Fence, Pocono, IndyCar, 2018

The lethal problem IndyCar can’t ignore and hasn’t solved

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Before Alexander Rossi got in his car to start Sunday’s Pocono 500, the eventual winner of the race admitted IndyCar’s super-speedways still “terrify” him as a driver.

Anyone who witnessed the carnage which unfolded seven laps later will understand why. Robert Wickens’ car was launched into the air at 200mph, smashed into a debris fence and thrown back onto the track with violent force.

Despite fears for his life, Wickens was extracted from the car awake and alert. A helicopter flew the 29-year-old to a nearby hospital where he is being treated for extensive injuries.

Serious crashes like this happen with alarming regularity at the few remaining super-speedways and high-banked ovals on the IndyCar calendar. Justin Wilson was killed in a crash at the same track three years ago. Four years before that Dan Wheldon was fatally injured when, like Wickens, his car was launched into the fencing.

Sunday’s crash involved one of the sport’s most experienced drivers and the outstanding rookie of the season so far. Neither deserves to be singled out for blame.

Wickens is a newcomer to the series this year. He has excellent credentials in single-seaters: he beat Rossi, Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo and Brendon Hartley to the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 title. But there is little outside IndyCar to prepare drivers for the unique challenge of racing on super-speedways.

These two-mile-plus ovals are rare beasts. The 50-year-old Pocono Raceway is one of just two on this year’s IndyCar calendar, the other being Indianapolis. (The cars lap at similar high average speeds on the steeply banked 1.44-mile Texas Motor Speedway.)

The speeds involved far outstrip anything seen outside this form of racing. Will Power’s pole position average speed on Saturday was over 353kph. That’s around 100kph faster than we’ll see when F1 goes to its fastest track, Monza, next week.

Wickens and his rivals had ample opportunity to practice for this year’s other super-speedway race at Indianapolis. That round features a special rookie orientation session plus weeks of practice. But for the first race at Pocono with the new, lower-downforce 2018-specification aero kit – which had been tweaked since Indy – drivers had just a single practice session, partly due to rain on Saturday.

Some drivers, including Wickens, had extra running in a pre-race test. But despite this he admitted after qualifying he relied on the advice of team mate James Hinchcliffe when it came to tackling turn three flat-out for the first time.

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Wickens brought his car home ninth at Indianapolis, first among the rookies. He crashed in Texas while trying to pass Ed Carpenter on the inside. That collision was not dissimilar to the contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay which triggered Sunday’s crash, though Carpenter was being lapped, and arguably should have left more room.

But while Wickens’ relative inexperience at Pocono may have been a factor, it would be completely wrong to characterise the collision as being the result of an impetuous ‘rookie error’. This was evidently a racing incident. Wickens was backing out of his attempted pass when the pair made the slightest of contact. Yet it almost had the worst possible outcome for both of them.

After the two touched, Wickens’ car rode over the front of Hunter-Reay’s, propelling it upwards into the impact-absorbing SAFER barrier. This absorbed some of its speed, but as it slid along the top of the barrier it swung up into the rows of tall, chain-link fence designed to contain debris within the track. This second impact caused another abrupt deceleration and sent the car into a sickening series of spins:

Robert Wickens
After tangling with Hunter-Reay, Wickens was launched into the fence

Wheldon was killed in exactly this type of accident, but he had the misfortune to be hit on the head by a fence post. But it wasn’t just Wickens who had a near-miss.

The onboard camera on Hunter-Reay’s car showed how close he came to being hit by the bottom of Wickens’ chassis. The DW12 chassis struck his roll hoop, breaking a piece of bodywork off:

Ryan Hunter-Reay
Wickens’ car hit Hunter-Reay’s roll hoop

IndyCar is remarkably fortunate that this double near-miss didn’t turn out far worse than it did. There are two important points to take away from this.

First is the quality of work which has been done over the years to improve driver safety to the point that this accident was survivable. However close to catastrophe IndyCar came, the fact remains the cars withstood the impact well enough for all the drivers to emerge unscathed, including three others who were caught up in the crash. IndyCar’s well-drilled medical team was on the scene immediately.

But these improvements in driver safety only came about through years of crashes and near-misses, of hard lessons learned and difficult decisions taken. The second point IndyCar must learn from this crash is that it needs to take another of those difficult decisions.

In a world where we’re used to seeing F1 and F2 cars racing with the Halo, Wickens and Hunter-Reay looked awfully vulnerable in this crash; in much the same way F1 drivers of the early nineties did after Ayrton Senna was killed.

How IndyCar should address this problem is a decision for informed experts. But none of the options are as straightforward as they may at first seem.

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Should IndyCar replace the fencing, as Paul Tracy has suggested? But what alternative structure would pose less of a risk to drivers while also protecting the spectators behind it and allowing them a view of the action? (Note Wickens happened to hit an area which wasn’t in front of a grandstand.)

Josef Newgarden, Penske, windscreen test, Indianapolis, IndyCar, 2018
IndyCar has tested increased cockpit protection
Should the series stop racing on super-speedways? This would mean dropping the Indianapolis 500, the championship’s centrepiece race which has sustained what remains of its popularity through and since the CART-IRL split.

Or should it follow F1’s lead and introduce greater head protection for drivers? This is what the championship has been working towards, though progress has been slow.

Simply bolting an F1-style Halo onto the cars would present a visibility problem in a championship where six of the 17 races take place on banked ovals. IndyCar has instead been working on a solution it calls the ‘windscreen’, which has already been tested by Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden.

But is the windscreen strong enough to withstand the kind of impact it might need to? F1 tested its Halo by firing a 20kg wheel assembly towards it at 225kph. IndyCar’s windscreen is made a material which is also used on fighter jet canopies, but the series has not yet released details of how it performs in impacts.

The longer IndyCar takes to act, the greater the chance another of these crashes will happen, with worse consequences. Along with most of the drivers who took the start on Sunday, Sebastien Bourdais was running behind Wickens’ fourth-placed car when he crashed, and his words have a chilling resonance.

“I saw Robert in the fence, that’s the worst sight, really, other than being in it [yourself]. I was just really worried for him. It seems he’s conscious and awake. He’s hurt but I hope not too bad.

“At least he’s alive.”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 47 comments on “The lethal problem IndyCar can’t ignore and hasn’t solved”

    1. Nice looking steering wheel display layout.

    2. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
      21st August 2018, 12:38

      I guess the halo as used by F1 would not work. How much higher would it need to be to not affect vision on an oval? If it was higher would it stop the driver getting out?

      1. Sean N@ fences are too dangerous. and indeed ovals speedness and open wheels facilitate airborne cases. I don’t see other solution than adopt the Halo, actually strongest shield stuff available in the motorsport.

        1. @formevic Indycar have looked at the halo, They have run it on a simulator (I Believe) & concluded it’s unfeasible for use on the ovals due to how much visibility would be affected, Especially on longer radius corners with more banking.

          1. @gt-racer I note, thank you. Perhaps they could modify Halo. In any case best equipment should be worthy to resist a flying car hitting from upper side.. I see windshield a bit weak for that purpose.

    3. When I read the headline, I prepared myself for another article screaming for something like the halo for Indycars. While that issue comes up, I am in complete agreement with the author about the incredible high speeds reached by these cars hitting 230mph at times. I don’t see the series stop racing on super-fast ovals anytime soon. They just signed a new deal with Texas Motor Speedway and Indy will always remain on the schedule. But they did stop racing at Michigan years ago because the speeds there were getting very dangerous. And here, in the past, Indycars usually act fairly quickly in some way to stop rising speeds. It should be an issue addressed in the coming off-season. I bet we’ll see the introduction of the windshield for 2019 and maybe a further reduction in downforce. I believe Wicken’s crash and injuries would had been much more severe had it occurred in the previous generation IRL-era Dallara chassis.

      1. @photogcw The reason they no longer run Michigan has nothing to do with the speeds.

        They don’t run Michigan because the circuit owners never promoted the races (There were people who lived near the track that didn’t know Indycar were there) which led to the lowest attendance of any race on the schedule the last few years they raced there. Additionally with Belle-Isle not far down the road it was felt having 2 races so close wasn’t beneficial to either.
        California Speedway/Fontana is a similar track to Michigan & they were racing there up until 2 years ago & only don’t go there now because they couldn’t reach an agreement with the promoter over the date or finances.

    4. I’m no expert on track design, so i have no solutions to suggest apart from slowing the cars down and improving the ability of the cars to take impacts. The only guaranteed way to have the best possible safety for a race is not to hold the race at all.

    5. For mine the barrier needs to be higher so the car can’t hit the fence as that is what does all the damage

    6. I have no idea how you make the racing safer at super speedways other than not race at them. Clearly one of the issues is making the tub safer. In the pics the tub appears to be intact but he still suffered serious injuries.

      1. The tub did what it was supposed to do: it held up.
        The problem was that after it lost all the expendable crash structures surrounding it, due to the speed of the event, the “impact” ,if you will, was still ongoing and unfortunately the human inside the tub was the only thing left to absorb the massive forces.
        And there is little or no room to have any significant crash structures inside the tub.

    7. I like Wickens, I think he is a great driver and I pray he fully recovers. However, this accident was mostly his fault, despite this article framing it as a racing incident. It’s lap 1 of a 500 mile race, there is no reason to be sticking your nose under a car this early. And no, he didn’t really back off going into the corner, RHR had the draft of the car in front and was able to gain ground back on Wickens after he pulled out from behind RHR. By the time they arrived at the corner, Wickens was barely alongside RHR’s rear wheel and should have given way.

      1. wrecks are always going to be a part of racing. The point of the safety efforts isn’t to prevent wrecks from happening, it’s to make sure the drivers don’t get hurt when they happen.

    8. The problem at hand has nothing to do with the speed, Halo/Windscreen or ovals. The problem is more how prone to lifting & getting into the fencing the current generation of Indycar is.

      The type of contact & the way cars hit the wall on ovals now is no different to how it’s always been. The difference is that unlike 20+ years ago the cars are now too prone to lifting enough to hit the fence & this is the thing that needs to be looked at & which has needed to be looked at more seriously since the IRL cars started doing it around 2003.

      1. It doesn’t seem to take much air getting under the car to turn it into a flying wing. As you mention @gt-racer this has been going on for some time when it used to happen very rarely. A few years ago at Indy with a new aero package it was happening more than ever, even with single car incidents without any contact at all. If memory serves they made some slight changes to the aero which tamed it down a bit. So, it does seem changes to the aero or the overall chassis design to make them much less prone to fly when air gets underneath is needed.

    9. Promoting wheel to wheel racing and then when a accident happens many scream…i think i need to move to see Moto GP at least there aren’t claims there for 4 wheels…yet.

      What about a halo around the wheels?

      1. Halo around wheels will make difficult or impossible pit stops. If you protect wheels back and front side only, still you will hazardous items that will cause several tyre punctures at minimum contact.

    10. This current situation is an example of where evolution has gone all wrong. This US style of racing evolved out of dirt ovals where obviously speeds were suited to the type of circuits the cars raced on. To have cars running at the speeds they have done for the last 30 or 40 years – yes that long – on tracks that are completely unsuitable has been the biggest mistake in world motorsport. Its a ridiculous, deadly and yet mostly boring form of racing. Make ovals dirt again and let the current cars loose on all those great road and street tracks.

    11. While technically correct, I think that saying F1 is – on average – 100kph slower at Monza is a bit of misinformation. Seeing as how in Indy, average speed more or less equates to top speed (give or take a few kph), the top speeds being hit at Monza by F1 cars are in excess of 340-350kph, putting it on par with Indy.

    12. Get rid of open-wheel racing on the Superspeedways as it is the tyre face to tyre face contact that catapults the cars skywards.

      1. At 200 mph almost any object has the potential to go airborne if deflected from its intended direction of travel, particularly if it has rotated 180⁰ or is spinning.

        1. and hitting a ramp

          1. Which is effectively what happened here. My bicycle would have gone up into the fence under similar circumstances.

    13. If you are an Indycar driver and fear racing on superspeedways then change your profession. Car racing is dangerous and no matter what safety protocols are put in place, there will always be accidents and occasionally there will be bad accidents. Knee jerk reactions are not needed.
      As a driver, you accept that there is inherent danger. You don’t think about it, but you accept it. Looking at the crash, had either driver lifted there would have been no accident. It seems that driver error/mis-judgement played a bigger role than how the fence is constructed.

      1. Six more inches and RHR would have been decapitated. No fan watching wants to see that.

      2. I couldn’t disagree with you more.
        Of course all driver’s know they are in danger but that doesn’t mean Indy car should be doing everything they can to prevent these situations. And if they are, they need to call in an independent consultants and get more ideas.

        You say “occasionally” there will be bad accidents. I would change that to “too often” bad accidents needlessly occur.
        I know F1 is different but they are always striving to make safety an issue. Alonso experienced 50 Gs in Australia several years ago and got out with a couple of damaged ribs. And now the halo – they are always thinking ahead. I believe Senna was the last driver to die in F1.

        Fences are not the solution here. But this shouldn’t be happening. There are ways to make it safer – if part of the solution is slowing the cars or eliminating more ovals down then so be it.

        1. Jules Bianchi was the last driver to die in F1 in 2014. Thankfully that was a freak accident (although avoidable) and serious injuries are extremely rare.

          Having said that, although the original comment was a little blunt, I agree with the sentiment. Safety is important but at some point we all decide a risk is worth taking and as long as drivers are willing there will always be a place for things like ovals and the tt.

        2. I believe Senna was the last driver to die in F1.

          A very talented young driver crashed into a tractor parked next to the Suzuka circuit just a few years ago, sadly.

          I’d actually argue that Indycar puts even more effort into safety than F1 – it’s just that the circuits and style of racing they do is inherently more dangerous. The permanent safety team they have throughout the year is unbelievable (check out https://www.amazon.com/Yellow-IndyCar-Safety-Team/dp/B0758431CQ).

          1. Thanks…I will watch it. I know they have a safety team that travels to each race and that’s great but that’s after the fact.
            They have to find a solution which make it safer. Slowing the cars down might be a good start. There would still be good racing.
            NASCAR cars are bigger and safer so at the high speeds there are less likely to be tragic

      3. @dbhenry I don’t think your point makes sense. Please clarify if I have misunderstood.

        Say if a driver crashed because of a car failure (e.g. suspension failure in a turn). It is the drivers profession to drive, and the accident could have been avoided if the driver wasn’t driving, so therefore the driver is principally at fault?

        Whilst I agree that racing cars at high speed will always have some element of danger, this incident and previous incidents would suggest that the current solution of putting fences at the edge of the tracks has flaws in some accidents like the one on Sunday. If a better solution than fences could be found, then it would be a good idea to implement this solution at racing circuits; and this has nothing to do with the fact that the series currently has safety protocols.

    14. It does seem to me that care have been getting into the catch fencing on the ovals far more frequently over the past 15 odd years & interestingly the speeds are lower now than they were in the latter part of the CART series (Say 1995-2001) where 240mph wasn’t uncommon on the bigger ovals.

      I’ve seen others say the past few days that it was never an issue in CART/Champcar & I’d echo that, I can’t think of any example of a CART/Champcar getting launched into the fencing on an oval. Cars getting airborn happened with alarming regularity in the IRL series & it seems to have remained a talking point beyond the 2008 IRL/Champcar merger (They did adopt the IRL cars/formula after all).

      It’s not as if every instance of cars launching & getting into the fencing has been caused by wheel to wheel contact or anything either. Been more than a few instances of single car spins causing a car to lift, Flip or roll & in at least one of those cases a car tagged the fencing.

      They can/should certainly look at fencing & better driver protection but they also need to look at why the cars are lifting now seemingly so much easier than they used to do.

      1. I am no expert on Indy Car racing but I echo @stefmeister‘s points above. I think they really need to look at car design to see if there is an inherent problem.

        However, I really think that racing on the fast ovals needs to be curtailed really. At least if the speeds are as fast as they are which is a lot faster than F1. It’s just too dangerous and drivers will continue to be killed or seriously injured.

        There must be plenty of decent road and street circuits in the U.S. Maybe they could keep Indianapolis as a one off but make sure there is plenty of testing before hand.

    15. –The speeds involved far outstrip anything seen outside this form of racing. Will Power’s pole position average speed on Saturday was over 353kph. That’s around 100kph faster than we’ll see when F1 goes to its fastest track, Monza, next week.–
      Sustained speeds yes, but the above comment is misleading. Top speed at both Baku and Monza is around 378 kph.

    16. F1, Indy, and all fast open-wheel series need to seriously realize they all have to adopt a closed canopy format, the fighter jet type we’ve seen a few times. Drivers crashing at those speeds with just their helmets and roll-bars is just preposterous.

      And I’ve been a fan for more than 35 years.

    17. What about ovale without banking?

      1. CART had one in Chicago 2002
        That’s about as flat there was/is

    18. Runoffs. What if they were to, rather than have walls where they currently are, have that be where a runoff area begins. An outer oval. So there’s the original track(s), unchanged from how they are, but then where the walls were, let’s say there’s a red line where they enforce, tennis laser eye style, not touching that line, and beyond that is say 20 or 30 feet of asphalt after which the safe walls and the fencing (preferably without poles) are placed. I wonder if that way flips would be contained on the track and outer oval and away from the walls and the fences and cars can get more settled (come back down) during a melee while still away from the fencing. Also damaged cars might more often end up off the oval and on the outer oval and out of oncoming cars’ way while the carnage is still happening.

      1. Duncan Snowden
        21st August 2018, 20:04

        “tennis laser eye style”

        Not easy on a curve. But that’s not to say the idea doesn’t have merit, even without the automatic enforcement of track limits. If nothing else, it would, as you say, reduce the risk of damaged cars blocking the track and causing multiple pile-ups. Tricky to retro-fit, though.

    19. So why exactly are we calling for the stupid halo when no one was injured on their head?

      The cars are safe enough, we dont need indycar ruining the momentum they have on F1 right now by turning the cars into flipflops.

    20. Mark in Florida
      22nd August 2018, 2:13

      The dw12 chassis while safe in some circumstances does seem lacking on the super speedways. The cars that ran in the 90s seemed to not get airborne as much as the cars do now. I don’t know if it’s a difference of the underfloor or the overall aero that they had. The aero package that Indy was trying in this race appears to be touchy in traffic. Once Wickens car touched Ryan’s car that little rub upset the aero to the point that the car couldn’t recover it’s poise. Also some teams were running staggered aero, one side with the wicker and one side without so that the car would turn in easier. I don’t know if Roberts car was set up this way or not. Indy needs to make the cars stable on the speedways and stop worrying about the spectacle. To all that want to do away with the speedways, you have either never been or you don’t understand the complexities involved. It’s a whole different beast in approach and execution compared to a road race. Don’t condemn something if you don’t understand it.

    21. I tip my hat to the Holmatro safety team that supports any Indy car races. These guys are remarkable at what they do.

    22. It’s specifically talking about average speeds, not top speed, so i don’t see the problem with that, by nature of the track it’s going to be higher.

      indycars are still a bit better in the top speed department, the top speed in Indy quali was 387-ish km/h 2 years ago

    23. @keithcollantine, thank you for an intelligent and respectful article on such an important topic.

      While some are, perhaps, fairly arguing that Wickens was foolish being so aggressive so early, all the driver interviews I saw make it seem the drivers think it was a racing incident and I think not placing blame for accidents keeps this kind of conversation focused on what can be done to improve safety.

    24. “The longer IndyCar takes to act, the greater the chance another of these crashes will happen, with worse consequences. ”

      A good article, Keith, but I’m sure You mean “risk”, even if I personally think this kind of Oval racing is about as exciting as watching paint dry and only an accident can make it interesting – however accidents with consequences like these for Wickens is far too much. I sincerely hope that he recovers without too much long term issues. The problem seems too me to be too high cornering speeds and to instable cars with a dangerous aero-package, which probably is driven by the lack of sharp low speed corners, which would demand some more downforce.

    25. Why not just move the fans (grand stands) to the inside of the track and then redesign the fencing on the outside of the track ?

    26. In my opinion they should stop racing at super speedways except Indy. Frankly the racing at Pocono, Texas, Fontana has rarely been great except when there was pack racing which is way too dangerious.
      They should keep Indy, of course, and do the other ovals like Iowa, Gateway where this sort of accident is less likely.

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