Virtual Reality - why the Australian GP's Virtual Safety Car was fair enough

It often is surprising what surprises people.

Take last Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix. You’ll know the story by now. It looked comfortable for Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, ahead all weekend and come the race he kept the pursuing Ferrari pair at arm’s length. But in F1 there is many a slip between cup and lip.

This time it was all to do with a Virtual Safety Car (VSC), deployed when Romain Grosjean had to park his Haas after he was released from his pitstop with a wheel not attached. Under a VSC drivers must keep above mandated minimum sector times – in other words circulate more slowly than usual. And crucially the VSC happened when Lewis had pitted and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari hadn’t.

A pitstop under VSC conditions is less costly as while the stop can be done in the same time as ever the cars out on track that you’re racing against are going slower than normal. So Seb pitted smartly, saved a bunch of time relative to Lewis’s halt and retained the lead which he would keep to the end.

Simple? Apparently not. A good few raged at all this. “What a joke”, “absolute farce” and “no wonder people are turning off” were among the social media barbs. As was that the race could pivot when it is supposed to be ‘neutralised’ by the VSC.

It’s easy to use online comments as a straw man, but the sober Martin Brundle concurred. “It’s a quirk of the system which needs addressing so that the VSC really does neutralise a race,” he said in his post-race column. “It adds another challenge and variable, but it’s also very confusing when the running order changes so dramatically, and even Mercedes’ mighty computer and brains can’t work it out.”

It’s a quirk of the system which needs addressing so that the VSC really does neutralise a race - Martin Brundle

It is undeniable that Vettel got very lucky – he admitted as much – and that Hamilton and his fans can on one level nurse a legitimate sense of injustice. But equally it’s hard to escape from that in any formula with pitstops pitting under a safety car, VSC, Code 60 or whatever will save time compared with making the stop in normal full speed green flag racing conditions. And that competitors will seek to exploit the fact.

You wonder what some of these folks would make of a NASCAR race, which in large part is circulating waiting for the next ‘full course yellow’ at which point virtually everyone makes a beeline for the pit. The prospect of a stop under green is considered alongside that of chewing on a razor blade. More broadly NASCAR and IndyCar race orders often are rendered unrecognisable by a well-timed caution favouring someone or other’s pitstop pattern. In IndyCar’s season opener in St Petersburg just passed Sebastien Bourdais came literally from the back to win after pitting on lap two, as he put himself on a counter strategy that the yellows fell to the benefit of.

In any case, even parking all of the above, what happened with the VSC in Melbourne should not have been a surprise. The first point to make is that the strategic impact of VSC interventions are pretty similar to those from a safety car proper, and the latter has been influencing race results since the safety car was brought back to F1 in 1992. The ‘it’s supposed to neutralise a race’ argument would apply in large part to that.

And for all that some post-Melbourne spoke as if the VSC was a grating imposition dreamt up in the previous week (by Liberty, presumably) it isn’t all that new either. It was brought into F1 for the start of the 2015 season, and first used at Silverstone that year when Carlos Sainz parked in an awkward place (if you don’t include its brief usage at Monaco earlier in the year before an actual safety car was deployed).

It was brought in for noble reasons too. After Jules Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka in 2014 a more tangible means was sought of slowing cars than ‘local’ yellow flags but also without the full disruption of a safety car deployment when there’s an incident that falls rather between the two stools.

And almost immediately the strategic implication of it was clear – pitstops could be made during VSCs with around half the usual time loss. For the basic reason outlined that you can pit with all rivals on track going much slower than usual. Do the math, as kids like to say. And since race results have been influenced by it regularly. That it had potential to do the same in Melbourne will have surprised no one in the pitlane. Every team has the ‘VSC window’ as part of its strategy calculations.

For all that some post-Melbourne spoke as if the VSC was a grating imposition dreamt up in the previous week (by Liberty, presumably) it isn’t all that new either. It was brought into F1 for the start of the 2015 season. And almost immediately the strategic implication of it was clear.

It had even, possibly, titled a race win before. Go back to Spain last year, which the self-same Vettel led for the most part. He built a lead of eight seconds, though his pursuing rival in second place would be on softer tyres than him for the final stint. So the win was a close call, yet with track position Seb still was likely favourite.

Then a VSC was called, at a sub-optimal time to make your final pitstop but not a hideous one. And Seb’s pursuer sought to take advantage by pitting just as the VSC was about to end, so that Seb could not react by pitting under the VSC himself. The move ate up around half of the eight second deficit he had to Seb, with the rest made up on his fresh-tyred out lap.

Seb pitted next time around in an attempt to cover, and admitted “surprise” when his foe suddenly was alongside as he exited the pits. He held him off but it was a stay of execution, as on his softer tyres his rival was past four laps later. Seb had to settle for second.

The beneficiary on this occasion? L. Hamilton. And to my knowledge neither Seb nor Ferrari made a big deal of it. Presumably neither did those complaining last Sunday.

Lewis benefited too from something like it earlier that year in China, when we had a full house of interventions.

In damp but drying conditions Lewis led initially from Seb, but in an early VSC Seb alone among the leaders sharp as a tack pitted for slicks and looked a net leader as a consequence. But no sooner could we comprehend that than a full safety car was deployed when Antonio Giovinazzi binned his Sauber in a big way. And the advantage swung back to Lewis, as he and several others bolted on slicks while again their rivals tooled around slowly. Lewis kept his lead and Seb from a net first suddenly was an actual sixth. The result – well Lewis’s win at least – was framed.

A-ha, some people came back to me post-Melbourne saying, in Spain Hamilton still had to pass on Vettel on track and it was a close battle anyway. Both are true, but that he benefitted from the VSC was undeniable and it is hard to argue that gaining time from a VSC is OK but gaining places isn’t.

‘Stop allowing pitstops under a VSC,’ declared the post-Melbourne objectors in addition; ‘only let them pit if they have a problem’. Maybe, but one needs to be careful. In F1 ‘solving’ problems has a tendency to create others.

We can think of the rule we had for a while that under a safety car the pitlane was closed initially, and cars couldn’t pit until all were queued up. But that influenced races even more drastically, but in the other direction of massively advantaging those who had already pitted. Think of what Renault was trying to do in Singapore that time…

‘Stop allowing pitstops under a VSC,’ declared the post-Melbourne objectors in addition; ‘only let them pit if they have a problem’. Maybe, but one needs to be careful. In F1 ‘solving’ problems has a tendency to create others.

Le Mans style ‘slow zones’, essentially the same as a VSC but applying only to the sector where the hazard is, have also been mooted in Melbourne’s aftermath. This was considered in the post-Suzuka developments mentioned but rejected by the drivers.

“Most of the drivers preferred the VSC approach,” said an FIA spokesman at the time, “because [with the slow zone] they were concerned about braking from high speed down to the slow speed limit.

“Some drivers were worried they might not see it, and some drivers were worried they might see it too late. And these large differences of speed could cause some difficulties.

“Plus, the fact that there was not a specific line on the track to show drivers where it started could give rise to endless penalties.”

It didn’t help the debate either that Sky in its UK TV coverage from Melbourne entertained the idea that it was actually quicker to go down the pitlane with the speed limiter on than it was to proceed on track under VSC conditions. It isn't (and it's against the rules to do an effective drive-through without pitting under a VSC in any case); by my amateur calculations it would take close to four minutes to lap Melbourne’s track with the pitlane limiter on, compared with just over two minutes that cars actually lapped in under the VSC.

It is the case though under the VSC if you are pitting you can accelerate hard entering and exiting the pits for a brief period of time. Something like the Code 60 seen in many other series would resolve this, as there the speed limit is a flat rate rather than the time over a sector.

VSC periods can have odd and distortive impacts too. “It’s rather luck of the draw as to where you are when the VSC is declared and shows up on the trackside signs and the drivers’ dashboards,” Brundle continued. “You will lose more relative time if you have to immediately slow from high speed than, say, a hairpin.”

You can ask Norman Nato about that, as he lost a GP2 Monaco win in 2016 when Artem Markelov from 15th on the grid vaulted to the front from in large part gaining an incongruous amount of time in various VSC periods around the twisty circuit.

Yet all these points would be moot if last Sunday the Mercedes systems added up the numbers correctly. The team was aware of the VSC risk but thought, erroneously, that Lewis was within range to retain his lead. You can add too that his stable-mate Valtteri Bottas wasn’t around to help after crashing in qualifying; that opened greater possibility for the Ferraris to split strategies and affect a pincer movement which led to Lewis pitting earlier than Seb. In F1 causal arrows stretch long.

Plus Seb and Ferrari with their self-admitted luck weren’t entirely flying a kite either by delaying their stop. Safety car and VSC disruptions are relatively common at this Albert Park track with its nearby walls plus as James Allen noted we were in the pitstop window and in the opening round when everyone’s rusty errors such as the ones experienced by Haas are more common.

Vettel with nothing to lose – the gap behind him was large – by his own testimony stayed out for longer in case “something happened”. Something did happen and he won.

Moreover what ultimately is wrong with throwing the odd variable into a Grand Prix? Undeniably the VSC provided a twist in a race that, almost literally, looked a walk in the park. And given the paucity of overtaking on Sunday perhaps F1 should take the excitement where it can.

But then again, I guess that’s another debate…