The message comes over the radio: “Safety car… go!” and there is no time to lose. The FIA’s safety car driver, Bernd Mayländer, exits the pit lane driving the official safety car, a Mercedes-Benz SLS-AMG, takes up position ahead of the leading car and remains out on track until Charlie Whiting, the race director, is satisfied that it is safe to resume the race.
Driving the safety car is by no means an easy task for Mayländer as he has to make sure that he goes quick enough for the F1 cars behind him even in tricky circumstances. “The most important thing during a safety car period is to get the speed right,” he explains. He has to find the perfect balance so that the procession is slow enough for safety purposes but still fast enough for the engines not to overheat, for the brakes not to cool down too much and for the tyre pressures to stay up.
The safety car often looks to be slower than it actually is. “A Formula One car will generally be between 35 and 55 seconds faster per lap depending on the circuit,” Mayländer reckons, which means that an F1 car would lap the safety car after three times around an average track.
And yet Mayländer is driving the fastest Formula One safety car of all time. The SLS-AMG packs 571 horsepower under the bonnet and accelerates from 0 to 62mph in just 3.8 seconds. Even so, it remains a series production thoroughbred. Engine, power transmission, high-performance chassis and ceramic brake discs are exactly what you would find on the road version. But the main thing about this car is its safety features. It’s fast but easy to drive, especially in extreme situations.
The first deployment of a safety car took place in the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix. Since 1996, Mercedes-Benz have been the official safety car supplier celebrating their 250th race engagement at the finale of the 2010 season in Abu Dhabi. Mayländer has known each and every one of the nine AMG safety cars from a driver’s perspective. The first Mercedes-Benz used in this role back in 1996 started out as his company vehicle.
“The C36 made its debut at Magny Cours,” recalls Mayländer. “The car we were using then had a personalised number plate: S - BM 300. BM stood for Bernd Mayländer. That was the car I used at work. It was delivered in April and recalled in late May. I thought I must have done something wrong during the course of the ITC season...” In fact, the idea was to convert his vehicle into the future Formula One safety car.
Since that time, Mayländer has had some memorable moments in his career as safety car driver. “One of the greatest memories was Hockenheim in 2001 when I gave Michael Schumacher a lift from the first chicane all the way back to the home straight after he was forced to retire from the race,” recalls Mayländer. “You don’t get to do many laps with him as a passenger.” Mayländer is delighted that Michael is racing for the Silver Arrows. “I’m hoping that I don’t have to take him back to the pit lane a second time.”
Mayländer has vivid memories of the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix which had to start behind the safety car because of the atrocious weather conditions. “I drove those first 19 laps in the rain right at the limit,” he recalls. “That was my very own F1 race.” Mayländer actually prefers races where his services are not called upon: “It’s the best feeling of all when I can stand around in the pit lane and watch the race in a relaxed frame of mind.” That is until the next time he hears the urgent summons on his radio: “Safety car… go!”