The horrific 15-car wreck that claimed the life of Dan Wheldon, the Indianapolis 500 winner, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Lap 13 of the IndyCar Series finale Sunday, has turned the spotlight once more on driver safety standards.
Unlike purpose-built racing venues, the speedway's lack of runoffs on oval tracks, coupled with higher speeds due to the longer straights and banked turns, means that there is far less margin for error. Car design, blamed as a leading cause of IndyCar injuries, has undergone improvements to chassis design to address some of the earlier safety concerns. The question is - has the Indy Racing League done enough?
Following a series of spectacular high-profile accidents in 2003, including American racing legend Mario Andretti and former champion Kenny Bräck, as well as the death of Tony Renna in testing at Indianapolis, the IRL made additional changes to reduce speeds and increase safety. These included significant reviews and changes in the chassis and a further reduction in engine displacement.
But compared with Formula One, which has long worked toward improving driver safety, often against the desires of speed-loving fans, IndyCar has lax safety standards. One cannot help but wonder why almost all fatalities in IndyCar racing involved a car flying into the catch fence.
Scott Brayton, a race car driver from Michigan, was killed in a similar accident, during practice, after qualifying on pole position for the 80th Indianapolis 500 in 1996. Brayton's backup car blew a tire going into Turn Two, spun and hit the outside retaining wall at more than 230 mph (370 km/h).
Tony Renna, who raced in the IRL IndyCar Series, was another crash victim, when his car spun and became airborne, smashing into the catch fence and being shredded apart, during an off-season tire test, also at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003.
Yet another unfortunate death was during the 2006 IndyCar Series season when Paul Dana, in the practice session for the first race, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, collided with Ed Carpenter's disabled car after Carpenter's tire went flat, throwing the car into a retaining wall before sliding to the bottom of the track.
Oddly enough, Wheldon's car was trapped in a horrific 15-car pileup, flew over another vehicle and spun into the catch fence just outside Turn Two.
Ryan Briscoe, an Australian driver, described the incident: I'll tell you, I've never seen anything like it. The debris we all had to drive through the lap later, it looked like a war scene from 'Terminator' or something. I mean, there were just pieces of metal and car on fire in the middle of the track with no car attached to it and just debris everywhere. So it was scary, and your first thoughts are hoping that no one is hurt because there's just stuff everywhere. Crazy.
We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat. And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers, and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do, Oriol Servia, a Spanish driver, told CBS. We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad.
In contrast, while Formula 1 has seen its share of racing accidents and fatalities, the body count, particularly over the last decade, has been remarkably low.
It isn't as if, as some reports believe, that one series of racing is that very drastically different from the other. Both Formula 1 and IndyCar vehicles can travel at speeds well upwards of 300km/h and both cars have a similar shell and basic design. Still, the fact of the matter is that the last time Formula 1 had a major on-track accident that killed a driver was back in 1994, when Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna lost control of his Williams-Renault at the Tamburello corner of the San Marino race track in Italy. Since then, while there have been, on the average, at least a half-a-dozen multi-car accidents every year, there have been zero on-track fatalities.
Why is there this disparity?
The most obvious reason, as mentioned earlier, is that Formula 1 tracks, with the exception of a rare handful, are designed to accommodate cars traveling at high speeds; more importantly, they are built keeping the possibilities of multi-car pile-ups in mind. IRL tracks, by and large, are oval concrete circuits with zero runoffs - the concrete wall, quite simply, starts where the track ends. Another reason, albeit a contentious one, could be that Formula 1 has far more a stringent set of safety standards, for both the car and the race track, than IRL.
A number of required additions in Formula 1, like restraining devices for drivers (to keep them immobilized and lessen impact during accidents), purpose-built high-intensity chassis and crash-tested materials, should be considered by IRL for its own races.
Do these accidents bear uncanny similarities, or are they reminders to the IRL that it is high time they thought about the drivers?