Tuesday , 20 October 2020

Does IndyCar Need a Virtual Safety Car?

Yellows breed yellows. It is commonplace in IndyCar to see multiple cautions (or full-course cautions, full-course yellows (not to be confused with the WEC version), safety cars, whatever you want to call them) in an IndyCar race, and not uncommon to see the pace car out within seconds of it coming back in after an incident. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why the championship remains so open every year, why the results can be so unpredictable, and why the racing can be very, very close. However, when you have a situation as we saw on Sunday where the race result was determined by a late caution for a single car spinning off, as opposed to the best driver on the day winning. The nature of this spin by Sage Karam is also debatable, but a bit more on that later.

Introduced at Le Mans in 2014 as a ‘slow zone’, the idea of having a set speed on a part of a course, or all the way around a course was a novel idea to slow the cars down without disrupting a race too much. After it proved successful there, it has been used since then in the World Endurance Championship, and following the tragic fatal accident that Jules Bianchi suffered last October, the FIA moved quickly to get a similar thing implemented into Formula 1 and its support package – where it has only been used a few times so far, but has worked pretty well when it has done.

How the virtual safety car works (in F1 anyway) is that once the call is given, the race is neutralised as each driver must slow down to a set speed and time delta. Once the hazard has been removed, then the call is given again to go back to racing conditions. It is a much less hassle than having the safety car out, and it does not mix up the results as much if you have some drivers who have pitted just before the safety car jumping several places up the field as a result.

It should be worth noting that I am specifically talking about the road and street courses here. This type of thing has not been trialled on ovals before (as far as I am aware) and due to the short lap times that ovals have anyway, I would not see a huge amount of point in having this on the ovals.

One of the most frustrating things about watching IndyCar sometimes is going straight back to a caution period within seconds of returning to green flag running because somebody has spun off or because a piece of debris is on the racing line. During times like those, I feel that a virtual safety car (or a ‘virtual yellow’ as it would probably be dubbed in IndyCar) would be a much more efficient way of going about things.

Having a virtual yellow would also make it much more difficult to pull off foul play, as Chip Ganassi Racing and Sage Karam have been accused of following Sunday night’s race at Mid-Ohio, where he essentially ‘pulled a Piquet Jr.’ by giving team mate a conveniently timed caution period which helped the New Zealander and harmed championship leader Juan Pablo Montoya. For those unfamiliar with ‘Crashgate’, Nelson Piquet Jr.’s deliberate crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix moved Fernando Alonso to the front of the field as he had pitted early in the race, giving the Spaniard his first win of the season. Karam’s timely spin essentially switched Dixon and Montoya around, having a massive swing on the championship. It was not all according to plan however, as Graham Rahal moved himself to just nine points of Montoya as he got very lucky as he pitted just moments before the pit lane was closed. Having a virtual yellow would drastically decrease the benefit of pitting just before, or during a neutralised race situation.

I believe that generally having a race neutralised without the need of bunching up the field drastically is one of the better innovations we have seen in motorsport in recent years. I feel that it would work in IndyCar because it would still be a good moment to swing away for an ad-break but without having to run for several laps pointlessly behind the pace car if several cars did pit under the caution. It is simply a quicker, safer and more efficient way of getting as many racing laps in as possible, and it does not jumble up the race results as much for no reason at all, which at the end of the day, is what I want to see.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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