Motorsport is Dangerous.
It is something we are reminded of every time we zip up a Nomex race suit, pull on a helmet and click in a HANS device. The warnings are there. The label stitched into the suit. The sign on the race licence. Even the fact that an ambulance or emergency vehicle follows the drivers on the approach to turn 1. It is dangerous and yet everything in that paragraph is evidence that despite the inherent danger associated with the sport we love, there are measures we continuously take in an effort to minimise the risk or ensure a fast response time in the event of an accident.
When Roland Raztenberger and Ayrton Senna were cruelly taken from us on that fateful weekend at Imola in ’94, it sparked an unprecedented era of driver and cockpit safety measures. Raised cockpit sides, tethered wheels, crash structures. Eventually though, momentum slows.
Here we sit in 2015, looking at the loss of another racing driver taken in their prime. Marshall Pruett describes IndyCar as being at “A Crossroads” in his excellent piece for RACER.com http://www.racer.com/more/viewpoints/item/120672-pruett-indycar-at-safety-crossroads-following-wilson-s-crash
On lap 180 of the Pocono Raceway, Justin Wilson was struck by a nosecone which was thrown skyward in Sage Karem’s accident. He subsequently crashed into the inside wall of the circuit. He was air lifted to Lehigh Valley Hospital but succumbed to head injuries. Our thoughts and prayers are with Justin Wilson’s family and friends. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. Another horrible loss for the Motorsport community.
When discussing head injuries and how to protect racing drivers 2 constant points emerge on the opponents of the idea of enclosed or increasingly protected cockpits.
1) It is part of the risk of single seater racing.
2) Open cockpits are part of the very DNA of single seater racing.
However, it is now inherently single seater racings biggest exposure to risk in the modern era. Felipe Massa was lucky in Hungary 2009 when a spring hit him in the helmet. Fernando Alonso was lucky in Spa 2012 when the flying Grosjean narrowly missed him. Kimi Raikkonen was lucky when Alonso’s McLaren mounted his Ferrari at Austria this year. When it came to Jules Bianchi it would appear Formula 1 ran out of luck. The same terminology appears when discussing IndyCar accidents.
Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay:
“Unfortunately, you think back to what happened with Dan (Wheldon, who was tragically killed when he hit a catch fence head first at Las Vegas in 2011), and if that happened again, it would be the only priority,” he said. “Dario (Franchitti) got lucky because the bottom of his car hit the fence. Mikhail (Aleshin) got lucky because the bottom of his car hit the fence. If we’re racing on superspeedways with catch fencing, I fear we’re just playing the odds until we have something protecting our heads. It’s a scary thing to say.”
It is a scary thing to say. It’s scary that even at the top level of motorsport drivers are having to play the percentages. There are always calculated risks associated with the sport, but the role of the governing bodies is to minimize the risk involved. Motor racing has been historically reactive to how it deals with safety issues.
Both Formula 1 and IndyCar have looked at solutions before.
Formula 1 tested Jetfighter type enclosed cockpits, but it was decided that they 1) weren’t strong enough and 2) created more issues than they resolved. In the case of the latter, indicating that the possible entrapment of the driver and delay in extraction far outweighed the benefit of the protection offered from debris. In the case of the Alonso/Raikkonen crash in Austria this year it could be argued that had a damaged canopy have been on the Ferrari post-accident, it would have led to significant delays in his extraction. IndyCar were also reluctant to further develop the idea of a partial canopy for the hazards associated with driver extraction if a car was to turn over.
Yet there are example of classes moving away from open top to closed top. WEC LMP1 is a prime example of this. Yes there are other issues that need to be dealt with. Canopies would surely mean that a dedicated extraction team would need to be on Formula 1 and IndyCar races. It’s not the only solution to the problem and suitability of canopies should not be an excuse for ruling bodies to abandon the pursuit of safety measure in the area of cockpit safety. Maybe another solution is needed and the truth is it is needed at more than the top level of the sport. Henry Surtees fatal accident in Brands Hatch ’09 was another reminder that at all levels head injuries are a racing driver’s biggest risk and we shouldn’t stop working on solutions to that.
If nothing else we have seen the FIA announce this week that they continue to research into solutions:
Speaking to Autosport, Charlie Whiting said:
“We had the fighter jet cockpit approach, but the downsides to that significantly outweighed the upsides. We also came up with some fairly ugly looking roll structures in front of the drivers, but they can’t drive with it as they can’t see through it. So it’s been really, really hard to come up with something that is going to do it. But we have two other solutions on the table, with the first something from Mercedes. We have put in a huge amount of time, effort and research into this project, which has not been easy, in fact bloody hard. But I can definitely see the day when this will happen. One day there will be something that will decrease a driver’s risk of injury. Whether it will be as good at protecting a driver from an object coming towards him as a fighter jet cockpit, I doubt that, but it will offer him protection. We have to persevere. We must make something, even if it’s not 100 per cent in terms of protecting the driver under all circumstances. But if it improves the situation it has to be good. There must be a way.”
There must be a way, but there is no quick solution. Motor racing has served us with some harsh reminders lately that we must never rest in the pursuit of driver safety, that despite all the advances that have been made there is always more to be done.
If there is a legacy for Justin Wilson it may lie away from motorsport. His brother Stefan took to twitter to say that Justin was a donor and that because of this, and following his wife’s consent, six people’s lives were saved thanks to organ donations from Justin.
Nice work big man.