We caught up with Bernd Mayländer at the recent Hungarian Grand Prix to talk about his long career leading the Formula 1 field. Here’s the highlights of our conversation.
A former racer himself, Mayländer competed in Formula Ford, the Porsche Carrera Cup, the FIA GT Championship and the German DTM touring car series before being called up by the FIA to drive the Formula 1 Safety Car. Now in his twentieth consecutive year as the Safety Car Driver, the 48-year old German recently celebrated his 350th Formula 1 race.
Do you miss being a race driver? Do you still have the competitive spirit?
You always have the DNA in your blood. We are now in the second year using the current Safety Car. You always want to know if you are quicker, we are always looking at the tyres and set up. You want to know how you perform. We do a couple of very quick laps on Thursday afternoon when we do the track test. It’s important to have the right set up, to remember the corners and the braking points.
How did you end up as the Safety Car Driver?
In 1999, I was racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup at the San Marino Grand Prix. It was the second race of the season and I was on pole position. I got a phone call out of the blue from Charlie Whiting, who asked me to come to his office. I thought there was some problem with my car. He came straight out with it and said they were looking for a new Safety Car Driver for 2000. Oliver Gavin, who was the current driver, had decided to go racing in the USA. Whiting said, you know the product well, you’ve been in the Paddock for some time, do you think you can drive the Safety Car for F3000 tomorrow? I said sure, let me talk to my team. That was my entry to driving the Safety Car. I drove for some F3000 races in 1999, then took over as driver of the Formula 1 Safety Car from 2000. I’m still here doing the same job 20 years later. I continued racing myself until 2005, before deciding to focus on my job with the FIA.
Tell us about some of the craziest races you have been involved with over the years.
The Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in 2007 was memorable. Also, the Canadian Grand Prix in 2011, where I lead for almost 50% of the race! I didn’t get any trophy, but I did almost miss my flight home because the race ran so late. But that’s my job, to keep everyone calm and safe. To lead the field and control the race. The 2019 German Grand Prix is another example. It was a great race, I was on the limit. I went wide in a few corners, for safety reasons. In a race car, you have to stay on the track, but in the Safety Car, it’s paramount that you don’t crash.
You have exquisite car control, but do you ever make mistakes?
I’m not racing for victory, but I still have to know where are the limits of my car. I went off the track in Hungary a few years ago and had to run through the gravel. I also had brake failure in Australia many years ago; luckily, I was able to run through the chicane, or it would have been a big impact.
Tell us about the current Formula 1 Safety Car.
It’s a road-going Mercedes AMG GT-R. It doesn’t have any particular tuning or additional power. We do have a lot of additional safety and communications features however, such as a special radio system, GPS mapping, two extra monitors and things like that. We take two identical cars to each race. It’s never happened, but we need to be ready in the case of an engine problem or some other issue with one car.
A meeting with Safety Car Driver Bernd Mayländer is a regular feature of F1 Insider Access, which is included with Hero and Trophy Ticket Packages at select races around the world.