IndyCar racing was shaken to its core ten days ago by the appalling crash which claimed the life of Dan Wheldon.
The scale of the accident and its terrible consequences has raised questions over the viability of open-wheel cars racing on ovals.
IndyCar must carefully consider how it responds to the crash in the months ahead.
The aftermath of the crash drew comment from many quarters. Some rushed too quickly to pass judgement without taking time to consider the facts.
There were claims the field was substantially made up of inexperienced racers. In fact the drivers had made over 90 starts on average at this level (including Champ Car), and only two were in single-digits.
Some put about the idea that Wheldon was “driving too hard” in his effort to secure the one-off $5m prize for winning the race. This was understandably given short shrift by those best-placed to understand a racing driver’s mentality.
IndyCar’s investigation into the accident is ongoing and we should not pre-judge its outcome. However some facts are already known and they give insight into how IndyCar embarked on a race that ended in unimaginable carnage.
In the enormous 15-car crash, Wheldon’s was one of several cars launched into the air, where it struck the fencing at the top of the oval. It’s not hard to imagine how the terrible consequences of the crash might have been even worse.
IndyCar has seen several instances of cars being launched in this way in recent years. Ryan Briscoe survived such a crash at Chicagoland in 2005.
Three years later at Michigan Dario Franchitti’s car flew through the air after wheel-to-wheel contact with Wheldon. And Mike Conway was injured in last year’s Indianapols 500 after his car was launched into the fencing. These are not the only examples.
The suitability of this kind of barrier and the ability of the cars to withstand impact with them at near-maximum speed will surely be a focal point of the investigation.
But why have crashes of this kind have become increasingly prevalent in IndyCar racing? And was there anything different which led to the extraordinary violence of the Las Vegas crash?
Too fast, too close
The Las Vegas crash began in ordinary racing conditions, like most of the examples given above (the exception being Conway, who hit Ryan Hunter-Reay who had slowed having run out of fuel).
The speed of the cars, the size of the field, and how closely they were running with each other, can all be seen as contributory factors. But none of these were entirely unprecedented.
The cars were lapping at average speeds of 360kph (223mph). This is far higher than a typical F1 race, but not out of the ordinary for IndyCars, where average speeds in excess of 385kph (240mph) have been seen in the past.
The field was closely-matched, with half a second covering the cars over a 25-second lap. This had also been the case at other 2.4km (1.5-mile) ovals earlier this year.
The usual limit of 28 cars had been waived for the event. But even so the 34-car field was not far in excess of previous peaks: The Indianapolis 500 had its customary 33 starters this year, albeit on a 4km (2.5-mile) track. There were 31 IndyCars on the grid for a race at Las Vegas in 1997.
What made the crash at Las Vegas so destructive was not so much the size of the field, but the fact it did not spread out as quickly as usual after the start of the race.
Two weeks earlier at Kentucky, an oval of similar length, within ten laps of the start the first six cars had spread out and were covered by two seconds. The same was the case in the last race at Texas on another similar layout.
But at Las Vegas the field remained incredibly tight throughout the opening laps. The first 21 cars were still covered by two seconds after seven laps.
On lap 11, moments before carnage broke out, the first half of the field were compressed into just 1.25 seconds, the cars running three- and even four-abreast.
The slightest error by any of the drivers ahead would have acted as a spark in a tinderbox. The inevitable carnage was unleashed when Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe touched – but in the circumstances neither should be blamed for the horror that unfolded.
Why was the field so tightly packed at Las Vegas? It hadn’t been so at IndyCar or Champ Car’s previous visits to the track, which last happened in 2000 and 2005 respectively.
Significantly, the banking at the track had been altered since then. The changes, built in 2006, progressively increased the angle of banking higher up the track, to make it easier for cars to run side-by-side.
Throughout the race weekend it was clear how easily the cars were able to lap the track flat-out. In qualifying the drivers were able to take the corners so easily they hardly needed to take a conventional racing line.
Instead they hugged the inside line all the way around to make the lap as short as possible, as can be seen in this video:
The negligible performance difference between the runners may also have been down to most of the teams having used the same car for so long.
Las Vegas was the final race for the Dallara IR4 IndyCar chassis, which had been in service since 2004. Drivers and teams had spent eight years refining and perfecting their set-ups to the point where there was little to choose between them.
Championship contenders Will Power and Dario Franchitti did not qualify near the front, where one would expect to find them, but in the middle of the pack. They were four tenths of a second slower than the pole sitter and half a second ahead of the back row.
“You can’t run around in a pack like that”
There was too little in the car performance and track configuration to distinguish between the drivers. Series veteran Paul Tracy summed up the dangers of 34 cars running so close together at such speeds: “You can’t run around in a pack like that.
“You have to be able to go fast enough to spread the field out and be able to make clean, quick passes. We need more horsepower and a different aero package.
“You could go out on that particular track and run 25 laps on a set of tyres and it was like they weren’t even wearing. It’s so easy flat and there’s so much downforce that you’re hardly using the tyre.”
The spectacle of cars running close together and fighting for position is part of the appeal of IndyCar racing. In the Kentucky race, Ed Carpenter narrowly won a thrilling battle with Dario Franchitti to score his first IndyCar win by less than a hundredth of a second.
But the first dozen laps at Las Vegas was something quite different. This was NASCAR-style racing but with open-wheel cars lapping at 350kph (217mph) instead of 300kph (186mph).
In these circumstances, a crash on this scale was inevitable.
Making oval racing safer
Should IndyCar abandon ovals following the crash?
It would be a revolutionary decision for IndyCar racing – one that would end of the greatest events in motorsport, the Indianapolis 500, which marked its centenary earlier this year.
Before the events of Las Vegas, IndyCar had already taken steps towards improving safety while preserving its oval racing heritage. The switch to a new, safer chassis for 2012 had been planned for many months.
The oval-spec 2012 Dallara IndyCar, which was demonstrated prior to the race, features enclosed rear wheels to reduce the possibility of one car being launched from the back of another:
The car, which Wheldon tested earlier this year, will be named the DW12 in his honour.
Rethinking oval racing for IndyCars
Oval racing by its nature will always be one of the most dangerous forms of motor racing. Can the inevitable risk be brought within acceptable limits?
I believe so. The now-defunct CART series had a 14-year spell with no driver fatalities between 1982 and 1996 – and speeds today are no higher than they were then.
Steps need to be taken to prevent a repeat of the kind of pack racing seen at Las Vegas. This may be acceptable for slower, fully-enclosed cars like NASCARs, but is surely a risk too far for IndyCar racing.
It’s significant that since the crash former F1 driver Jean Alesi has said he still intends to participate in next year’s Indianapolis 500. He said: “What happened at Las Vegas can’t happen in Indy: the banking there is negligible and most of all you never take it flat out except in qualifying.”
Some drivers had raised concerns about the potential for such an accident before the race. On Monday IndyCar had the first of what surely will be many meetings with drivers to avoid a repeat of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas remains on the provisional 2012 IndyCar schedule but series CEO Randy Bernard said recently it was “premature” to decide if IndyCar would return there.
The safety improvements already planned for the 2012 car are a step in the right direction. However more may now need to be done.
Increasing the strength of the cars by installing cockpit covers would be unpopular move for some. But aesthetics cannot take priority over driver safety.
IndyCar will have to learn difficult lessons and take tough decisions in the months ahead.
Franchitti, who became IndyCar champion for the fourth time following the abandoned race, spoke for many when he said yesterday: “I love the fact that the IndyCar series is the mix of all the disciplines and to win the championship, you’ve got to be strong at all of them.
“So we’ve got to be on ovals, and it’s got to be safe. It’s got to be a lot safer.”
Wheldon fund and auction
A trust fund has been established for Dan Wheldon’s family. Contributions can be made here:
Fifth Third Private Bank
Attn: Dan Wheldon Family Trust
251 North Illinois St.
Indianapolis, IN 46204
There is also an online auction to raise money for the trust fund:
The motor racing community is also mourning the death of Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli, who died in a crash at Sepang International Circuit on Sunday.
At this tragic time, my thoughts are with the families and friends of both Wheldon and Simoncelli.
Tragedy at Las Vegas
Images © IndyCar