Indycar – An outsider looking in

I am a Formula 1 reporter, and a GP2 and GP3 commentator. I am in no way the most qualified person to discuss the events of last weekend in Las Vegas. I never had the honour of meeting Dan Wheldon. I have never been to an Indycar race.

But my interest in the championship is real. Anyone who follows me on twitter will be able to recall instances this season when I have been somewhat vocal over aspects of the championship’s organisation and its regulations which, to me, seem frustrating. My opinions are often met with staunch resistance from Indycar fans, who want to defend their championship to the hilt.

As a journalist who now broadcasts predominantly to the United States, however, I have had many messages asking for my take on what happened this weekend past. But I didn’t want to write something as a direct reaction to what unfolded on that tragic day in Las Vegas. I wanted to take the time and think it through.

Oddly enough, I was going to write something at the end of the Indycar season about where I saw the championship heading and the things I thought it could do with changing. Dan’s tragic passing means that the web is now littered with such articles from people you wouldn’t normally expect to see writing about Indycar, each one picking up various elements of that Las Vegas weekend and trying to find a reason for what happened. For many of those closely involved with the sport, this is part of the cycle of grief: to attempt to understand that which they are finding hard to accept. As Karun Chandhok wrote this morning, as a racing driver, for him to understand how and why something like this happened is hugely important, too.

Even before last weekend, Indycar had many elements which I believed needed addressing. Elements which, depending on my severity of feeling, I believed could be judged as being anywhere from archaic to asinine. This season just passed, the 100th of open wheel racing in America, is one which has been edged with controversy. NASCAR style two-wide restarts were adopted at the start of the season and were met with almost instant disapproval from the drivers after repeated contact race after race.

The decisions of the stewards were heavily questioned throughout the season, with Brian Barnhart coming in for pointed criticism from teams and drivers alike, in particular for his handling of the restarts on a wet track at the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in August.

And there was even controversy going into the final weekend. The maximum number of cars permitted for Indycar races in 2011 had been set at 26, with the exception of the Indy 500 which would see 33 cars as a maximum. And yet at Las Vegas, an oval track one mile shorter than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 34 cars would take the start, four over the pre-season agreement of a maximum of 30 for the season finale.

My own personal bugbear, as regards Indycar however, is with pitstops. There is far too wide a scope for pit crews to get injured in what is an overcrowded pitlane. Pit stalls are too close together, crews running into the pitlane and around their cars are at huge risk, equipment is often hit by cars. Watch the video below from the penultimate race of the season. It’s one of the worst examples I saw this year. Compare that to the slick work seen in F1 where we regularly see sub three second stops (albeit without refuelling) carried out with little risk to those involved.

I know many of the drivers in Indycar, either through contacts I have made in my time in the sport who have introduced me to their drivers, or as drivers I have had the pleasure of working with myself over the years. And while I love that they get to go out and race in the sport, I have to admit my fears for them when they went out to race in an Indycar. Because you don’t have small accidents in those things.

But Indycar was aware that changes needed to be made, and for 2012 had commissioned not one but two brand new cars from Dallara. One car will be used for road courses, and one will be used for ovals. The oval car has heavily protected rear wheels, and while some previously said it didn’t look all that nice (I always rather liked the design to be honest), frankly I think that’s the last of anyone’s issues right now. The capability of cars being launched over each other is high enough in open wheel racing, and is especially so on ovals. This new car should seriously reduce that potential. The driver who led the development work on the new Dallara had openly praised the increased levels of safety the new cars would bring. The car was, in its formative stages, dubbed the “Indycar Safety Cell.”

As a mark of respect, the car will now carry the initials of the very man who helped develop it, and whose life it might well have saved. Dan Wheldon.

Dan Wheldon and the DW01 c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

Going into the weekend in Vegas, http://www.autosport.com ran a fascinating article looking at the season finale and how it was crunchtime for the sport of Indycar, which has been losing fans and viewers in recent years. Randy Bernard had even threatened to quit if the Vegas race didn’t get the percentage share he’d been hoping for.

Following the Vegas race, it would seem that Indycar has some soul searching to do. Some have called to drop oval tracks all together. Some have called to replace the catch fencing at ovals with plexi-glass. It is worth remembering that the SAFER barriers, now used in Formula 1, have been commonplace in American open wheel racing for years. Indycar is safety conscious. It does push forward with innovation. Now is the time for it to redouble its efforts.

Its new Dallara DW01, is the first step on that path. Where it goes next, only the bosses, with the input of teams and drivers, can decide. I think we’ll most likely see two-wide restarts abandoned next year, and quite possibly a limited field on short course ovals. Pitstops, to my mind, need an almighty overhaul, too.

I can’t claim to sit here and know the answers. I’m not going to debate what happened in Vegas because there is an investigation going on and frankly, I just don’t know enough about oval racing to make a comment that would be of any worth. But as an outsider looking in, I have thought throughout this season that Indycar needs to get back to basics, to drop gimmicks intended to spice up the show and just get back to the simple things.

Hard racing, on proper tracks, in safe cars.

Although I never met Dan, I’m sure that a safe and prosperous future for his friends and his rivals, in the championship he loved, would be the greatest tribute anyone could pay to his memory.

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14 thoughts on “Indycar – An outsider looking in

  1. Well written and considered views Will, good job. I think we all want to see IndyCar learn from the mistakes that tragically cost Dan his life, and to emerge a stronger, safer championship.

  2. I have to agree things have been getting somewhat far afield in indycar of late. but surely something good will come frome this tragedy

  3. Will…..I am sad that Dan has passed. I am not a follower of the IndyCar…..but I used to follow it closely and the problem I always had was the SPEED!! It is too fast sometimes and the accidents are too brutal! Zanardi being one of the more gruesome ones….didn’t take his life but crippled him for life. In Europe or in FIA racing speed is not necessarily the empahasis but safety is in the forefront. The turns slow down the cars so it is a different kind of skill but the oval tracks are just top end……sometimes IndyCars don’t even have to brake much during the race cause they have their foot in it for the entire lap and this to me is scary!

    In conclusion, I think IndyCar should find ways to slow the cars down just as FIA have. Safety is paramount and I am sure at IndyCar it is high…..but they need to emphasise safety first and not speed.

  4. Indycar has had a problem with flying cars for years now and it was only a matter of time before a driver went into the fence head first. The powers that be have ignored the problem for a decade now, racing cars that should have been parked after Tony Renna’s flight into the stands at Indy in 2003. The spec nature of the current car causes racing in packs on large ovals which combined with its pronounced tendency to fly has always been a disaster waiting to happen. Youtube is full of videos of airborne Dallaras. The track at Vegas is the perfect design for inducing Dallaras to fly, why they decided to put that car on that track just beggars the imagination.

  5. As a long time fan of Indycar, and a former marshall, It is time for most of the ovals to go. Cars are just too fast. Last Sunday you could see the side drafting happening. With those speeds and that many cars I knew they would never make the first pitstop without a big crash. I wasn’t sure they would make 4 laps. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I can hope for much safer racing in 2012.
    RIP Dan Weldon

  6. Nice article mate.

    It’s bad that it takes the death of a driver to really force the powers that be to make changes. Just look at how the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger really accelerated safety changes in F1.

    I don’t think the ideas some people have suggested like losing oval racing are right, ovals are what make IndyCar different from other forms of open wheeled racing. But there needs to changes. I just look at how those catch fences are like nets, using chain link. F1 catch fencing seems to be much more solid especially at the newer circuits, its welded mesh I think, much more solid. But I guess, like you, speculation is pointless until IndyCar delivers the findings.

    Like you, I agree that IndyCar needs to lose the gimmicks and help produce good racing without endangering it’s drivers. That said I don’t mind things that help to improve the quality of racing, but double file re-starts on short ovals are just crazy, especially when the field is packed with inexperienced drivers.

    I have followed IndyCar ever since Nigel Mansell left F1 at the end of the ’92 season and I have seen some of the best racing in the various forms of the Series. I hope one day it can deliver those kinds of moments again and this tragedy doesn’t overshadow a series that is still struggling to find itself again.

    Justin

  7. As someone who has been a fan of IndyCar (also CART and the IRL) for nearly two decades, the death of Dan Wheldon of Sunday left me somewhat shaken – to say the least – although obviously, nowhere near as shocked, stunned and saddened as those close to Dan and involved in the series.

    Some are accusing Las Vegas Motor Speedway of being a dangerous track. As it stands, LVMS meets all the safety requirements asked of it by the many series’ that race there.

    It is, of course, conceivable that the safety standards by which many ovals in the US (and the world for that matter) adhere too are themselves outdated.

    Paul Tracy, amongst others, has raised the possibility of plexi-frame barriers at ovals as opposed to catch-fencing.
    That is a feasible suggestion; however before any decisions are made, the investigations need to be completed. Throwing up new safety precautions without understanding the forces that gripped Wheldon’s car is a recipe for disaster that could many more in the future.

    On the other hand, any safety measures must also meet the requirements of other racing categories that use the circuit.
    Safety measures there to protect IndyCar drivers, must also protect NASCAR machinery, that comes in around two-and-a-half times the weight.

    Also, some are saying the speeds are too high and that is the greatest risk. I don’t believe so. I still think the greatest risk is delivered by the sheer amount of downforce drawn from these nine-year-old cars.
    It is mostly because of the downforce that cars stick so readily together in packs. Such is the force on the high banked ovals; no one needs to brake, unlike places like Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Michigan or Fontana (and others).

    While, yes, the speeds were very high, it was the downforce co-efficient that led to the pack racing shape – something that has become prevalent in IndyCar since the late-90’s.

    Two minor quibbles about your post. There is only a car cap on road courses (normally 28), but it depends on how big the pits are at each circuit. As for ovals, as long as there are spaces and you have a car, you can bring it. Generally the most cars you’ll see at ovals for large events will be 43 – the number of drivers at each NASCAR meet.

    The reason why there were so many cars was simply this was the final race for these Dallara’s, therefore every spare tub and its parts were going for next to nothing.

    This comment probably doesn’t make much sense – babbling has been at times commonplace in recent days.
    There is probably more that I can write, but right now my head is rushing sharply. Maybe later.

  8. Will,
    Your analysis is spot on. Thanks for posting it, and I hope the IndyCar officials read it.

    Banning oval racing is highly unlikely. After all that’s the heritage of the sport, and there are many very good oval tracks in the US. But though, as an F1 fan, I think sticking to road courses is preferable, that’s not where the crowds are, and some of the temporary street courses they use are, frankly pretty bad. Of course their attraction is that they draw large crowds because they are in large cities, so they and ovals will stay in the mix, but hopefully improvements to both cars, tracks and regulations will make them all safer.

    How’s Sophie Rose doing?

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