Formula 1 championship leader Sebastian Vettel has questioned the timing of the safety car period that compromised his race in China.
FIA race director Charlie Whiting called for the safety car after a collision between Toro Rosso drivers Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly left debris on the track, opting not to go for a VSC because it was necessary to create a gap in traffic to allow marshals onto the track.
However, the yellow flag period was confirmed just after leader Valtteri Bottas and Vettel had passed the safety car line – which meant that they could not duck into the pits.
Often the leaders have the chance to carry on round and pit before finding the safety car and joining the queue, but the timing on this occasion meant that Bottas and Vettel were given no such opportunity.
Meanwhile, Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were able to pit for fresh tyres – a decision that ultimately won the race for the Australian.
“Obviously the timing of the safety car was bad for Valtteri and myself, because we had no chance to react,” Vettel said.
“The safety car was caught almost straight away, so basically we were taken out of the race there, and didn’t have the choice to jump on fresh tyres or stay out.”
Vettel was frustrated because he believed that, having waited for a couple of laps while the debris situation was assessed, Whiting could have timed the safety car so that the leaders did not suffer.
“I need to understand why we had the safety car changing the race. In 2014 in Hungary we were in a similar situation, where the leaders were disadvantaged because the safety car came once they passed the pit entry, or it was called out after they passed the pit entry.
“I understand if something happens and you have to react straight away, then you can’t always respect where cars are relative to each other.
“But we had two laps of the debris on the track, so why not call the safety car half a minute sooner and then everybody has the chance to decide whether they pit or not?”
Vettel acknowledged that the safety car was required: “I don’t know the gaps but you have to give the marshals a one and a half or two-minute window to clean the track.
“But in my point of view it’s not right to send it when you actively change the race.”
Whiting wanted to make sure safety car was “necessary”
Queried on the timing of the safety car, Whiting stressed it wasn’t race control’s job to ensure that nobody lost out in such situations.
“I don’t look to see who is going to be advantaged or disadvantaged,” he said. “You remember a few years ago in Hungary, Nico [Rosberg] was leading, the first four cars were just past the pit entry, and they got disadvantaged. So that’s fairly straightforward.
“It’s a little bit of a mystery to me why this has all come into sharp focus, because we’ve had the VSC since 2015, we’ve had the safety car for 20 years, and we know that in every intervention there will be winners and losers.
“If we have to sit there and work out who is going to be advantaged and work it so everyone has exactly the same chance… We don’t have time for that. It’s not our job to do that.”
Regarding the delay on the decision, he said: “I think we wanted to make sure it was necessary. We didn’t want to do it just on the basis that three or four teams called us to say we need a safety car, which happens nearly every time.
“I asked the clerk of the course if they could get it in a gap in the traffic, and he said: ‘No, it’s too much.’ We had to make sure it was justified.”