F1: Virtual Safety Car remains work in progress after driver feedback

A sign displays the message 'VSC' as teams trial the new Virtual Safety Car during practice ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on Oct. 31, 2014 in Austin, United States.

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This past week at Circuit of the Americas during two United States Grand Prix Formula 1 practices, FIA tested a Virtual Safety Car. The VSC is not a driverless safety car, but a combination of GPS, electronics, audio, and driver control inputs that create controlled lap time and speed as if a safety car were on track.

FIA’s acute focus on better speed control methods during yellow-flag zones is in large part the result of Jules Bianchi’s horrific crash at Suzuka last month. Until now, under a yellow flag, drivers are required to slow, but drivers, maintaining maximum competiveness, slow at different rates and to different speeds at different times.

VSC, on the other hand, works through the use of GPS, dashboard displays, and in helmet audio to alert drivers of “delta time.” The dashboard displays incremental plus and minus times with audio to help the driver achieve and maintain proper speed. Failing delta time results in a penalty.

“I suppose it does what it is supposed to do, ” Sebastian Vettel told Formula1.com after the test. “I think it needs some fine-tuning, but overall it works. You see a plus or a minus sign – and you better stay in the plus because the minus means that you’re too fast. It is still in the trial phase as I understand it, but my guess is that in the future we will see something like this as part of race safety.”

“For a first try it went well, ” added Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso. “There is still much to do. All us drivers agree it’s a very worthwhile idea, we just need to get used to it.”

“There were positives and negatives to today’s virtual safety car test,” stated McLaren driver Jenson Button. “I like the idea, but you spend a lot of time looking down at your steering wheel in order to ensure you’re correctly driving to the delta. If you drop below it when the restart happens, you get a 10-second penalty. In that respect, it’s very tricky.”

FIA did not elect, with the version of VSC tested at COTA, to remotely remove control from drivers through either a master race control or automatic onboard speed limiter. While the FIA has not reported a time certain when VSC would be race used, it is clear that FIA is hurrying with new technology and rules to increase safety during the race.