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Bernd Mayländer Is Always in Front, but Never on the Podium

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Only 25 drivers in Formula One history have led more laps of a grand prix than Bernd Mayländer, yet he has never won a race.

He is in his 19th Formula One season and has spent more than 700 laps in front of some of motorsport’s greatest names, who have often said over the radio that he was going too slow.

In Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix, it is almost certain that Mayländer, 47, of Germany, will again find himself in the lead.

His role is crucial as he drives the safety car that is deployed, according to the regulations, “if competitors or officials are in immediate physical danger, but the circumstances are not such as to necessitate stopping the race.”

Mayländer’s involvement often follows a major accident when there is debris on the track that takes time for the marshals to clear. He has to pace the cars at such a speed to ensure that tires and brakes do not cool down too quickly and that engines do not overheat.

“It’s a different kind of job compared to being a race driver,” Mayländer said in an interview. “You have to know the car, keep the car under control, yet you never win a race.

“But you’re not driving for yourself or a team, you’re driving because something has happened. That’s your job, your focus.

“I still get an adrenaline rush when I’m told to deploy. For me, that’s important. If I didn’t have that, then I would lose that focus. I’m still an adrenaline lover just as I was 20 years ago.”

The adrenaline will likely course again at the Marina Bay street circuit where Mayländer has been deployed every year since the race debuted in 2008 and 16 times over all in the event’s 10 years, including three last year.

The race is held at night, but temperatures and humidity are still high. With drivers so close to the walls and barriers that line the circuit, Mayländer can understand why he is often so busy in Singapore.

“For me, it’s the only race in the season where you look at the drivers after it and you can see they have been physically on the limit,” Mayländer said.

“It’s a city track, so maximum concentration is required throughout what is a long race. To be really quick you have to be on the limit all the time, and with the high temperatures, the risk of crashing is really high.”

He became the sport’s safety car driver after the F.I.A. asked him to perform the role for Formula 3000 in 1999, and the next year moved to Formula One. His first safety car in that series was a Mercedes CL55, which he describes as “a big, comfortable car that still had its leather seats. There is so much that is different to 2000, but what we had back then worked.

“Yet while my car has changed, and Formula One cars have changed as safety has improved over the years, the sport is still the same, and the procedure of the safety car hasn’t changed.”

Mayländer now drives a Mercedes-AMG GT R for work, which has a powerful twin-turbo V8 and a top speed of 200 m.p.h.

To fulfill its role as the safety car, it has sport bucket seats with a six-point safety harness, a light bar and two cameras on its roof, while there are also two monitors inside with direct contact to race control, along with two different radio systems.

“Obviously, when you’re in the safety car there is a lot of communication, information,” he said. “You can’t take a risk, whereas as a racing driver you have to take a risk because you need to be better than the other drivers. In the safety car, you have to take the safe route.”

Mayländer, whose first contact with Formula One was at age 6 when Niki Lauda won the 1977 German Grand Prix, did not become interested in racing until 10 years later when he attended the 24 Hours of Nürburgring.

In his first road car, a BMW 320, Mayländer learned how to handle a car at speed around the Nordschleife, where there are numerous public track days.

Mayländer then drove in Formula Ford; the Porsche Carrera Cup; and D.T.M., the German touring car series, before becoming the Formula One safety car driver in 2000, the same year in which he achieved his career highlight by winning the 24 Hours of Nürburgring with Porsche.

“I did D.T.M. until 2004 and then I said, ‘O.K., now it’s time to stop. It’s getting too much,’” he said. “I realized my racing career was over.”

As a former driver, he can understand the drivers’ complaints on occasion when they are behind him in grands prix.

“I’ve also sat in a racecar when a safety car has been deployed, and I have to say, I never found any safety car to be quick enough,” Mayländer says with a smile.

He gets a lot of respect from the drivers.

“It’s good to have a driver who understands and knows the circuits in different conditions, and possesses the experience from past seasons so knows the risks of running in certain conditions,” said Fernando Alonso of McLaren.

Speaking about Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, Mayländer said: “Lewis always complains I’m too slow; the last couple of times Seb has complained I’ve been too quick. I think that’s Lewis trying to take care of his tires, and Seb thinking about his fuel. That’s just my personal point of view as to what is going on.

“But in the end, they don’t have all the information as to why there are times when I’m not flat out. All the information I receive is from race control, and if there has been an accident and the marshals are still pushing the car away, the drivers won’t know that.

“Of course, I can understand when the drivers are not happy, but things are discussed in a civil way in the drivers’ briefing and they understand what I have to do, and I understand what they need.”


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