Did the Aeroscreen just Save another Life?
In the closing laps of Sunday's 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, Spencer Pigot suffered one of the worst crashes in recent memory.
The Aeroscreen and the HALO. Two of the most controversial safety devices ever installed to open-wheel racing machines. When the HALO was implemented at the beginning of the 2018 Formula One season, the fanbase of the largest motorsport in the world was nearly split in two. One half despised it, as it made open-cockpit racing no longer open cockpit. Whereas the other side approved of the device as it would help save drivers' lives. Even legends of the sport, such as Niki Lauda and Sir Jackie Stewart, were divided on the issue. The argument was much of the same when it came to the HALO+Windscreen device, known as the Aeroscreen, in 2020. Both of these devices are not the most aesthetically pleasing in the world. However, the exact reason why they exist is what truly matters. In 2015, both Formula One and Indycar lost some of their brightest stars. During the rainsoaked 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, rising star Jules Bianchi went off at the Dunlop Curve and collided with a recovery tractor. He would tragically pass away from his injuries in July of the next year. Just a little over one month later, Indycar would lose one of its veteran racers. Former Formula One driver, 7-time ChampCar/Indycar winner, and 24 Hours of Daytona champion Justin Wilson would suffer major head injuries after the nose cone of Sage Karam's wrecked DW-12 hit him in the helmet at the 2015 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono. The next day, he would pass away from his injuries. As a result of these accidents, along with other close-calls and accidents in the past, the respective administrations of each sport decided it was time to make a change.
In memory of Jules and Justin.
With five laps to go, as Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, and eventual winner Takuma Sato battled it out at the front, a yellow flag was thrown into the Indiana afternoon sky. As the camera cut to the pit wall remotely operated camera, the mangled mass of the protective tire barrier at the beginning of the pit wall showed the brutal aftermath of the impact. The red #45 Rahal Letterman Lannigan Racing car of Spencer Pigot then came into the picture. Almost immediately after the camera cut to his wrecked ride, Pigot began moving in the cockpit and raised his helmet visor to alert the AMR Safety Team that he was awake and conscious. After a tense couple of minutes, Pigot gingerly clambered out of his destroyed IR-18 under his own power. Shortly after exiting the cockpit, he recalls becoming lightheaded and needing to lie down. The safety crew mentioned to him afterward that he did pass out for a few seconds while they were attending to him. He was then placed on a stretcher and transported to the nearby Indiana University Methodist Hospital for further evaluation. Remarkably, he was released the same night. According to Pigot, he did not suffer bruising or any other minimal injuries from the incident.
Spencer Pigot's RLL Racing IR-18 after being recovered from the crash. Photo courtesy of Speedcafe.com.
The Findings and My Thoughts
On commentary after the incident, lead broadcaster Leigh Diffey pointed out something extremely worrying. The bunch of tire bundles that are usually hidden behind a white covering that encases them are now jetting out of the torn-up tarp. He went on to mention that these could have possibly entered an open cockpit of a pre-Aeroscreen Indycar. Now, with no fans in attendance, we only have a handful of camera angles of the crash. However, from those few camera angles, I am confident in saying that the Aeroscreen saved Pigot from severe injury or worse. Pigot himself spoke on the effectiveness of the Aeroscreen during the crash. "Yeah, I think that definitely I had a lot more protection than I would have had a year ago," he told Motorsport.com. "I've not seen pictures of the car or the car itself to see how marked up the Aeroscreen was, but I'm sure it played a role in helping protect me." Later on in the article, he talked about how a Formula One-style HALO would have fared. This system was one of the options presented to Indycar when discussions were launched to develop a new cockpit protection system for the future of Indycar, along with the Shield+HALO combo they would eventually choose. Pigot stated, "If we'd had just a HALO, I think stuff could have gotten in there." As we know, tire barriers are one of the most prevalent forms of track safety devices in the world of motorsport. If Pigot's theory is true, could that mean the safety of other open-wheel drivers is at risk? Of course, most side-impact crashes in other open-wheel racing series are rarely as brutal as Spencer Pigot's at Indianapolis. However, these kinds of accidents still can happen. With the HALO having minimal protection against side hits or most small pieces of debris, does the HALO need a shield-like structure like the Aeroscreen? Sure, the HALO is great for protecting the driver from car on top of car incidents, head-on impacts with the barriers, and dealing with larger pieces of debris. However, could we see a similar incident to Rubens Barrichello's 2009 incident at Hungary with the HALO unchanged? These answers will only come with time as both of these devices continue to mature and evolve. Personally, I suggest that the HALO adapts an Aeroscreen-like shield for the future of open-wheel racing. Nonetheless, both of these have undoubtedly saved lives and careers over the last two years. Charles LeClerc, Brendon Hartley, Antonio Giovinazzi, Tadasuke Makino, Alexander Peroni, Rinus Veekay, and Spencer Pigot are just a few who can credit the HALO or Aeroscreen on saving them from severe injury or much worse.
Colton Herta (Left) and Rinus Veekay (Right)'s terrifying crash at Iowa Speedway earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Indycar.
What are your thoughts? Do you think that the HALO is here to stay as it is, or should it be adapted to deal with other forms of dangers that arise on-track? Let me know in the poll and the comments below!