The subject of how best to neutralise a race during an on-track incident has long taxed the minds of those responsible for addressing the safety of those involved in the incident, together with those responsible for intervention, and those still out there and racing.
Those issues are significantly more taxing when the race involves different class fields running at different paces, and over long times and distances where the various class fields can be intertwined on track, but with laps difference between the classes.
All of that came into sharp focus at the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours when, during an early race Safety Car period, the factory Porsche 911 RSR of Kevin Estre, Michael Christensen and Laurens Vanthoor gained a massive on track advantage after pitting just before a safety car period, with all of the Porsche’s class rivals pitting under the Safety car and then held at the pit exit until the passage of the second Safety Car. The Porsche went on to win the race.
That incident, in particular, seems to have activated the ACO to change its approach to safety cars, and to alternative safety interventions, ahead of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In a significant shift, Full Course Yellows (FCY) look set to become more the norm and whilst Safety cars and Slow Zones are still options, and will very likely still be utilised, statements released last week by the ACO, Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil confirmed that the 80 km/h FCYs will become a more preferred intervention.
“We are constantly adapting as the race is always different due to the weather, the performance of the cars, organisational strategies in pit lane, the characteristics of the tyres and many other factors linked to the unique nature of our 13.626-km circuit.
“After every running of the 24 Hours, we address all the above with the competitors. Following the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans, we had such a discussion with the entrants.
“Among the topics raised, one concerned the LMGTE Pro class and the consequences of the Safety Car intervening early in the race. We gave it a great deal of consideration and came up with some new features for the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans, like a Full Course Yellow.
“We will employ a Full Course Yellow with a different aim and mindset than for other WEC races where it is used in a greater number of instances. Le Mans has Slow Zone procedures that will still be frequently used.
“We studied the cases we have faced in recent years and concluded that a Full Course Yellow would have avoided the deployment of certain Safety Cars.
“That is the goal: when certain complex situations call for a Safety Car – a long and impactful process with three such cars (at Le Mans) – we will now be able to neutralise the track with a Full Course Yellow over a short period of time.
“This will potentially allow for a speedy resolution to the situation and the restarting of the race as quickly as possible without the complexities of the Safety Car.
“Unlike the other WEC races, access to the pit lane will be prohibited during the procedure so a Full Course Yellow can be implemented for a brief time with minimal impact on the race.
And there are set to be subtle but significant changes to in the regulations around Safety Car procedures: “What happened last year in GTE had a definite impact on the outcome of the race. The lead pack was split in two: after the Safety Car was deployed, the slower cars had to wait a long while to exit the pit lane once they had refuelled. They had no choice but to wait. “The analysis conducted with the teams caused us to modify the beginning of the procedure: unlike in 2018, cars already in pit lane when the Safety Car is brought out will not be blocked at the exit of pit lane when trying to return to the track until after the passage of the second Safety Car.
“Once those cars are back out, the Safety Car rules return to normal and cars may only exit the pit lane behind a Safety Car and the cars trailing it.”