The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history

  • 29 November 2023
  • 2 min read
  • 5 images
The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history image

Photo credit: Formula 1, Lamborghini, Mercedes, Porsche

The 2023 Formula 1 World Championship concluded last week in Abu Dhabi with the final Grand Prix of the season won by Max Verstappen, who dominated with Red Bull without the need for the Safety Car to make an appearance. All smooth. However, the AMG GTR Black Series and Aston Martin Vantage, ready to slow down the race and compact the group of single-seaters in case of an accident, are always on standby with a driver on board. These models are selected by the FIA through sponsorship deals, where the brands provide not only the Safety Car but also the Medical Car for emergency response. Mercedes and Aston Martin supply the cars for promotional purposes.

The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history - 1Today, the official Formula 1 safety cars are provided by AMG with the GTR Black Series and Aston Martin with the Vantage.

Seeing today’s fast and track-ready Safety Cars, which don’t force the single-seaters to slow down too much, it’s worth asking how these vehicles were in the past.

What seems simple today had a complicated debut: the need for these cars was also motivated by the necessity to quickly assist drivers involved in serious accidents. But managing them wasn’t easy: in 1973, after the tragic death of Roger Williamson at Zandvoort, a Safety Car was trialled at the Canadian GP. It was a yellow Porsche 914. The experiment was not successful: after the fatal accident of Francois Cevert, inexperience led to great chaos in compiling the race’s final standings, with most drivers trailing one lap behind.

The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history - 2The first time the Safety Car was used in Formula 1 at the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix.

For years, the Safety Car’s use wasn’t regularized, with only occasional appearances, like a Porsche 930 Turbo in Monaco in 1976 or the Lamborghini Countach provided by Sant’Agata to the Automobile Club of Monaco from 1981 to 1983. In these cases, given the audience of the Principality, they were authentic early marketing stunts.

The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history - 3Lamborghini Countach cars provided as Safety Cars for the Monaco Grand Prix from 1981 to 1983.

It was only in the 1993 season that the Safety Car became a permanent fixture in F1, but even then, not everything went to plan. At that time, individual Grand Prix organizers were responsible for providing the cars, leading to some odd choices like the Fiat Tempra in Brazil or the Ford Escort Cosworth in the UK, hardly suitable for leading F1 cars. Even worse, at the 1996 Argentine GP, a small Renault Clio Williams was deployed as the Safety Car. How the drivers managed to keep their tyres at the right temperature behind a utility car remains a mystery to this day.

The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history - 4The Renault Clio Williams used in the 1996 Argentine Grand Prix as the Safety Car.

This inconsistency led the FIA to partner with Mercedes-Benz, which became the official supplier mid-season. A story that began with the C36 AMG and the CLK 55 AMG and continues today with the AMG GTR Black Series. From 2023, a dual contract has brought the Aston Martin Vantage onto the fleet. Double marketing, double revenue!

The Formula 1 Safety Car’s strange history - 5Since 1996, Mercedes-Benz has become the official supplier of the Safety Car and Medical Car. A decision made by the FIA to ensure a car with proper performance.