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.
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.