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  • Writer's pictureAdéla Pavlovská

Inside the work of the F1 Medical Car team

A fascinating journey inside the world’s fastest ambulance.

While the Safety Car with Bernd Mayländer behind the wheel is the always seen safety vehicle, the Medical Car is more or less an invisible hero of Formula 1. As former Medical Car driver, South African Alan van der Merwe, says, “anonymity is what the job’s all about. We want to be on track as little as possible.”

The Medical Car was first introduced into the sport after the fatal accident in that 1987 Italian GP, where Ronnie Peterson lost his life. The main person behind the idea was Sid Watkins, the official Formula One race doctor at the time. After Peterson’s death, Watkins demanded batter safety equipment together with a Medical Car as well as a helicopter. It was also decided that Medical Car would follow the grid on the first lap to provide immediate help if needed. There are two cars of each model brought to a Grand Prix in case of sudden failures.

Medical Car has had a new driver since the 2022 season. Alan van der Merwe, British Formula 3 Champion, got replaced by Bruno Coreia, who is also a Formula E Safety Car driver. The reason for this switch is Covid. This year, FIA has decided that all F1 pass holders ought to be fully vaccinated. Because Van der Merwe does not fulfil this requirement, he is no longer eligible for the role, leaving the sport after twelve years behind the wheel. Dr. Ian Roberts sits next to Coreia as a former British Grand Prix Medical Officer and current FIA Medical Delegate. He is the one making sure that everyone is in shape and the one who accompanies the driver after a bigger crash. In the backseat of the Medical Car, there is usually a local doctor specialising in emergency medicine. But it isn’t only these three looking after everyone's well-being. Extraction teams, local doctors, and fire marshals are positioned around the track under the supervision of Dr. Roberts. Next to the circuit, a temporary medical centre is built before each race weekend. After more severe crashes, drivers are taken there by the Medical Car. As soon as Coreia and Roberts bring the driver to the centre, the trauma team (trauma specialists and nurses) takes care of the patient. If the injuries require further examination, the racer is sent to a local hospital.

The race weekend starts on Thursday with a driver extraction test. Local marshals and medics are learning how to take the driver out of the car as quickly as possible. Later in the afternoon, both Safety Car and Medical Car are taken for high-speed practice. Mayländer and Coreia can push their vehicles to the absolute limit to check if everything works the way it is supposed to. In the morning before the race, the backup car is tested as well to see if it’s ready to step into action in case the primary car breaks down for some reason. In the same way as F1 teams, also safety vehicles have their own garage at the start or at the end of the pitlane, where they stay most of the time. Medical Car is mainly seen on the opening lap of the race as it follows the pack of drivers from the back. That is why Romain Grosjean got saved that quickly in the 2020 Bahrain GP as Medical Car managed to get there in spite of seconds.

When there is no hazard on the track, the Medical Car stays in its garage with the engine on, ready to go on track if necessary. They are provided with a live TV feed, but they have extra data to keep an eye on. It is the GPS track map to see where the drivers are, data from the biometric gloves of the drivers that constantly measure the pulse, amount of oxygen in the blood, and hand movements. Moreover, they have access to the drivers’ radio and frequently communicate with the race director. They have the car radio, so if it’s needed to get out of the car, it is also necessary to switch to a handheld radio to inform the race director about the ongoing situation.

The head of the race has a say in deploying safety vehicles. Until Coreia gets code green from the race director, he can’t leave the garage on his own as the safety of everyone involved is the number one priority. The same way as you don’t do any heroics in Saint Devone, the driver behind the wheel of the Safety Car or Medical Car cannot do any heroics of his own. There is an earplug G-sensor that detects the severity of crashes. It is more or less a rule that when the impact is over 25G, Medical Car is deployed automatically. This answers the question of one controversy surrounding last year’s Italian Grand Prix in Monza. In case you don’t remember the circumstances, title contenders crashed. A situation we witnessed more than occasionally between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. However, a rather bizarre incident resulted in Verstappen’s RedBull ending up on top of Hamilton’s Mercedes. Many questioned the decision of the race director to not deploy Medical Car as Hamilton's head got a hit from Verstappen’s tyre. Some experts even used racism as an explanation. How can it even come across someone’s mind that a person wouldn’t get medical help in such a dangerous sport only because of their skin colour? That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard that I struggle to comprehend how one could think it. Alan Van der Merwe went to Twitter to explain the situation shortly after the incident, stating, “nothing to suggest our presence was necessary - if Lewis’ radio comms or behaviour on video feed would have hinted at injury, we’d have gone. He was clearly trying to drive the car, and Max’s car was not blocking his egress from the cockpit.” So, to all the medical experts born overnight, here you have it. Of course, Hamilton could have had hidden symptoms, however, the medical team would have taken care of him anyway if he didn't feel alright. In this particular situation, no-one saw any abnormalities that should have resulted into the deployment of Medical Car. After all, they have far more information than we spectators do and know how to behave in different scenarios.

Now, what is Medical Car even equipped with? In the back, we can find two fire extinguishers, a defibrillator, oxygen, EKG, trauma bags, resuscitations drugs, burns treatment, etc. In the front, the team always carry a small trauma bag. A medical Car packed with everything needed weighs about two tons. So not really a butterfly on wheels. Therefore is the role of the Medical Car driver crucial. He is not a doctor, that is what Dr. Roberts is there for. The main goal of Bruno Coreia is to get to any place on the track as fast as possible (with the usage of all different shortcuts - which is also something that is trained during the Thursday's test). It is believed that Medical Car can get to any part of the circuit in 30 seconds. The driver is the extra pair of eyes, ears, and hands, reading the situation around and helping out if necessary.. Suppose he is not needed on the scene, he stays in the car, communicating with the race control about the following steps.

To end this article, let me tell you about some mishaps of the Medical Car. in the history We are going to start with the present times. Even though Alan Van der Merwe was doing his job exceptionally without a single incident throughout the twelve years, one particulary funny moment occurred to him. Right before the start of the Formula 2 race in Baku, the Medical Car started reversing out of nowhere, which resulted in one extra formation lap. Although nothing essentially happened, it was a situation that caused a few giggles.

Former Formula 1 racer Alex Ribeiro could easily earn the title of “most unlucky Medical Car driver ever.” It all started in 2000 when he crashed his car into the barrier during the Monaco GP warm-up. The second misstep occurred in Brazilian Grand Prix. Ribeiro arrived to Enrique Bernoldi’s crash, and as he was opening the driver’s door, Sauber of Nick Heidfeld smashed into it. Finally, we shouldn’t forget about the infamous moment during the 1995 Hungarian GP. Japanese driver racing for Footwork, Taki Inoue, got ran over by Tatra 623 serving as Medical Car. Pretty ironic, don’t you think? It happened while Inoue was helping the marshals to put down the fire. He suffered from a leg injury but managed to recover for the next race.


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