formula 1 cars. In 2011, I had an eye-opening experience in Shanghai. The rear broke away when I hit a puddle. Even Sebastian Vettel, who was driving behind me, said: “Oh, that was close.” I was glad that everything went well. To be able to handle situations like this, you need a professional driving the safety car.

What other tasks do you have on a race weekend?

Formula 2, Formula 3, the Porsche Supercup and the new F1 Academy also use the safety car. So, I’m already on duty in time for the first races on Saturday morning. I also attend the drivers’ meetings and the meetings of the FIA, the highest international motorsport authority. I also explain the functions of the safety car to guests. If there is a deployment during a race, we always have a debriefing.

What makes this job so appealing to you after so many years?

I’m in the highest category of motor racing, at all the Formula 1 races, and have seen how teams evolve. I was able to be part of it for such a long time - from Mika Häkkinen over Michael Schumacher until today. It’s a fascination that has grown even more over the years. I hardly ever used to think about safety, but then there was a crash. That was a kind of trigger that made me deal with matters of safety. I always question how something can be improved and made more secure - a never-ending task.

What does this task entail?

I am part of the FIA’s so-called “Circuit Commission” which plans and licenses racetracks worldwide. Within this big committee, we discuss accidents and what needs to be changed. We also consult with manufacturers of crash helmets and racing suits, for example. It’s incredible what has changed in terms of safety in recent years.

Do you remember your first stint as a safety car driver?

That was in Melbourne, Australia, in 2000. I had already been there once before with the Porsche Supercup and knew the track and the city. But standing on the starting grid in my new role and seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, with people cheering him on, was special. I was impressed. But I had a very experienced co-driver back then. Today I also have experience but every assignment is different – that’s what keeps it exciting.

So why is there a co-driver in the safety car?

He focuses on the radio traffic – as the driver, you could otherwise miss something. He also operates the buttons on the radio and the lighting system. We help each other. It’s like being in the cockpit of an airplane. Two heads are better than one – that way you minimize the risk even more.

What are you like in the passenger seat in everyday traffic?

If I notice that someone really wants to drive fast, I speak up. When I’m on the road, I only ever go as fast as traffic allows and as fast as I‘m able to. Now and then my wife says: You know you can drive faster. But sometimes I don’t feel like it because we’re in the middle of a good conversation. If the highway is clear and I have a nice car, I drive fast – but only if the conditions allow for it.

What do you do in the time between race weekends?

With 24 races a year, time is naturally tight. My family, my wife, and my children take priority. I also exercise regularly, I have my own wine as well which I have to look after. And, of course, great partners like DEKRA, with whom I collaborate with on many projects.