THE Indianapolis 500 is the pinnacle of US motor racing which has had its spot on the calendar firmly cemented in the month of May since its inception in 1911. It has been part of the Indycar Series season since 1996 and is regarded as one of the greatest races in the world.
It is also a race that has seen its large share of danger and tragedy throughout its illustrious history. In total, there have been 45 deaths at the Indy 500; the most recent being that of Scott Brayton in 1996 during qualifying for the race.
Indycar has since known of three fatalities since Brayton’s passing: Tony Renna in 2003, Paul Dana at the 2006 opener in Homestead, Miami and Dan Wheldon during the Las Vegas season finale in 2011.
The latter played a large role in the development in the new generation of Indycar, which had been billed as a far safer car than its preceding versions. A defining feature of the DW12 was the introduction of rear wheel covers, used in an attempt to prevent situations whereby the car was pitched into the air in the event of a collision.
The tragic irony being that in the final race before the baptism of the cars so heavily influenced by Wheldon, the Briton lost his life after an accident launched his car into a catch fence.
Four years later and we are potentially facing a new crisis. New for 2015 is increased aerodynamics used to make the cars faster in the corners and possess far greater downforce – and less drag. The concoction is, on paper ideal for the Indy 500 where qualifying positions are determined by average speeds over four laps.
The problem? The aero is risking lives.
One week: five major accidents. Four car flipped – fully or temporarily – as a result of the impacts and a further crash seemingly caused by driver error.
Penske’s Helio Castroneves’ spectacular aerial crash last Wednesday – the Brazilian lost the rear of his car, hit the wall and lifted into the air – caused by the air getting underneath the winglets situated on the rear wing certainly caused a ripple in the paddock. The same day, Pippa Mann also spun her car at the final corner; she hit the inside wall before being spun back towards the track, the front of the car hitting the pitlane entry barrier, violently spinning the car into the far track perimeter wall.
Both were shocking accidents but nothing Indycar has not seen in the past. Early Skepticism of the new aero kits had been resurrected.
The next day, Josef Newgarden lost his car in a similar fashion going into turn one. An almost carbon copy of Castroneves’ smash, the American’s car lifted into the air immediately before scraping along the hallowed tarmac of the Brickyard and coming to a stop several hundred yards later. Again, Indycar breathed a sigh of relief but the murmurings of safety concerns began to increase. But again, nothing was changed.
Oval circuit specialist Ed Carpenter then lost control of his car in turn three and hit the wall with the front left wheel – after spinning a full 360 degrees. The car immediately lifted off the ground and, traveling backwards and upwards contacted the catch fence before following a similar route to Newgarden and Castroneves.
Changes had to be made. And after complaints were made by drivers and team alike, they were.
Carpenter told the Indianapolis Star after his crash, “”I think we all have opinions on what that is. “I definitely think we have an issue going on that we clearly didn’t have in the past.”
“Hopefully this series will be smart and react sooner rather than later so we don’t have to keep seeing things happen like this.”
Engine horsepower was reduced as a result of the impacts and returned to normal level. The result of this meant lower speeds for qualifying and the race.
Monday saw the most serious accident of the month so far and although car failure and not aerodynamics are seemingly to blame, Indycar came close to losing a second driver in four years after Schmidt driver James Hinchcliffe suffered a horrendous crash. The Canadian failed to turn into the corner and careered directly into the barrier, causing significant damage. Hinchcliffe sustained “life threatening” injuries due to a piece of suspension going through his right leg before carrying on through his left thigh and entering his pelvis. He lost a significant amount of blood as his car came to a rest after losing very little speed after the initial impact. The quick response from the Indycar medical staff from Methodist Hospital in Indiana ultimately saved his life.
Solution? Cancel the race. Make aero changes and reschedule.
Indycar need to look at the causes of these crashes and this will take time. For the credibility of the sport and its organisers, it cannot afford to make aero changes during a race meeting. It would be far too risky to experiment with vastly intricate and volatile structural components on cars that have reached a top speed of 230mph – 226mph in qualifying.
They can also afford to put their stubbornness to one side and call the race off for the first time since the Second World War. The risk of human life is too high. And avoiding the real possibility of further injury or death is worth the cancellation.