Formula 1: Why do gaps increase during a Virtual Safety Car?

Speeds and gaps during a Virtual Safety Car have been talking points in Formula 1 on a number of occasions throughout the 2022 season.

The subject of speed under the Virtual Safety Car, specifically that of drivers gaining ground, has been brought up a number of times throughout the 2022 Formula 1 season, and it was again brought up in the Mexico City Grand Prix at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez two weekends ago.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, running in second place, complained to his team on the radio that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was leading the race, was opening up a bigger gap (even though that wasn’t the case).

Regardless, there can certainly be some confusion when something like a 10-second gap turns into a 15-second gap during a Virtual Safety Car period.

But the reason comes down the basic mathematics.

When the Virtual Safety Car is deployed, all drivers must slow down, and they are not permitted to overtake until the Virtual Safety Car period ends.

The speed reduction isn’t just an overall speed reduction throughout the entire lap; it is a speed reduction of roughly 30% through each section of the track, with a number of posts dividing up each of the track’s three sectors.

This means that positions on the track remain the same, despite slower speeds, and the distance between two cars will remain the same, but the timing gaps will increase.

If two cars are separated by one mile and traveling at 200 miles per hour, that translates to an 18-second gap. But at 140 miles per hour, that same exact one-mile gap is now a 25.7-second gap.

That doesn’t mean that the car ahead has actually pulled an additional 7.7-second gap on the car behind, because under racing conditions, the gap will still end up being around 18 seconds, as it was before the Virtual Safety Car was deployed.