IndyCar disaster puts safety focus on motorsport

Features editor
The Engineer

The tragic death of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon in a race in Las Vegas is certain to put pressure on all motorsport to tighten up safety, and with a large proportion of all racing car technology based in the UK, this means that the onus is likely to fall on British engineers. Many industry observers believe that the failures which led to Wheldon’s death are connected with the format of IndyCar racing itself and the layout of the oval circuits on which some of the races are run, rather than the technology of the car. However, the design of the cars is also likely to come under scrutiny, and the regulators of Formula 1 are as keen as those of the IndyCar series to ensure that drivers remain safe.

Wheldon died in a 15-car pile-up which began when several cars collided, sending them airborne and into the catch-fences and the outside wall which runs alongside the track in IndyCar oval races. The race had started with 34 cars, and this, according to former F1 driver and current BBC commentator Martin Brundle, was a huge factor in the crash. ‘The difference [between IndyCar and F1] is that you are running four cars wide, only inches apart at speeds of 225mph,’ he told the BBC.

Another F1 legend and a former IndyCar champion himself Nigel Mansell, added that the walled track was the other factor. ‘In Indy racing, there is simply nowhere to go. When an accident happens you are into the wall in a split second. This is why F1 does an exemplary job. The tarmac runs off so the driver has time to decelerate the car.’

The format of the race is a big part of IndyCar’s draw: people have been attracted to watching dangerous sports for millennia, after all. One option being considered for IndyCar is a closed, jet fighter-like cockpit, to add an extra layer of protection for the driver’s head.

This is also under consideration for F1, and has been since Felippe Massa was seriously injured by being hit on the head by a spring which had worked loose from the car in front during practice for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. The FIA, F1’s governing body, has been looking at the issue for the past two years, and has presented recommendations on cockpit canopies and visor design to the F1 Technology Working Group and the Grand Prix Driver’s Association.

F1 is likely to resist such a change: open-wheel, open-cockpit racing is part of its brand and a big part of its attraction. But the risk to driver’s heads continues to be a concern, and there’s no doubt that drivers are protected further by closed cockpits; a serious crash at this year’s Le Mans endurance race, where cars enclose the drivers completely, caused no injuries to the drivers involved.

It’s certain that changes are coming in IndyCar, whether to the track layout or the cars, and F1 cannot and will not ignore changes that could improve driver safety. The difficulty is going to be whether they can change without damaging the daredevil aspect of motorsport — something which can’t be denied — or the ability of the drivers to race.