Let it be known that the greatest threat to green flag racing is the pace car. This may seem like the most obvious statement ever uttered, but I am more interested in how great a threat that is.
I should start by addressing a nomenclatural problem: the difference between a ?pace car? and a ?safety car.? The term ?pace car? is more appropriate to U.S. English as it denotes the vehicle?s use in setting the pace for a rolling start. ?Safety car? is more appropriate to U.K. English because rolling starts in Europe are less common than standing starts and the car is only deployed as a safety device. For the duration of this article, I will only say, ?pace car,? as a matter of consistency.
Everyone has problems with pace cars for one reason or another. Attempts to introduce them into motorcycle racing are always met with failure as riders need to keep their heads down, depriving them of the visibility needed to see these things around blind corners. For motorcycles, the red flag reigns supreme.
NASCAR?s biggest problem (especially on road courses) is time. NASCAR expects the pace car to maintain a constant speed (usually ten miles per hour faster than the pit road speed limit). This works well enough for short tracks, but it does not translate to big ovals and road courses. When we consider that pit road must close for one lap, be open for the leaders on the next lap, and be open for the lapped cars on the lap after that, every full course yellow takes at least three laps (often just to pick up one piece of debris). So when there is a yellow at a 2.5-mile track, and the pace car is limited to 65 miles per hour, then it will be 7 minutes before the next green flag. At a 4-mile track like Road America with a speed of 45 mph, a yellow flag will last 16 minutes.
One of the nice things about Formula One is the hatred of pace cars; however, as the cars have progressed technologically, the red flag has become a measure of last resort. Engines will only operate at certain temperatures, so the cars take 15 minutes to restart. The good news is that the pace car isn?t bound to a constant speed; it goes as fast as it is physically capable (being an expensive supercar does not hurt). The bad news is that this is still very slow by the standards of F1 cars as the tires cannot stay warm, and the engines overheat from lack of air to the radiators.
Either way, there?s still the problem of fairness. If a driver builds up a ten second lead, does he not deserve to keep this lead? Bunching the field up is great if you are a corner worker or a mentally challenged redneck who feels ?the show? needs improvement; however, it is not great if you worked hard all week to keep ahead of the guys you are now forced to pack up with.
There have been a few attempts to ad fairness to the problem. At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, multiple pace cars are used to keep the field spread around the track. It works well at La Sarthe, but might fall short at Bristol. Formula One tried scoring the races on aggregate time (i.e. however many seconds behind the leader you are when the race is stopped is added to the total time it took you to finish the race). This too presents a challenge as it is impossible to know where you are in relation to everyone else?s time handicaps. Perhaps F1 has a few things to learn from Le Mans.
There is an old, forgotten method that interests me. Before 1978 the Indianapolis 500 pace car was only used to start the race; yellow periods during the race were orchestrated by forcing all cars to slow to a constant, low speed all the way around the track while staying spread in their original intervals. This old idea is due for a comeback. An oval race could be fair enough to maintain an earned interval, and the safety crew can still keep the track clear of debris. There?s no longer any minimum number of yellow laps which minimizes any damage to the flow of the race, and the race can be restarted wherever the leader happens to be. Advances in GPS technology make this concept much more viable than it ever was before.
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