COMMENT: VSC A GLITCH IN THE MOTORSPORT MATRIX
THE RESULT would probably have been little different, but there’s no doubt the deployment of the Virtual Safety Car killed the intensity at the pointy-end of the Formula 1 Grand Premio Dell’emilia Romagna at Imola on Sunday night.
WORDS: Richard Craill IMAGES: Renault Sport Media
What was bubbling away as an intense strategic battle between the two Mercedes-AMG entries and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen had the life sucked out of it when the VSC was deployed for Esteban Ocon’s stranded Renault.
If Lewis Hamilton had ordered a VSC intervention, it would have been right then with his car approaching pit entry when the yellows were shown and the field slowed.
Having run longer than Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen, Hamilton had flown in the latter part of his stint and, in a very Schumacher-esq way, had just about built the margin required to drop out either in front of those two, or at least in the fight for the lead and with fresher rubber.
While the race had simmered to that point, the thought of Hamilton on fresh tyres bottled in behind an ailing Bottas and an aggressive Verstappen had plenty of potential for fun times in the second half.
Sadly, the VSC popped out, Hamilton was kissed on the proverbial and the rule oddity that allows pit stops to take place under that particular style of caution handed the race lead to the World Champion on a platter.
The VSC is an oddity in that it is designed to neutralize a race, allowing marshalls to recover stranded cars without the need for a full and often lengthy Safety Car deployment.
Cars remain on track in a position relative to each other yet controlled to a set pace by a mandated lap time ‘delta’ that drivers can manage from their dash.
And yet, said neutralized race still allows for cars to dive in to pit lane to make a stop should they require one.
On Sunday night, that worked out to be an almost 10-second free kick for Hamilton who went from third to first without even raising a sweat.
All of the hard work and tension created by Hamilton running longer and flat-out to build his required 27-second margin in order to pit and come out in front of his teammate and the flying Red Bull was made redundant by a quirk in the rules that basically gifted the Brit 10 seconds.
The VSC rules that allow for this basically contradict themselves; suggesting that while they are designed to neutralize the race, if you are lucky and time things well you can also be gifted what is essentially a free pit stop.
Now, given Hamilton’s track position at the point of deployment there’s every chance that the same result would have occurred had the race director elected to go to a full Safety Car to remove the smoking Renault from the side of the road.
That was just the luck of the draw that happens in every race around the world every now and then – and right now Hamilton is clearly as #Blessed as is Instagram would have you believe.
However, the resulting restart would have at least bunched the field and injected spice back into both the battle for the lead and the minors – as it did later in the race when they went full course yellow to recover Verstappen’s stranded car.
Getting a ‘free kick’ by stopping under a Safety Car is just the luck of the game – but there will still be consequences because the drivers have to deal with the subsequent restart, cold tyres and brakes and banzai moves from drivers looking to take advantage of their newfound closeness to rivals.
The VSC ‘free kick’ removes that element and maintains what is, in current F1 at least, generally a spread-out field.
There are few scenarios where a device designed to add Safety also offers a short cut to a race advantage and it’s a loophole that needs to be closed.
If you get lucky with a Safety Car? Good on you. That’s the game and at least ‘the show’ benefits when the field is bunched up.
Last night, no one other than Hamilton benefited from the advantage he gained thanks to the VSC deployment.
Hopefully the FIA realizes this and tweaks the rules to close the pits under VSC conditions moving forward, if only for the good of the show – at a time when Formula One needs it most.