Sunday 17 December 2017

Five questions surrounding the tragic death of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson (37) died from a head injury suffered when a piece of debris struck him at Pocono Raceway
Justin Wilson (37) died from a head injury suffered when a piece of debris struck him at Pocono Raceway
The 37-year-old from Sheffield was still “in critical condition” in intensive care in Allentown, Pennsylvania

Daniel Johnson

The dangers of open cockpit racing were laid bare again by the tragic accident which killed British driver at Pocono Raceway How did Justin Wilson’s accident happen?

In many ways Justin Wilson’s was a freak accident, similar to Felipe Massa’s in Hungary in 2009, but in open cockpit racing they are always possible.

The wreckage from another car – Sage Karam’s, a US rookie – covered the banked oval track with 21 laps to go at the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania on Sunday. Wilson was caught up in the shower of debris and hit on the head by what appeared to be a nose cone.

He was immediately rendered unconscious and ploughed into the barrier.

Why did it prove fatal?

Travelling at such high speeds – in excess of 200mph – and following as closely as they do on the oval circuits in IndyCar, Wilson had no chance of reacting and avoiding the debris. The forces involved in being hit on the head by metal bodywork at that speed left Wilson little chance.

US Wilson 08_3.jpg
Justin Wilson (37) died from a head injury suffered when a piece of debris struck him at Pocono Raceway

How dangerous is IndyCar?

Wilson’s is the first fatality since Dan Wheldon’s in 2011, and the fifth since 1996. Particularly on the banked oval circuits, with the speeds involved, pileups are commonplace as the drivers have such little time to react.

Wilson is not the only Briton to have suffered serious injuries or worse in the series. Wheldon (below), the two-time Indianoplis 500 winner from Milton Keynes, was in many ways the darling of IndyCar when he was killed in an accident in Las Vegas in the final race of the 2011 season.

Dario Franchitti, the victor of four Indy and Champ Car titles – not to mention a three Indianapolis 500s – saw his 11-year career ended when he crashed in Houston in 2013. The Scot broke his back and retired on medical advice.

Mike Conway, from Kent, was spectacularly launched into the barriers at the 2010 Indianapolis 500. He spent months in a back brace and had to be treated in a cryogenic chamber. He won on his comeback 11 months later but now refuses to race on oval tracks.

What about having closed cockpits or canopies?

The debate Formula One grappled with after Jules Bianchi’s accident last October is sure to resurface in IndyCar.

Not long after Wilson’s accident on Sunday, fellow driver Ryan Hunter-Reay addressed the subject. “These cars are inherently dangerous with the open cockpit like that, head exposed,” Hunter-Reay said. “Maybe in the future we can work toward some type of (canopy). We’ve seen some concept renderings of something that resemble a canopy — not a full jet fighter canopy, but something that can give us a little protection but keep the tradition of the sport.”

The debate was also triggered by an accident involving James Hinchcliffe when a piece of debris hit his helmet in a race last May. Opinion is divided among drivers but they are broadly in favour of keeping open cockpits.

Some of the criticisms of closed canopies include fears that movement is restricted, worries of being trapped if a car is upside down or on fire, or problems with peripheral vision. More fundamentally many simply feel that having an open cockpit is too integral a part of the racing for it to be changed.

What will happen now?

After Hinchcliffe’s accident, IndyCar investigated the possibility of a canopy and are sure to do the same after Wilson’s death.

Derrick Walker, the president of operations and competition for IndyCar, said last October that the series would prefer a partial deflector – at the front of the cockpit – to a fully enclosed canopy. “Getting out of the car as quickly as possible is the first priority, so a front deflector section seems to be a logical step,” Walker said.

However, a deflector is not something that can simply be added on to the current design, so according to Walker any redesign will have to wait until 2018, when the next generation of chassis are being introduced.

Whether plans will be brought forward in the wake of Wilson’s death is unclear.

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