Formula 1’s first, and chaotic, use of the safety car

Safety cars are a common feature of modern motor racing, but F1’s first try did not go smoothly. And it happened earlier than you might think...

In association with

When did Formula 1 first use the safety car? If your answer revolves around an introduction during the middle of the 1992 season, and first used in the Brazilian round early in ’93, then you’re wrong.

And we're not even referring to the F1 statisticians’ favourite anomaly that the Indianapolis 500 was – for a time – part of the world championship. There was one occasion before its modern-day introduction that the safety car, or pace car as it was known, was employed. The 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, 45 years ago. And given the experience, it’s little wonder the concept was then dropped for near enough two decades.

More on F1 history

The pace car was brought in that year after the South African and Dutch races wherein rescue crews tended to major accidents as racing continued unabated nearby. The Canadian round was the year’s penultimate and held at Mosport – a place known for its variable weather. So it was to no one’s surprise that the race started in wet conditions.

Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus led, with Jackie Oliver’s Shadow rising from a 14th place start to run second close behind.

‘I knew the circuit very well because I did a lot of races there in Can-Am,’ Oliver recalls, ‘and [it was in] wet weather that I felt very confident in. The great thing about wet tracks is any inconsistency of performance between chassis is neutralised to a large degree.

‘I remember passing an awful lot of people, especially down the hill towards the hairpin in the rain.

‘I’m not sure Goodyear had enough tyres to go around with everybody, there were some wet tyres that were a different compound to the others. Whether I was lucky in getting the right compound for the wet conditions I don’t know, but suddenly me and the Shadow was very competitive in the wet.’

The track had been drying though since the outset, so from just before halfway one car after another pitted for slicks. There were a few problems through. Traffic jams built up in the narrow pitlane. In those days pitstops were not routine so were of greatly varying length. And these also were the days of manual lap charts, pre-dating electronic timing, put together by an observer marking down car numbers as they went past. The combined factors meant lap charts “blew up”, meaning confusion on who was running where.

Then the pace car came in. Francois Cevert and Jody Scheckter left the pits together and tangled on their out-lap. There was much debris on-track, soon joined by two ambulances and several track workers seeking to shift the stranded cars.

Just the scenario the pace car was intended for. But when it appeared it sat in front of a very unlikely competitor – Howden Ganley’s Iso-Williams which had started 22nd. Nevertheless several requests from the pace car for instructions from startline officials on who was leading got the same answer.

‘It certainly came out on the wrong car and let the wrong people through,’ Oliver notes.

Ganley thinks he knows how organisers reached the conclusion. ‘Probably I had been leading when I stopped because I didn’t want to go in the pits, they were too small and cramped,’ he recalls, ‘and I also wanted our guys have a practice on the other car [first], on [team-mate] Tim Schenken’s car, at changing the wheels.

‘So by staying out all that time I inevitably finished up in the lead. I guess the lap charters got confused.

‘The other factor [was] the spray was incredible, so if you were doing a lap chart in the tower it must have at times been difficult to see which [cars] were coming past and which were going down the pitlane.

‘There were a lot of exchanges and waving between myself and Peter MacIntosh who was in the pace car, not driving but he was the guy hanging out the window waving at me. They thought I was in the lead; I wasn’t going to argue!’

Ganley had been going well in any case. ‘If you drive off the line usually it’s a lot quicker in the rain, not all people do that,’ he says. ‘It was a pretty good handling car. We also got an improvement because the car didn't cool very well, but after the big rain storm the ambient temperature dropped way down so our engines didn’t overheat.’

Was it possible that no one passed him when he stopped himself? ‘I’m not sure about that,’ Ganley admits. ‘I thought at the time that could be the case because having waited for the pits to empty I could drive straight to the pit, I came in and the guys were ready and then of course there was nobody in the way going out again whereas previously as I drove by and looking in there at the shambles that was going on it must have been difficult for people to fit in and park.’

A consensus formed that that Oliver had leapfrogged Fittipaldi in the pitstops, and was now leading. And that after green flag racing resumed Fittipaldi recovered to pass Oliver late on to win.

Oliver thinks so. ‘The track started to dry out towards the end and Emerson and the Lotus was superior in all matters to me in the Shadow and he started to catch me,’ he notes. ‘I had P1 on the board and the plus signs were starting to disappear.

‘I’ve spoken to Emerson about this, and said “I tried to balk you going into the last corner before the pits up the hill there, moving to the inside, and you went past and waved at me to say thank you very much you’ve let me through!”’

Fittipaldi with Oliver in tow then crossed the line for what many assumed would be the final time, greeted by Colin Chapman doing his time-honoured hat-throwing victory salute. But the chequered flag did not appear, instead it was waved shortly afterwards towards a pack including Ganley and Peter Revson’s McLaren; waved again at Fittipaldi and Oliver next time around. Now the confusion was complete.

Revson was declared the victor, with Fittipaldi second and Oliver third. The official explanation was Revson had also got ahead of Fittipaldi in the pitstop phase then passed Oliver sometime after the pace car, before Fittipaldi had got there.

Oliver is not convinced. ‘We were of the firm belief that in fact Peter in the McLaren had had a little excursion in the race and actually was a lap down,’ he says, ‘but their [the organisers’] lap charts did not include that.

‘We had an elderly married couple that used to do all the lap charts for the [Shadow] Can-Am team, and they were pretty good. We were of the opinion that Emerson caught me and passed me a few laps before the end to win the race and I was second.

‘The only person I remember passing me in those wet conditions was Emerson. I don’t think I came across Peter in the race.’

Ganley – who was awarded sixth place – agrees the results were fiction. ‘I think Emerson won it,’ he concurs. ‘Jackie Stewart was [declared as] in front of me but he’d been in the pits twice – well how can that be?

‘I think what happened was they [the organisers] thought “well, who do we know who’s popular, who’s raced here a lot? Oh we know him, we know him, we know somebody else,” and they made up an order and then they joined the lines on the lap chart to make it work. Because my wife’s a fantastic lap charter and her lap chart didn’t agree with theirs.

‘My wife and I spent hours and hours the following week poring over the official charts and some other things we got and we came to the conclusion that Emerson had won, and possibly I was third. I was certainly way better than sixth.’

Another thing counted against Ganley. ‘Obviously Colin Chapman was up there [in race control] fighting for Emerson and Teddy Mayer was up there fighting for Revvie and I guess Alan Rees or Don Nichols were up there fighting for Jackie Oliver,’ Ganley continues. ‘So there’s some strong characters all ensuring that their man had won. Frank [Williams] was a fairly new constructor; he wasn’t the power in the land that he became subsequently.

‘We hoped that Judy’s [Ganley’s wife’s lap chart] might be one of those considered but they didn't want to know about it, probably because it didn't fit their narrative.’

Oliver insists the atmosphere post-race nevertheless was not one of recrimination. ‘No, Formula 1 wasn't like that then,’ he says.

‘It wasn’t taken up afterwards, there wasn’t a lot of point because there was not the electronic records with which to prove whether there was human error or not. It was one person’s word against the other. The officials won that argument as they often do in motorsport.’

‘History says that’s it,’ Ganley concludes, ‘that’s the result, so there’s nothing much we can do about it!’

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

Classic Cars for Sale