IndyCar: better safety a good way to honour Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson combined bad ass driving with kindness, humility and a continual drive for safety. In the cold morning-after light following his passing it would be fitting that improved safety in IndyCar (and open-wheel racing in general) be a part of Justin’s legacy. Whilst everyone in racing would do anything to have him back, moving forward in a positive way is going to be the best recognition of his life.

Following Jules Bianchi’s ultimately fatal accident in 2014, MotorSportNotes wrote an article on the need for cockpit canopies in single-seater racing. Sadly in the almost 12 months since then, nothing has really changed on an issue that can be traced back to Imola 1994.

Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola that year spurred on a new wave of safety in Formula 1. The result was significant safety improvements and two decades without a fatality in F1. Yet nothing done in the name of safety since has addressed the scenario that killed Senna – a broken suspension rod piercing his visor just above the eye. The problem of blunt force trauma to a driver’s head in an open cockpit remains untouched since Senna’s accident. Worst still the issue subsequently claimed the lives of Dan Wheldon, Jules Bianchi and now Justin Wilson.

Ayrton Senna - Williams, 1994
Ayrton Senna – Williams, 1994

Distressingly Wilson’s accident at Pocono adds to the list of post-Senna accidents where some form of cockpit canopy or screen could have made a difference. The commonality that links Karl Wendlinger’s Monaco accident in 1994, Luciano Burti’s terrifying shunt at Spa in 2001, Felipe Massa’s accident at the Hungaroring in 2009, Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident in 2011, Dario Franchitti’s career-ending shunt at Houston in 2013, James Hinchcliffe’s accident at Indianapolis in 2014, and Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka is the drivers’ head being struck with a massive impact. Nothing can ever guarantee complete safety in motor sport – that danger is intrinsic to the appeal for both drivers and fans – but cockpit canopies or protective screens could have made a positive safety contribution to all.

In the wake of Dan Wheldon’s accident, IndyCar had undertaken to examine cockpit canopies. Following the initial drive to seek a solution, the issue appears to have fallen off the priority list. Now is the time for the FIA, for F1 and for IndyCar to join forces to find a real and prompt solution to this problem.

Completely closed cockpits may or may not be a viable solution – some commentators have suggested they could complicate driver extraction. Failing that some degree of protective screen that the driver sits behind and below must be a minimum requirement.

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