In every Formula 1 round, there are the familiar names – Schumacher, Barichello, Coulthard, Raikkonen and so on – who lead the races. They are superb drivers and so are the machines they pilot. However, there are occasions when the front-runner is rather different and there are two persons are in the car, neither of whom is on the F1 drivers’ list. This car is the Official F1 Safety Car and since 1996, it has been supplied by Mercedes-AMG.
For 2004, the latest generation of the SLK is used at the F1 Safety Car, specifically the most powerful version developed by AMG, the high-performance division of Mercedes-Benz – the SLK 55 AMG.
Thanks to modifications to its braking system, chassis, cooling system and exhaust system, as well as weight-reduction measures, the SLK 55 AMG safety car possesses optimised driving dynamics and maximized stability.
With Bernd Mayländer, 34 – a professional racing driver – behind the wheel, the safety car has the vital task of keeping the Formula 1 cars out of harm’s way in the event of crashes and bad weather conditions. In other words, Mayländer will have to position himself at the head of the field and drive at top speed in front of the Formula 1 cars.
He has to maintain a fairly fast pace too because to low a speed can cause the very high-powered engines in the racing cars to experience problems. For example, they could overheat due to an inadequate supply of cooling air, while the tyres could cool down too much and lose their grip. Fast laps at top speeds of up to 240 km/h at the world’s Grand Prix tracks are therefore expected of the safety car and such a capability is well within that of the SLK 55 AMG.
For its demanding assignment as the F1 safety car, the SLK 55 AMG required modifications that were actually few in number – but very sharply focused. The distinctive sporty strengths of the new two-seater developed by Mercedes-AMG were only supplemented in areas that would generate maximum high-performance and reliability for circuit operation. In place of the standard 18-inch tyres, for example, new multi-part 19-inch AMG light-alloy, double-spoke rims with special 235/35R19 and 265/30R19 tyres have been used. Together with the firmer chassis tuning, the car can handle higher curve speeds and has even more agile handling.
The enhanced performance of the new, enlarged braking system ensures that the car remains perfectly stable and exhibits optimal deceleration. Composite brake discs with six-piston brake calipers are installed on the front axle, and internally ventilated and perforated steel brake discs with four-piston calipers provide the stopping power in the rear. Channels that direct cooling air to the front brakes – which have to bear particularly high stresses – were specially engineered for the safety car’s use in a racing environment.
In order to deliver performance that can keep the SLK 55 AMG in front of the F1 racing cars, the weight of the safety car was trimmed by nearly 100 kgs in contrast to the series-production vehicle. And this was achieved despite the fact that the car became heavier right from the outset because of its added components – including communication equipment, lights, cooling systems for the rear axle and brakes, and larger wheels and brakes. Aluminium was used in place of steel for the bonnet and other components, representing a weight-saving of about 12 kgs.
Keeping the vario-roof closed at all times made it possible to dispense with its mechanical and hydraulic systems, saving another 17 kgs. The front and rear valences are made of an extremely lightweight, high-strength carbon-fibre laminate material. Carbon-fibre laminate is a high-tech solution known for its applications in F1 and the DTM. The valences weigh 10 kgs less than those used in the showroom SLK. Additional weight reductions were realized with the headlamps (4 kgs), seats (25 kgs), the car’s entire wiring (4 kgs), its interior (40 kgs) and numerous other measures, giving the safety car a curb weight of 1,370 kgs. In comparison, the curb weight of the SLK 55 AMG the public can buy is 1,465 kgs (not including the fuel and driver).
All these modifications also result in optimised weight distribution, which means superior handling on the circuit. The car’s battery and windscreen fluid reservoir were moved from the engine compartment to the boot, enhancing this advantage even more.
The engine and drive of this Mercedes-AMG SLK is fairly similar to that of the showroom versions. The 5.5-litre V8 engine, after being worked on by AMG engineers, delivers 265 kW/360 bhp and accelerates the silver two-seater from 0 to 100 km/h in under 5 seconds. What’s more, its 8-cylinder sound is sure to appeal to racing fans and, in fact, the car was given a newly-developed exhaust system with reduced back-pressure and a special sound for F1 use.
And to ensure that even the toughest of weather conditions are no problem, the SLK 55 AMG safety car is also fitted with a high-performance water cooler, two engine oil coolers in the sides of the front apron and a larger transmission oil cooler. The rear differential has cooling fins and a separate cooler installed into the rear valence. The airstream is distributed through it by a diffuser, thus helping to prevent the rear-axle oil from overheating. When the car is stationary, an electric fan is employed to increase safety even further.
Two visual features make the safety car stand out from the standard SLK 55 AMG: the FIA Formula 1 logos and the light system on the roof. The green lights are turned on by Mayländer’s co-driver when the safety car pulls out and first has to overtake all of the racing cars. As soon as the safety car has taken the lead, the orange light signals to the F1 drivers that overtaking is strictly forbidden. The white strobe lights in the headlights and tail lights remain active whenever the car is in use and have a neutral signal function.
To enable communication with the race organisers, the safety car is equipped with a radio system, a TV monitor and cameras installed inside and out. This extra equipment requires a separate electrical circuit with a second generator. The very special character of the FIA safety car is typified by the two bucket seats with four-point seatbelts, the exclusive black-and-silver leather fittings, Formula 1 tread panels, a particularly eye-catching AMG sports steering wheel and high-quality carbon trim.
AMG production, which specialises in small-batch series and customised individual components, and the test team from AMG overall vehicle development were responsible for the development, track tests and bodywork of the two safety cars and two medical cars (one main vehicle and one replacement in each case). The engineers and technicians responsible were greatly helped by the company’s 37 years of experience in motorsports and the development of high-performance sportscars. Numerous test drives were conducted at different F1 tracks in order to determine the chassis tuning and ensure that of all the components satisfy strict safety requirements. Two highly qualified AMG engineers are also present to oversee the operation of the AMG vehicles at all 18 F1 rounds.