Leading the leaders

Since 2000, Bernd Maylander has set the pace in many a F1 race.-RAJEEV BHATT

Bernd Maylander is a very, very busy man on Grand Prix weekends — right from the first track test on Thursday afternoon, through many more track and GPS tests on Friday and Saturday, to the final round of test laps and marshalling on race day. By G. Raghunath.

It’s not very often that one sees the safety car coming on to the track during a Formula One Grand Prix. But those who think the job of a safety car driver is sinecure need to immediately revise their opinion. Bernd Maylander, 42, who has been the safety car driver for the last 14 years, would only scoff, “They are missing the point.”

Maylander is a very, very busy man on Grand Prix weekends — right from the first track test on Thursday afternoon, through many more track and GPS tests on Friday and Saturday, to the final round of test laps and marshalling on race day. And when the race gets underway, he stays put in the safety car, his ears open, awaiting commands such as ‘Safety car stand-by!’, ‘Safety car stand-down!’ or ‘Safety car go!’ from Race Control. If the Grand Prix happens to be in Europe, his work is almost double, with the support races thrown in.

“I am always ready to go; I need to be on time — always. I can’t say, ‘I am going for a quick coffee’ and take off. That’s how my job is. I have been doing it for the last 14 years and I like it,” says Maylander, who appears completely relaxed in the FIA shelter at the Buddh International Circuit, three days ahead of the Indian Grand Prix (October 27).

The German, a former touring-car race driver, is so deeply in love with his job that he has missed just three races ever since he accepted the FIA offer to drive the safety car in 2000. “I missed these races because I was in hospital then,” he says with all the promptness of a man who has just been called to explain a faux pas.

“The first time, in 2001, I broke my right heel... I tried to jump over a fence, which I guess was a little too high! I was in hospital for two races. That’s when I asked my friend from my touring-car days, Marcel Fassler, to step in for me. I convinced my boss, Charlie Whiting, the FIA Race Director, who quickly agreed.

“The second time I missed a race was in 2002 when I had to undergo a lung surgery. After that I have never missed any,” says Maylander, vigorously crossing his palms in front of him.

Whenever the safety car comes on to the track, one pertinent question that crosses a fan’s mind is: Who actually regulates the pace of the car?

“It’s my own decision. When I see in the rear-view mirror the guys behind me pushing really hard, I realise I have to go under the limit. Sometimes, we get commands from Race Control to ‘speed up as time is running out’. But I have refused to speed up on some occasions; my co-driver would feign and say, ‘We can’t go any quicker because I am on the limit’,” says Maylander.

He adds: “It isn’t easy to make out from the TV monitors what speeds the safety car is doing. I have even done 280 kmph on the straights on some circuits.

“During rain, though, we go very slowly because visibility and spraying present a formidable problem to the drivers. However, we still need to maintain a certain level of speed in order to ensure that race cars don’t suffer from overheating.”

One interesting aspect of Formula One, according to Maylander, is its communication systems. “They are top class. The Race Control can listen to each of the drivers and teams communicating over their radios. They can also listen to us. So what is very important here is radio conduct. It should be as good as possible,” he says.

Like every other Formula One driver, the safety car driver too needs to have a fitness regime. After all, doing close to 500 kilometres or more each race weekend is no simple task. “I either go to the gym, or jog,” Maylander says. “I also run round the track to keep myself fit. I should actually be running round the track now, and here I am talking!”

In the Japanese Grand Prix of 2007, Maylander led the race for close to 20 laps in pelting rain; and in the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix run in torrential rain, he led for over 26 laps, far more than the winner, Jenson Button, who snatched victory from Sebastian Vettel in the final stretch. These are but a few quirky moments in the life of Maylander, who has also suffered some agonising moments on the track. Like witnessing Robert Kubica’s accident in Montreal in 2007, when the BMW-Sauber driver clipped Jarno Trulli’s Toyota, hit the retaining wall, rolled back across the track and hit the wall on the opposite side. He suffered a minor concussion and sprained his ankle.

“I didn’t expect he would go to the hospital and go home the next day,” Maylander says. “Nobody wants to have the worst case on the track.”

Maylander cherishes the compliment he had received from Vettel during the Korean Grand Prix this year. “When I was driving in the limit, Vettel, who was just behind, spoke to me over the radio, ‘You are doing very well; the handling is perfect. It’s cool.’ And I replied, ‘Yes, it’s cool, but it’s my job!’”

His thoughts then quickly turn to the Buddh International Circuit. “It is the newest among the recent circuits in Formula One, and it is very impressive. They have maintained it well and I should say it is very safe to drive here. If I were a Formula One driver or any other race driver, I would have loved to drive on the limit here,” he says before breaking off for his Thursday afternoon routine.

* * * SAFETY CAR FACTS

• The safety car was first used in Formula One at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1973.

• Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is used as the safety car. It is driven by a 571 HP power plant. It is connected to Race Control via two monitors and two cameras on the roof.

• The safety car is deployed during a Grand Prix after an accident or when it rains heavily. It is when the car leads the Formula One cars around the track at reduced speed until the hazardous situation passes.

• The decision to deploy the safety car is taken by the FIA Race Director.

• Two safety cars are used during a race weekend.

• The safety cars run on normal road tyres made of special compound. They are changed every weekend.

• On a normal race weekend, each of the safety cars clocks 250 kilometres or more. So the safety car driver does, on an average, 500 kilometres each race weekend.