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The history of the F1 safety car

Colin Cumming looks back at the history of the car that leads the pack.

Mercedes-Benz has been Formula One's official safety car partner since 1997.

Mercedes-Benz has been Formula One's official safety car partner since 1997.

Since its inauguration in 1950, Formula One, with its lavish lifestyle and globetrotting races, has been seen as the pinnacle of motorsport. Renowned the world over, it has delivered thrills and spills on the race track for generations, however, with great speed comes an element of danger.

For the Formula One governing body, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), safety is paramount, where open-top, wheel-to-wheel racing is a way of life. Serious incidents are rare, however, when they do occur, it's vital a quick response is initiated, with a support team to protect as many lives as possible. More often than not, the protagonist in that team, is the safety car.

The safety car is deployed by the race director. Its purpose? To reduce the pace of the field considerably, in the event of an incident, for safety reasons or adverse weather conditions - to allow officials and marshals, to clear the track safely.

Over the years, there's been an eclectic mix of safety cars gracing the racetracks, from interesting and weird, to some exotic cars thrown in for good measure.


The first documented appearance of a safety car occurred in 1973's Canadian Grand Prix. After several incidents due to atrocious weather, a Porsche 914 was deployed. The 2.0-litre coupé led an illustrious pack of drivers, including Jackie Stewart - in fact, this was the Scottish triple world champion’s 99th and final race. The safety car's inaugural appearance wasn't without issues. The Porsche was sent out to catch the pack and control the race, but for some reason, picked the wrong car as the leader, which resulted in chaos. As the track dried and cars pitted, there was confusion as to who held pole position with the winner finally announced several hours later.

Thankfully, since then, the implementation of the safety car has run more smoothly. Despite its first appearance in 1973, it wasn't until 1993 that the FIA laid down clear guidelines on its use.

In the interim period, a 3.0-litre Porsche 911 Turbo was used at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix. The Principality then upped the game with perhaps the ultimate safety car: a 4.0-litre Lamborghini Countach. Despite appearing on the grid in 1981, 1982 and 1983, it wasn't used under race conditions, however, the Italian sports car certainly added additional glamour to proceedings. Due to the Lamborghini's notorious lack of reliability and handling, many expected it to have its own safety car!

Picking the right car

Now, you'd think that safety cars would be fast, reliable and practical? Well, after the official guidelines changed between 1993-1996, individual race organisers were responsible for supplying safety cars, which lead to some curious and unexpected choices being taken.

For only the second time in its history, though technically its first official outing, a safety car was called upon in 1993's Brazilian Grand Prix. Much to the bewilderment of fans and viewers around the world, a 2.0-litre 16V Fiat Tempra – yes, a Fiat Tempra, was used. By all accounts Damon Hill, who was leading, was as perplexed as millions of others. The image of Ayrton Senna hanging out the window at the end with a Brazilian flag is etched in people's minds - an almost surreal moment.


It should be pointed out, that the Fiat Tempra, and a small number of subsequent safety cars, were nothing more than standard road cars and not equipped to tackle major incidents, nor were they known for their pace.

A 2.0-litre Escort Cosworth Turbo was briefly used in 1993 at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. 1994's fateful San Marino Grand Prix saw a Vauxhall Cavalier accompany the pack, following the fatal crash of Ayrton Senna.

A Honda Prelude, Porsche 993 GT2 and a Lamborghini Diablo would all provide safety car cameos for formation laps in 1994 and 1995 respectively.

Perhaps one of the most humble safety cars appeared at the 1996 Argentine Grand Prix, in the form of a Renault Clio. The modified Clio 16S resulted in a 2.0-litre 16V edition Clio Williams. The hot hatch had a limited run of 3,800 cars, however, after drawing such attention, they all sold out almost immediately!

Partnership with Mercedes-Benz

By 1997, the FIA partnered up with German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz to provide Formula One's official safety car. The partnership has lasted to this day with the agreement also including a medical car and other support vehicles. The Mercedes-AMG range has featured heavily.

The first Mercedes used under the new partnership, was the C36 AMG. The 3.6-litre, racing tuned saloon was developed by AMG - the subsidiary tuning house of Daimler-Benz. With 280bhp, the 169mph Mercedes was able to keep pace, particularly on a few occasions following accidents.

The 1997, 1998 and 2003 seasons saw a modified CLK 55 AMG grace the tracks. The 5.4-litre V8, two-door, 342bhp coupé’s rein was pretty uneventful, until the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, where torrential rain forced the grid to start behind it. In all, following serious accidents and aquaplaning, the event-packed race saw the safety car deployed five times. So much so, the race was stopped.


1999 and 2000 saw a second-generation 5.4-litre supercharged V8 Mercedes CL 55 AMG, 355bhp, keep pace. Its tenure wasn't particularly memorable; however, the 1999 Canadian Grand Prix saw the car deployed four times, resulting in the race being finished behind it. 1999's French Grand Prix saw the car keep pace as several incidents unfolded due to the amount of water on the track.

Unveiled at the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim, after five years in development, the 2001 season saw the world premiere of the new SL-class. Upon its release, it was the fastest automatic car in the world. The 5.4-litre V8, 495bhp SL 55 AMG was the new safety car. The car was called upon on a few occasions but not for anything too dramatic. It would also return for the 2002 season.

The 2004 and 2005 seasons saw another 5.4-litre V8, 355bhp Mercedes-Benz grace the tracks in the form of a closed-top roadster – the SLK 55 AMG. For the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Mercedes-Benz reverted back to a two-door coupé, the 6.2-litre V8 CLK 63 AMG. Both cars were used sparingly during their runs, however, the latter was called into action at 2007's Canadian Grand Prix and the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring following periods of heavy rain.

2008 and 2009 saw the Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG debut, which replaced the outgoing SL 55 AMG. The 6.2-litre V8 delivered 518bhp and 155mph ¬– more than enough to keep pace with the F1 pack. However, it wasn't called upon much, other than some debris and a few minor incidents.

From 2010 to 2014, Mercedes-Benz introduced the SLS AMG and a GT variant ¬– a front mid-engine, two-seater, limited production grand tourer. The car was developed with the assistance of Scottish former Formula One driver David Coulthard. The SLS was the first Mercedes-Benz designed and built from scratch entirely by the AMG division, and utilised the iconic gull-wing doors which swung upwards. The 6.2-litre V8, 563hbp SLS AMG was called into action on a few occasions during its tenure, mostly for accidents and weather-related incidents – particularly during the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. The SLS AMG GT took over the reins in late 2012, putting its 583bhp to good use, most notably at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, following the fatal crash of Jules Bianchi.

2015, 2016 and 2017 would see the appearance of the new Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S model. The 4.0-litre, twin turbocharged V8, delivered 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds with a top speed of 195 mph. It was the second model to be developed entirely by AMG. It's involvement throughout its years was fairly mundane, though it did make for good photo opportunities with the fans.

Present day

Since 2018 until now, Mercedes have utilised the AMG GT R as the safety car. The GT R is a high-performance variant of the AMG GT model. In a noticeable change, the 2021 season saw the traditionally silver car permanently wear a red livery ¬– to increase the chances of drivers seeing it during poor visibility. In a first for Formula One, the AMG GT R shared safety car duties in 2021. The first half of the season was given to Mercedes, and the second half was handed over to Aston Martin, who provided a modified new model Vantage. The 4.0-litre, V8 turbo, 542bhp Vantage sported a new aero kit, stylish lines and was accompanied by its iconic Bond status. Sadly, the ejector seat and machines guns weren't deemed suitable for the racetrack!

Following the death of Jules Bianchi in 2014, a virtual safety car was introduced. It doesn't physically appear on track, but it does enforce safety protocols. A ‘VSC’ icon appears trackside and on drivers’ steering wheels, informing them not to exceed new speed limits.

Since its inception, the safety car has been deployed 287 times in 199 Grand Prix, with 13 races starting behind the safety car and eight finishing behind it. The most deployments in one race was for 2011's Canadian Grand Prix where the safety car was called upon six times.

With the safety car deciding the outcome of the dramatic 2021 season finale and many more fast-paced seasons of Formula One yet to come - rest assured, the safety car will be back in action. With what model? Time will tell.

About the Author

Colin Cumming