Virtual safety car a challenge to F1 drivers

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Following on from the horrific crash that Marussia driver Jules Bianchi had at the Japanese Grand Prix last month, the Formula 1 governing body, the FIA, announced that at the next event in Austin, Texas, it would be trialling a “virtual safety car,” (VSC) which essentially gave drivers a speed limit during yellow flag laps, something that has never been tried before. It was tested during the practice laps on Friday last week and despite a lot of driver praise going into the event, some came out suggesting that the system needs more work.

The test worked by drivers taking an extra lap after their practice laps were finished, with the VSC in effect. On their steering wheel, was a maximum speed that they were allowed to travel. Both Jenson Buttton and Roman Grosjean have been quite outspoken about the technology and while they both said it was heading in the right direction, they agreed that it needs more work before being implemented at every event and during major races.

“When you’re wheel-to-wheel and the system comes on you can’t just hit the brakes like we are now to get the speed down,” Button said to SkySports.

“In that respect it’s very tricky. I like the idea but you do spend a long time looking at your steering wheel. With the way the Safety Car boards are now and with the lap that we do when there’s no Safety Car you can dip below the time and you get away with it because as long as you cross the finish line positive [against the target time] you are okay.”

It seems a little dangerous to have drivers focusing too much on their HUDs, rather that on the track itself. It would perhaps be more beneficial to have some sort of wireless engine limiter like they have with Go Karts, so that when a yellow flag area is in effect, drivers literally cannot get the car’s over a certain speed limit. However implementing that with all of the different engines currently in use by F1 teams might be a little difficult.

vsc

The VSC is in action. Source: BBC

Grosjean found that doing maths while driving was a little difficult, as high-level cognitive thinking isn’t easy to do while you’re reacting about as fast as any human possibly can, driving at speeds that far surpass that of most road legal vehicles.

“The delta time goes minus nine tenths, minus six, plus three, minus two… I found it very difficult to follow. You open a bigger gap, like two or three seconds, but then it goes green it’s lost,” the Lotus driver explained.

“I only did it in P2, so I didn’t have much training on it, but I found it quite hard,” he said.

He also expressed some concern that the tracking wasn’t entirely accurate, suggesting that one one corner he was 1.2 seconds ahead and then the next one he was behind by over half a second. It was very confusing for the driver and he wasn’t the only one.

Of course this technology is still very new and will take some time to work out and that’s a good thing, as getting it right could save lives without impacting the sport’s excitement.

What do you guys think of the virtual safety car idea? It’s got to be better than the real safety car coming out everytime there is a crash, no?

Image source: Rynjim

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.