When accidents happen, it is Bernd Mayländer's job to keep the race safe. Preparation, he says, is the key.
Preparation key to Grand Prix safety
There will be a driver in tomorrow's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that holds a Formula One record, but few people know his name. He's a friendly, amiable fellow, but no one wants to see him out there. And though he has never won a race, not a single driver on the grid can pass him on any circuit.
The driver is Bernd Mayländer, and if you see him driving the track tomorrow, it's because something went wrong. The German former race car driver pilots the safety car for every Grand Prix, and has for the past 10 years. The 38-year-old was at the Yas Marina Circuit recently for an event with Mercedes-Benz AMG, which has been supplying the safety car for F1 for the past 14 years.
In 1999, Mayländer was already travelling with the F1 circus, but as a racer in the Porsche Supercup series, a support event for the big show. He had also been doing endurance racing as well as the German touring car series (DTM) when he was approached with a new opportunity.
"It was a little bit of luck. Back then, I had an option to drive for Mercedes at Le Mans, but I took the option to drive for Porsche," he explains.
"So, it was a nice Friday morning at Imola in San Marino [at the Grand Prix], and one of the FIA guys came up to me and asked: 'What do you think about driving the safety car? And I said I was driving in the Supercup, but they said it was just for Formula 3000. And, yes, well, I knew the product quite well, Mercedes, AMG, and it all worked well. And that was the entrance to my job I have now.
"So, '99 was basically my practice and since 2000 I've been driving the safety car in F1. It's not a full-time job; it's more or less about 100 days travelling around with Formula One. The rest of my days I spend as a brand ambassador for Mercedes and AMG."
There are just 19 races in the F1 calendar this year (20 next year) but during those weekends the 39-year-old is kept busy.
"The normal procedure starts on Thursday afternoon; we have a track test. So the safety car and the medical car are always the first cars on the race track. On Thursday from 2pm to 3pm is a channel of track tests; all the camera people are in position, the timekeeping, the helicopter is flying around, so for everybody it's a main test for the weekend. For me, it's quite important. I know all the race tracks, but I have to bring this back, to know where the maximum braking points are; it's quite important. Also, we have to check the cars - they're arriving by airplane, so maybe something happened, we have to check it out. It's quite important to prepare yourself for the weekend."
During the races, it's Mayländer's job - along with his co-driver, Peter Tibbetts - to sit in the SLS pace car, strapped in and ready to go, and wait for a call from the FIA race control to go out on the track if something happens. Often, there is no call, but when there is, Mayländer is ready. But how does he feel when he gets that call?
"It's up to the situation. In the car, we have screens to follow the race, so we can see if something happens, we know that it will probably be a safety car procedure. Now, if there's a really big shunt, like we had in 2007 in Canada with Robert Kubica [the then-BMW Sauber driver was involved in a major crash, but walked away], it was the biggest accident I've seen in my time. It's a special moment. It's a big accident, you don't know what happened with the driver, you don't know what's going on, but you still have to do your job. And you have to drive on the limit, you have to drive careful and safe in the accident area, you have 23, 24 guys behind you, so you have to report on the track, you have to show them the safest line on the track.
"Sometimes it's fun to be a leader of a Formula One field, for a short moment, but sometimes, like in the case of Robert Kubica, it's not very nice, for sure. But you have to do your job 100 per cent."
When the safety car is deployed, it's up to Mayländer to pace the race cars around the track during a full-course yellow flag. And while it might look on television that the cars are crawling in comparison with their race pace, you can be sure that Mayländer isn't out for a Sunday drive.
"It looks on TV that I'm slow. But it's definitely not: the normal procedure is that I'm driving as fast as the safety car can go. So, here in Abu Dhabi, I will be going 250kph on the long straight. On TV, it doesn't look so fast, and you'll see the F1 cars behind me swerving back and forth, warming up the tyres, but the speed difference is so amazing between the F1 cars and the safety car. I still have to be quick enough, but also safe enough."
On October 24, the German's job was made even more difficult at the Korean Grand Prix with torrential rains pouring down on the track. The FIA had him pace 24 laps of the race, a new record for laps led by the pace car. But because F1 cars rely so heavily on aerodynamics for grip, they still have to go fast, which put pressure on Mayländer.
"For 24 laps, I was nearly on the limit. Not in the accident areas, but where the track was clear, I was driving as quick as I could. So, for me, it was like a race over 24 laps.
"The problem that weekend - why we stopped the race after three laps - was not the water on the track but the visibility. Because the drivers behind me, they couldn't see anything because of the spray. All the drivers were quite happy that the race stopped; it was the right decision and we were happy with the result."
He's never had an accident or a problem while pacing the field, and that's partly because of his preparation over the weekend. "On the Thursday afternoon, when I have my personal test for an hour, I go to the limit, sometimes over the limit, so I have to find the 100-per-cent line of the safety car. That's why we have these tests. For sure, sometimes you go a little wide in the corner, and you say 'OK that's the limit'. You can't do that in the race. It's the same reason the F1 cars go out for practice on Friday and Saturday morning: to find the limit."
The SLS is new to F1 this year, replacing the SL63 AMG as the official safety car, and Mayländer is happy with his new ride.
"You know, sometimes you're driving really fast cars with a lot of power, but really bad balance. But the new SLS, from the handling, it's such an easy, nice driving car. It's not a beast; sometimes you can drive a beast car: powerful, but you don't really feel comfortable. This one tells you exactly what's going on; if you've got understeering, if you've got oversteer. And you still have enough time to handle it, to bring the car back in the right position. You feel always like you're enjoying it, like you're having fun. I've never driven a car like that."
The constant travelling across the globe sounds glamorous, but Mayländer doesn't have much time for sight seeing in the busy weekend. But how does he handle the jet lag? The German laughs.
"Sometimes it's hard, especially when you're sitting in the car, strapped in for the whole race. But it's good that I have my co-driver, because if he starts to nod off, I give him a shove, and he does it to me.
"But when you're driving, it's not a problem. The focus takes over."