The Indycar world was rocked just over a week ago as Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports rookie sensation, was hospitalized following what can only be described as a horror crash at Pocono Raceway.
As the news began to filter out over the course of the week, Wickens's injuries, while still not fully known, began to emerge. A surgery to insert titanium rods and screws into the young Canadian's back was successful Monday night. A subsequent surgery to repair injuries to Wickens's lower extremities was concluded later in the week. Then, on Sunday, just before the Indycar race at Gateway, it broke that Wickens was off a ventilator, breathing on his own, and speaking with his family for the first time in a week.
It is, to say the least, a positively tragic situation. And one that Indycar Competition President Jay Frye takes close to his heart.
"We were very encouraged by how the car held up, certainly not satisfied though, because the driver was injured," said Frye. "We're going to through this thing with a fine-tooth comb. (We have) the initial review of how the parts and pieces held up and this new kit has the driver-side impact pieces, which we think was an important element to the way the car held up. There were also five or six other things that we’ve done to the car over the past few months, safety updates, and they all seemed to do their job. We're very encourage by how it performed. We're not satisfied. We're never satisfied. Driver safety is our number one concern.”
Wickens car being carted away after his crash at Pocono. Photo Credit: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
There has been much discussion about what Indycar can do to prevent accident's such as Wickens's with ex-drivers like Paul Tracy, as well as commentators and pundits from across the world adding their voices to the din.
But early Monday morning, Felipe Massa, ex-F1 driver, entered into the fray with his comments on Twitter.
Indycar drivers (and ex-drivers) shot back at Massa almost immediately.
Rather than getting into a Twitter beef, as it were, it is far easier to call Massa's comments what they are. Completely and categorically wrong. In every way, shape, and form.
For starters, Indycar has, without question, the finest safety team on the face of the earth. No other racing series has a dedicated safety team, such as Indycar does in the AMR Safety Team. They are on call at every single race Indycar goes to. They know the drivers and the teams personally and are able to give specific care to specific drivers based on their needs. Furthermore, their worth has been proven time and time again by the lives they have saved. James Hinchcliffe and Alex Zanardi are two men who, in particular, owe their lives to the quick action of the safety team.
As for the low walls Massa complains about, the simple fact of the matter is that the walls around Pocono did exactly what they were supposed to do. They dampened the impact made by cars that hit them. Ryan Hunter Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Pietro Fittipaldi, and Takuma Sato all walked away from the wreck at Pocono unscathed, in large in part because of SAFER barrier that line every Indycar track. Barriers that were designed by Indycar to prevent horrible accidents. Barriers that were implemented in Indycar far before any such measure were undertaken in Formula One.
Instillation of the SAFER Barrier at Indianapolis. This took place over 15 years ago. Photo Credit: Indycar
For years, Indycar has been on the forefront of drivers safety. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of "The Split" was Indycar's renewed focus on safety and how to avoid such catastrophic accidents that took the lives of Scott Brayton, Tony Renna, Jeff Krosnoff, and Paul Dana.
But to Massa's complaint's a HALO device or windscreen as Indycar has been trialing would not have done anything in the accident with Robert Wickens. Nothing at all. Furthermore, as Graham Rahal pointed out, unlike F1, racing on ovals requires a full field of vision, even with spotters calling corners for the drivers, so a simply HALO like F1 currently has would make things more dangerous for the drivers.
The windscreen Indycar is currently developing is going through test after test, the series taking every effort to ensure it both protects drivers and protects fans as well, because unlike F1, oval racing has fans sitting almost on top of the racetrack. Anything that would deflect potential debris away from the driver may very well find itself project up into the stands, putting the lives of spectators at risk. Something that Indycar is taking into full consideration when developing the new windscreen.
Scott Dixon testing Indycar's windscreen concept in Phoenix earlier this year. Photo Credit: Indycar
On the subject of deflection, we come to Massa's final point. Catch Fences. Wickens's accident is not the only time we have seen a car torn to shreds by a catch fence during the course of an accident. Scott Dixon's jaw dropping crash at Indianapolis last year saw the Kiwi catapulted into the and torn to bits as he hit the inside retaining wall of IMS.
Yes, catch fences are dangerous, dangerous parts of the track that create the most horrific looking accidents. We lost Dan Wheldon to a catch fence in Las Vegas in 2011 and we damn near lost Dixon and Wickens to them in the past 16 months. They are far from perfect. FAR from perfect. But right now they are the best we have.
The job of a catch fence is to spit the driver back onto the course after making contact. This is what they are designed to do and this is what they have done well. They are there to prevent drivers from launching into the stands, to prevent the outright horror that the world witnessed at Le Mans in 1955. And in the case of Wickens and Dixon, they did just that. The catch fence spat the car back out onto the track, keeping debris and the car itself out of the way of fans.
Dixon's massive aerial crash at the 2017 Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports
Are they perfect? NO. Not by any means. And Indycar is actively evaluating option after option on how to make them better, but the suggestions provided up after Robert Wickens's accident offer little in the way of help.
A Plexiglas or similarly flat, clear surface may prevent a car from being torn bit to bit, but would, in turn, send the cars careening higher into the air after making contact with the wall. Instead of coming to a stop and returning to earth, with a Plexiglas barrier, we could very well see cars shot up into the air and land back on the track with the added vertical speed of gravity combining with the outright intense horizontal speed of the cars themselves and potentially creating even harder impacts for the drivers themselves.
The same is rings true with Massa's suggestions to raise the SAFER barriers around the track itself. By raising barriers, risks run higher of deflection and further aerial chaos. But, perhaps more to point, in the past two hair raising catch fence incidents (Dixon and Wickens) raising the safer barrier would have done absolutely nothing to prevent what happened. In fact, in the case of Dixon, having the SAFER barrier where it was, may very well have saved his life. If the barrier would have been raised, Dixon could have very easily gone nose first into the wall rather than allowing his car to break apart in the catch fence, dissipating energy out of the car and away from the driver's fragile body.
Yes, Indycar racing on oval is inherently dangerous. Going over 200 miles an hour in a contained space is dangerous and Sunday's accident reminded us all why the men and women who voluntarily strap themselves into these cars week after week are nothing but modern gladiators.
But for Felipe Mass to suggest that Indycar is negligent in their safety efforts is just plain wrong. And just plain ignorant.