When Danill Kvyat spun into the wall just before the final turn at Circuit of the Americas, showering the track with tire-shredding shards of carbon fiber and making a mess of his car, Bernd Mayländer was sitting where he always sits during a grand prix: in a wickedly fast Mercedes idling on pit row, watching the race on an iPad and hoping nothing goes wrong.

Mayländer, who is 44, bespectacled, and gray at the temples, drives the Formula 1 safety car. That makes him something of a shepherd: He gathers the flock and protects it from harm when something goes awry. This is far harder than it sounds, even for a retired race car driver like Mayländer. Formula 1 cars are highly specialized machines capable of outrageous speed and remarkable handling. Mayländer has to keep up with them—and sometimes catch—driving a sports car you can drive off a dealer’s lot.

He watches each race alongside co-driver Peter Tibbetts, who is 59 and also the sport’s fuel analyst. “When we have nothing to do, it’s nice to have someone to chat with,” Mayländer says in a soft German accent. Both men are strapped into firm, form-fitting seats. They wear blue race suits, matching helmets, and flame-retardant underwear. An iPad Mini affixed to their center console relays all manner of data about what’s happening on the track; they’ll glance at it from time to time while watching the race on another iPad bolted to the dashboard. Mayländer, who enjoyed a respectable racing career before taking this job in 2000, follows the action with a driver’s interest, but mostly watches for trouble. It could be a crash, debris on the circuit, or an especially stupid fan strolling on the track as drivers streak by.

Parked next to them is an idling Mercedes station wagon driven by former professional racer Alan van der Merwe. He is 35 and drives the medical car that carries a local doctor and Ian Roberts, the sport’s rescue coordinator, to the worst accidents. They too are strapped in, watching the race on iPads. In the back of the car there’s a great deal of communications equipment and two blue duffel bags full of medical gear. The two doctors can defibrillate, intubate, medicate, and do any number of other things to a driver requiring such care. “We can do pretty much everything from those two bags,” Roberts says.

The US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, was treacherous, which, coupled with the world championship being on the line, made it especially exciting. Hurricane Patricia and other nasty weather combined to dump more than 6.5 inches of rain on the city in three days, turning the 3.4-mile circuit into a river. A Formula 1 race is actually three events. Practice sessions are held on Friday, when teams shake down their cars and drivers reacquaint themselves with the track. Saturday is about qualifying, which is when drivers race the clock to determine how they’ll line up for Sunday’s race. These things are scheduled to the minute, each building on the last as teams hone their strategy.

This, however, was not how things unfolded in Austin.

The storm started Friday and by mid-day was so violent that race officials called it quits before the drivers could finish practicing. It was worse Saturday, when most of the day was spent waiting for the weather to break so they could get on with qualifying. Mayländer, whose duties include checking track conditions in foul weather, went out at 3 to see where things stood. Even with traction control, a safety feature Mayländer uses only in the worst conditions, he fishtailed his way around the track, thrilling the few fans still on hand. “It was very slippery,” he says, which is a bit like saying Apple is profitable. Race officials decided it was too wet to race and called it a day.

IMG_5684 Tom Fowlks for WIRED

It continued raining through the night and into the morning Sunday, but eased up just enough to slip and slide through two rounds of qualifying before everyone was brought in again. The rain let up in time for the race to start as scheduled at 2. Still, the track was so slick—drivers described it as “greasy”—that even the best of them had trouble keeping their cars correctly pointed. Just 12 finished the race; some were sidelined by mechanical problems, but more than a few ran right off the track.

Kvyat took the hardest hit. The 21-year-old, who drives for Red Bull Racing, ran wide out of Turn 19, a fast left-hander that is trickier than it looks and leaves little room for error. He hit a patch of wet turf, spun sharply and careered across the track into the wall. “Sorry guys. Sorry,” he said into his radio before unbuckling his black safety harness, climbing out of his blue car and walking away as a green tractor trundled in to carry it away.

Because the young Russian got out of the car on his own, the medical car stayed put. Had Kvyat been unresponsive, endured an impact of greater than 15G—something race control would have known at once, from sensors mounted in all the cars—or complained of back pain, van der Merwe would have been dispatched. Mayländer was sent out immediately with the command, “Safety car, go.” He put his silver Mercedes Benz AMG GT S in gear and took off down pit row at the maximum permitted speed of 50 mph. Before getting on the track, he checked his mirrors for traffic coming up behind him, then accelerated up the hill toward Turn 1 to begin corralling cars.

This is quite difficult, even for someone who’s raced on some of the world’s most demanding tracks. “The biggest challenge is for sure the first step—picking up the leader,” Mayländer says. The challenge lies in the nature of Formula 1 race cars. Such a car weighs about 1,400 pounds, produces about 850 horsepower, and generates enough downforce to maintain cornering speeds high enough to buckle your neck (which is why F1 drivers have necks like tree trunks). They also are a bit like thoroughbreds in that they work best at speed, when their tires and brakes and fluids are searing hot and enough air flows through their ornate bodywork to keep them from overheating. The trick to driving the safety car is having everyone moving quickly enough to keep the cars working and the drivers happy, but not so quickly that it poses a threat to track marshals and safety crews. “It’s always difficult to set the proper pace,” Mayländer says.

Mayländer does this in a car that, aside from brake cooling ducts, a carbon fiber light bar, a trunk full of communications gear, and racing tires that are toast after 100 miles, is no different than a car anyone with $130,000 can buy. It even has a stereo, something Mayländer discovered while testing the car in Italy in February. He heard voices and suspected a problem with his headset until he realized the stereo was on. “It was Italian radio, and they’re talking all the time,” he says with a laugh. The GT S weighs 3,600 pounds, produces 503 horsepower and has no downforce to speak of. Standing on the gas feels a bit like being hurled from a catapult and the car can do 193 flat out, but an F1 car can do 220 or so. “I’m really at the limit,” Mayländer says. “I always go as quick as I can.” It’s easier on a tight course like Monaco, where the top speeds are lower, but Mayländer is really hustling on a long, fast circuit like Spa or Suzuka, two tracks he especially likes.

The challenge is greater still for van der Merwe, who drives a Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 S, a station wagon almost as potent as the GT S. “It is an impressive bit of kit,” van der Merwe says, “but next to an F1 car, it is a sitting duck.” The medical car follows the pack for the first lap, when, statistically speaking, accidents are most likely to occur. Should anything go amiss, van der Merwe will slow down long enough for the two doctors to scan the scene for injured drivers. He’s constantly checking his mirrors for cars coming up behind him. “When we come into pit lane and park, they’re about 40 seconds behind us,” he says in his South African accent. “That’s not much of a buffer.”

Mayländer is equally vigilant, relying on Tibbetts to keep watch for debris on the track, marshals on the sidelines, and race cars in the mirror while relaying information back to race control. They’ll stay out until officials decide it’s safe enough to resume racing. That might be a few laps, as was the case Sunday when the car driven by Marcus Ericcson of Sauber F1 coasted to a stop after an electrical failure. Every once in awhile, though, he circles the track over and over and over again, leading the field in what amounts to a parade because the rules strictly forbid passing behind the safety car. Such was the case during the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, when Mayländer led the race through torrential rain for 28 laps.

Sunday was more typical though. He completed four laps while safety crews carted Kyvatt’s car away and marshals scurried back and forth, sweeping up bits of very expensive bodywork. Mayländer came in on lap 46, parked alongside the medical car, and turned his attention back to the iPad on the dash, hoping nothing more would go wrong.

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Meet the Mastermind Who Keeps F1’s Daredevil Racers Safe