“How the f*** did Nico pass us?” was the car to pit radio message from Daniel Ricciardo on lap 8 as the virtual safety car was withdrawn. Rosberg was down in fourth when the VSC was deployed following the coming together with his team mate at turn one on the first lap.
The Virtual Safety Car is clearly different from a full safety car, where the field bunches up in race order and each car is right behind the one ahead. The current VSC operation gives the drivers a minimum time to drive to (max average speed) which reduces the pace of the cars on track and maintains the current gaps between the cars.
However, under the first VSC at the 2015 US GP which was primarily deployed to clear debris from turn one, something new in VSC history was to happen.
it appeared Lewis felt he may need to make amends for his first lap ‘error’ which had cost his team mate, and so Lewis drove slower than required under the VSC, thus allowing the Red Bulls in second and third along with Rosberg to close up on him.
On lap 5 when the VSC was deployed, Hamilton (P1) led Ricciardo (P3) by 4.9 seconds and Rosberg by 7.0 seconds. Hamilton’s next two laps were 2m 17.8s and 2m 17.0s and Ricciardo was able to reduce the gap to just under 2 seconds. Meanwhile Nico Rosberg was lapping in around 2m 15s, so by the time the VSC was withdrawn, he was now 2.7 seconds behind Lewis and on Ricciardo’s tail.
Yet it appears Daniel Ricciardo wasn’t really sure what was going on during this phase of the race. “Rosberg wasn’t right up our arse [when the VSC was deployed], he was a few seconds behind,” said the Aussie after the race. “So then when I saw him already close on us under virtual safety car, I was thinking, ‘surely he’ll back off again”.
“Then he passed me, and then it was green flag apparently. I don’t know what happened there. I was following suit, basically”.
The cars are given a warning prior to the VSC being withdrawn, so maybe Ricciardo wasn’t paying attention. Ricciardo claims the VSC procedures were unusual at the race in Austin. “It was a bit confusing, I don’t know why. On Sunday it was more confusing than it has been in previous races”.
“I don’t know if Rosberg just caught all of us out, but I was more confused how he was so close to us.”
However, Daniel should have been able to understand that if he was driving to his delta time and max average speed – but was catching Hamilton, then the race leader was driving more slowly than he was required. This would see Rosberg close the gap behind the Red Bull despite being under VSC conditions.
TJ13 has advocated the use of a VSC for a number of years, however, the current system is a botched and revised version of what Charlie Whiting intended to deliver following the Bianchi incident in Suzuka 2014.
The VSC was supposed to be a computerised replacement for double yellow flags. It would isolate a small area of the circuit where marshals were working forcing the cars to ‘slow down and be prepared to stop’. Then for the rest of the lap the drivers could travel at full speed for the rest of the lap.
To ensure no driver gained an advantage, the last car through the VSC zone first time around, would be the last car through the same zone before the VSC was withdrawn.
The problem with the VSC as it is currently operated is that drivers can still drive at excessive speeds through areas of the circuit where marshals are working. The cars at present are given average maximum speeds at which they can drive, this means if they drive slower than this for part of the lap – they can then drive full tilt for part of the lap.
Ricciardo’s expectations demonstrate this speeding up and slowing down is common during VSC periods. In Monaco this year, cars were crossing the start finish line under the VSC and clocking speeds similar to when racing.