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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 06:21 GMT 07:21 UK
The speed freak in F1's safety car
By Sarah Holt

When the big cats of Formula One are still locked up in the paddock, the mice in the machinery come onto the track to play out a private duel.

Get down to the circuit early enough on a Thursday and you might catch a glimpse of the silver safety and medical cars blitzing round the track.

The safety car is deployed at Silverstone last year
Go slow: the safety car neutralises the field but still runs at 155mph

Drivers Bernd Maylander and Jacques Tropenat are there to test their cars, the cameras and timing equipment - but the duo cannot resist a race-off too.

"There is a little bit of competition between Jacques and me," laughs Maylander, the man behind the wheel of the safety car for the last seven years.

"We fight to set the best lap on Thursday, that's the only competition for us during the weekend."

But "Maylander versus Tropenat" is not just about two frustrated former racing drivers letting off steam, it is also invaluable practice for the breakneck speeds they need to reach to keep up with F1's racing pack.

"It looks boring on the TV when the safety car comes out" Maylander tells BBC Sport. "It looks really, really slow, I know."

The thing is, it isn't.

Maylander's safety car is a Mercedes CLK 63 AMG, capable of reaching 62mph in 4.5 seconds (about twice the time it takes an F1 car), with modified brakes, tyres and aerodynamic parts; Maylander fondly describes it as "a small race car".

"The top speed I can reach, on Silverstone's long straight for example, is 155mph - but it looks like 60mph compared to the F1 cars," the German said.

"The difference between a safety car and a F1 car is like a jumbo jet and a star fighter. To put it simply, I could never win a Grand Prix in the safety car."

The drivers know I have to drive really hard in a much slower car, but if they push me then I know I can drive a little bit quicker

Bernd Maylander

When the safety car is deployed, Maylander has the prospect of keeping 22 Formula One cars under control, a scary sight in anyone's rear-view mirror.

But Maylander cannot just amble along - he has to keep them running at a comfortable pace, to prevent loss of tyre pressure or engine overheating.

Low tyre pressures caused by running too slowly behind the safety car were considered to be a contributing factor in the crash that killed Ayrton Senna in 1994.

After a number of laps behind a much slower safety car than is used now, the Brazilian lost control of his Williams in a 190mph corner when racing resumed.

With his tyres below optimum pressure after running so slowly, the effect on the car of bumps in the corner was exacerbated.

So Maylander is well aware that if he does not put the pedal to the metal, the repercussions could be serious.

Bernd Maylander is ready to go in the safety car
Maylander led more laps than everybody except winner Fernando Alonso in the 2006 Australian GP

"The speed of the safety car is really fast, it is on the limit of the car," explains the 35-year-old. "You could never drive on the road like that.

"I have to drive 99% up to my limit. I can't drive over my limit - that extra 1% is to make sure I'm safe.

"The drivers know I have to drive really hard in a much slower car, but if they push me then I know I can drive a little bit quicker. We have to play together."

As well as the looming presence of the F1 drivers, Maylander also has to contend with instructions from race director Charlie Whiting via the radio and further directions from the observing co-driver sat alongside him.

He is put under pressure by the bad weather or accident that saw him deployed in the first place, as well as being in the public gaze.

"There are so many people watching on TV that I have to be careful not to make mistakes," says Maylander.

"If I go off the track, everybody will say 'what's going on?' - and that's also part of the pressure. You can't make any mistakes."

The safety car tests the track
Thursday: Arrives at the circuit for general track test, reports back to race director Charlie Whiting and then joins drivers' meeting later
Friday: The safety car is not required in practice
Saturday: On standby to act as safety car for the GP2 race
  • Brings the safety car onto the grid around 1330 for the Grand Prix showdown
  • At 1355 drives the safety car to its ready position in the pit-lane
  • Sits with seat belt and helmet on ready for instructions "Safety car stand by" and "Safety car deployed".

    During the Nineties, the sport's governing body, the FIA, decided to employ professional safety drivers rather than former F1 drivers, and Maylander was offered the job after a career racing Porsche sports cars and for Mercedes in the German touring car championship, the DTM.

    After a year's apprenticeship in Formula 3000, Maylander joined the F1 circuit full-time in 2000.

    "I understand what is going on in the brain of a racing driver," says Maylander. "We are like a big circus family, touring the world.

    "I know all the drivers, but especially Alexander Wurz (Williams) from old Formula Ford days and Nick Heidfeld (BMW Sauber) as we were juniors together. Our friendship has stayed and we still talk a lot.

    "All the drivers know what I have to do for my job and they respect that."

    Despite his involvement at the pinnacle of the sport, Maylander, who says he never dreamt of being an F1 driver, has yet to get behind the wheel of a Grand Prix car.

    But he has a plan to change that by calling on his contacts at McLaren-Mercedes.

    "If McLaren win the championship I will ask (team bosses) Mr Ron Dennis and Mr Norbert Haug," laughs Maylander.

    "It might actually be fun for practice - but I don't want to see what it's like in a race.

    "I do miss the competition of racing but I like to drive the safety car, it's an important job and I feel like a lucky man."

    Follow live coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix on BBC Radio Five Live and this website. Qualifying is at 1300 BST on Saturday, with the race at the same time on Sunday.

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