Monday Editorial: IndyCar’s Safety Concerns


When IndyCar announced plans for a second race at Indianapolis in the month of May, it was met with a mixed reaction. The build up to Saturday’s race managed to convince some of the sceptics, but the race itself was marred by a huge start line shunt and ended with a fan favourite in hospital.

The incidents were unrelated, and it shows just what a chaotic début the Grand Prix on Indianapolis had. IndyCar will now be forced to rethink several of its procedures as the series begins preparations for its famous 500 mile race.

The discussion of open wheel racing cars adopting closed cockpits is, of course, nothing new. In 2009, Felipe Massa was seriously injured when he was hit in the head by debris during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Several years later, Fernando Alonso was lucky to escape injury after a first corner pile up at Spa, when Romain Grosjean flew across the front of his car.

Saturday’s IndyCar race was just another reminder of the risks involved in open wheel racing. In the melee of a restart, James Hinchcliffe was hit in the head by debris from Justin Wilson’s car.

After losing consciousness, he was able to bring his car to a safe halt, before being extracted from the car and taken to hospital.

He was released with a concussion, and the affable Canadian’s participation in IndyCar’s biggest race is now uncertain.

It wasn’t the only incident of flying debris in the race. Martin Plowman tweeted a picture showing damage to his crash helmet after he too was hit by debris, while onboard replays showed Takuma Sato was lucky to avoid a sizeable piece earlier in proceedings.

So, should IndyCar look into closed cockpits? It’s something that Formula One has looked into extensively in recent years, but arguably provides as many problems as it solves. While drivers would be protected from flying projectiles, they would also be at risk of becoming trapped in the car in the event of a roll over. The worst case scenario would be a driver stuck in a closed cockpit car which was on fire.

For all the benefits a canopy would provide, nobody has ever been able to answer the crucial question of how drivers would be able to quickly get out of the car in such an eventuality.

On the subject of debris, there was plenty flying straight at the start of the race. Sebastian Saavedra’s joy of a maiden pole position turned to despair in a matter of moments. The Columbian stalled on the grid, before being heavily collected by Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin. Despite the ferocity of the crash, all three drivers were uninjured.

Standing starts in IndyCar are a fairly recent thing, having first been used last season. But just like a road course race at Indianapolis, they have had their fair share of critics. In numerous cases, drivers have often failed to pull away, with critics saying that the Dallara DW12 isn’t suited to such race starts.

Up to now, the series has been fortunate that there have been no major accidents. But after this latest incident, perhaps the wisest thing the series can do before having another standing start is to take time to evaluate the car further. Of course, stalls are always a possibility, but if there is a genuine problem with the car, then it is better to find out now before a driver, or anyone else, is injured.

The final topic of discussion arose from another restart incident. After the events of the opening round at St Petersburg, which featured a similar incident, you would have thought lessons would have been learned, but obviously not.

Following numerous chaotic double file restarts, particularly at street circuits last season, IndyCar decided to revert back to a single file restart system this year. However, this seems to have created its own problems.

Instead of the leader dictating the pace, as is the norm in many other forms of racing, IndyCar has a policy where the drivers have to wait till they enter a ‘restart zone’ before getting on the power. The reasoning behind this is clear – it is simply to stop the cars from getting too far apart by the first corner.

But it results in a concertina effect. This system consistently resulted in cars in the pack going two and three wide, and ended up with Graham Rahal being punted into the wall by Juan Pablo Montoya. Surely, this has to change.

Entertaining racing is vital in a series like IndyCar. But, just as everyone likes seeing drivers going wheel-to-wheel, nobody likes to see cars getting damaged and laps being wasted behind another safety car.

Ultimately, as I wrote last week, the show should never take precedence over driver safety.