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This past winter was a tragic one for IndyCar. The loss of my friend Dan Wheldon pushed race officials to place a renewed emphasis on improving safety in IndyCar, and as we approach the high-speed Indianapolis 500 with an all-new Dallara chassis, the need for those improvements to be effective becomes more urgent than ever.
So where are we now compared to last year?
The new car—aptly named the DW12, after Dan, who conducted the vast majority of development for this modernistic machine—is considerably safer. For starters, the driver has an additional 2 inches of foam underneath his seat to aid in preventing the back fractures that we had become accustomed to seeing on heavy rearward impacts. This is especially important for tall drivers, such as Justin Wilson, who injured his back with just a slight off-track excursion last year.
The larger side pods now shelter the rear wheels. This prevents tires from interlocking and allows a little “rubbing” between cars. This design has proved to be a success, but the jury is still out on whether the pods can act as “bumpers” behind the rear wheels. The aim was to prevent cars from morphing into flying missiles and keep them planted on the tarmac. In Long Beach, we got to see the pods in action, when Marco Andretti ran over Graham Rahal. Marco flew through the air like an injured bird, proving that more work needs to be done in this area.
No doubt, in the seven months since Dan’s passing we are in a safer environment, but even larger, more-substantial changes are believed to be in the works. The FIA motorsport governing body is looking into various plans to protect drivers’ exposed heads. Already, ideas are formulating, such as roll hoops and even canopies, and I hope something becomes a reality in future.
Perhaps drivers’ biggest outstanding issue is with the catch fence and posts that eat and shred our cars upon impact. The prospect of replacing existing trackside fences with a Plexiglas-type product has been evaluated, but finding a strong-enough material—and the budget to develop and implement such a project—could prove difficult. If we ever see a change in this area, it could be the most significant safety development since the creation of the Safer Barrier back in 2002.
Lessons have been learned—sometimes very difficult lessons—and minds have been churning. We can never prepare for every eventuality but we must plan for the worst. IndyCar is pushing hard to improve our sport and additional changes cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, we must continue to follow the endless road, and not forget Dan’s legacy.
Guest blogger Alex Lloyd was the IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year in 2010. A native of England, he currently resides in Indianapolis and writes vehicle reviews for Yahoo! Autos.
Alex Lloyd photos by Dave Edelstein and Robert Ellis; Dan Wheldon photo courtesy IMS; Dallara DW12 image via roadandtrack.com.
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