Despite tough weekend, IndyCar dodges major bullet in Houston crash

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The words “Las Vegas” and “IndyCar” used together in a sentence still tend to send chills down the body after the horrific, 15-car pileup in the 2011 season finale that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.

Still, the words “catch fencing” and “pack racing” – two of the biggest factors in the “perfect storm” that contributed to that accident – aren’t as widely discussed until either IndyCar or NASCAR comes to a circuit where those elements really enter into the race. And really, going into this weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, the odds of us talking about any of those things were remote at best.

From a mainstream perspective, IndyCar has struggled to gain traction since the Las Vegas accident even as it introduced a car, the Dallara DW12, which for two seasons has actually contributed to some of the best on-track racing in years.

Three of the four terms – pack racing aside – came to light again the wake of Sunday’s last-lap accident where Dario Franchitti’s car went airborne over the back of Takuma Sato, slammed into the catch fencing and came back down on course.

It’s no secret Franchitti sustained injuries. The four-time series champion sustained two fractured vertebrae, a fractured ankle and a concussion in the accident and was held overnight in hospital for observation. Still, a quote issued via his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, and a tweet of his own on Monday, were very positive signs that things could have been much worse.

Perhaps Wheldon’s legacy, as much as his on-track achievements, is that his development of the fourth-generation IndyCar chassis has prevented further severe or fatal injuries.

The DW12, introduced with Wheldon’s direct input as the car’s test driver, has several driver safety improvements over the previous car. Energy-absorbent materials were mandated for the driver leg protection, wider cockpits were made for better driver extraction in the event of an accident, and a wider underwing, wheel fairings and rear crash structure reduce the risk of cars riding over competitors’ wheels, protecting the drivers and allowing safer competition.

Now you’ll say here that even with the rear wheel guards, Franchitti still launched over Sato and got airborne, which is true. But that’s purely down to the immutable laws of physics. Sato’s car washed out on the marbles – the dirty line – and was going through the highest speed corner on the track at a reduced rate. If Franchitti was going to hit him, he’d do so at his normal speed, which was faster.

“It’s so difficult to work out a way to stop the car from climbing up over the back wheels,” Power told USA Today’s Jeff Olson. “It’s hard to make something strong enough, but they’re always looking at things like that. The series is very safety conscious, but we can never get complacent or stop searching.”

A similar high-speed incident of a car actually going over the rear wheel guard occurred at Long Beach in 2012. Marco Andretti launched over the right rear wheel guard of Graham Rahal under braking for a 90-degree right-hander, Turn 8, and spun around into the tire barrier. But in that instance, both drivers were unhurt. The absence of the rear wheel guards, in theory, could have seen Andretti take off at an even higher altitude and potentially suffer serious injury. A video of that impact is below.

Perhaps the closest similar accident to the one that occurred on Sunday was one suffered by Conor Daly at Monaco in a GP3 race last year; Daly was a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and finished third in Saturday’s Indy Lights race at Houston. Daly, who was getting ridiculously blocked by another driver, tried a passing move but rode over that car’s wheels and got air.

Where injuries have tended to occur on the DW12 has been to drivers’ wrists, but that’s largely down to the steering column and a lack of power steering on these cars. That’s not related to catch fencing or the rear wheel guards.

The catch fencing, too, is now in the crosshairs as a result of the accident. Ovals tend to have a different degree of layering for the catch fencing; for example, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage explained his track’s fence design in a January 2012 RACER magazine article this way: “from the racetrack to the grandstand it goes SAFER barrier, wall, cables, upright posts, mesh fencing.” He dismissed suggestions that a Plexiglas or reinforced Perspex-type material could work better as an alternative.

In this case, on a street course, you don’t have the SAFER barrier but you do have tire barriers. Power, who won Race 2, told Olson the fence actually did a good job in this instance. Although small pieces of debris did enter into the grandstand, the fence helped send Franchitti’s car back onto the course. Any stronger material for the fencing could have injured Franchitti worse; had it been a mesh fencing as exists on some ovals, it might not have been strong enough to prevent more debris leaving the track.

Power, and new series points leader Scott Dixon, were less impressed with the grandstand actually being in that part of the track and having to drive through the wreckage. Dixon said the words “remnants of Vegas” in the post-race press conference, describing the similarity to the one lap conducted under yellow at Las Vegas before the race was red flagged, and ultimately canceled.

The catch-fence topic is still a discussion point across all forms of motorsport, though. A case in point is the opening race of this year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series championship at Daytona International Speedway. Kyle Larson was sent airborne in a last-lap incident on the frontstretch. Upon impacting the fence, debris and car parts were sent through the fence and into the grandstands. Larson survived the incident, but at least 28 fans sustained injuries.

And in a couple weeks, NASCAR heads to Daytona’s restrictor-plate cousin, Talladega Superspeedway, where the specter of multiple car accidents that often occur from pack racing have the potential to rear their ugly head. Assuming they do happen, the wish then is that they occur at a spot on the track away from the catch fencing where fans are directly behind.

If I’m honest, a lot went wrong for IndyCar this weekend at Houston. The lack of ample time to prepare the circuit, the inevitable issues that did occur once cars did get on track, the resulting schedule adjustments, the temporary chicane, several miscommunications, and stifling heat and humidity, then bipolar swing to rain Sunday morning could all be viewed as weekend negatives.

But given all that, despite the severity of the accident, all we had was a driver who was injured and will be able to recover, and fans who were sitting in that section and affected with only two taken to hospital for further evaluation.

No one was killed or seriously injured. It could have been much worse.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Racing facing big challenges ahead

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After a few months off writing, Stefan Johansson’s back with his latest blog after a whirlwind month-plus of news across various forms of racing.

The F1 and IndyCar veteran turned driver manager and seasoned observer of all things motorsports has touched on a number of the challenges all of racing faces in the upcoming months and years in this entry, his latest conversation with Jan Tegler.

Johansson first hits on a fundamental problem within racing: a tight regulatory box thanks to crazy amounts of technology, coupled with escalating costs.

“The fundamental problem in general for pretty much every level of racing is that technology has taken over. Everything is driven by technology,” he writes. “Every racing series is driven by the engineering side instead of the drivers and the sporting side. The cars are far too expensive to run. All of the electronics, all of the aerodynamic development, all of the extra stuff which has become part of the cars today makes them massively more expensive to operate. Then we have all the various methods of simulation which effectively have replaced on track testing, this again is driving up the costs as all this equipment is constantly evolving, and anything involving R&D is never cheap.

“Not only are they more expensive as a whole, components are more expensive and the cars require three to four times the amount of people to run compared to what they used to. In the end, there’s nothing left over due to the costs. The money’s got to come from somewhere. Teams are operating more and more in survival mode, and as such they have to rely more and more on drivers bringing money.”

The next fundamental question is whether race cars and road cars should have similar levels of relevance, or instead be completely separate. Hybrid technology has been en vogue for the last few years, for instance.

“Race cars are made to go fast as they always have been,” Johansson writes. “Nowadays the main emphasis seems to be that road cars are supposed to save the planet, whether that’s valid or not but that’s the argument. Racing and road cars ought to be heading in two completely separate directions, if there is anything to be learned from Racing that could benefit the road car industry, great, but I don’t think the focus should be on that.

“The whole concept with this technology – the philosophy of what race cars are meant to be now – is going completely in the wrong direction in my opinion. This insanely complicated and expensive hybrid technology really doesn’t benefit anyone in racing. The development of the technology for road cars is already as advanced if not more than what we see in the F1 or LMP1 cars. So there’s really no gain. Then you can look at the whole aerodynamic thing on top of it – useless for a road car.

“Part of the problem is the PR the manufacturers produce. Their PR departments have an agenda and of course there’s the political side and that’s another agenda. There are all of these marketing efforts and the racing is just the tiny little bit at the bottom of it. Everything has to conform to all of the non-racing agendas.”

The visual, visceral appeal of driving is another point that Johansson worries has been lost in this era of engineering-driven machines.

“Anyone, even a layman with no knowledge of racing, can appreciate the effort and skill of a driver wrestling a car to make it perform as well as possible at the limit,” he writes. “But a car that does almost everything for a driver, that’s stuck to the road on a track with so much run off area that is virtually impossible to hit anything if you try too hard and go off, that any driver with a small amount of skill can jump in and get within half a second of a three-times world champion – that doesn’t excite people. It doesn’t have the same appeal.”

MONZA, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 02: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing sits in his car fitted with the halo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 2, 2016 in Monza, Italy. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

On the Halo coming to F1? Johansson offers this: “It’s now also been confirmed that the Halo head protection will be mandated. It was an inevitable decision in my opinion, once the knowledge is there and it’s for safety there’s no turning back. It’s a knee jerk reaction to something that should have never happened in the first place if any level of common sense had been applied at Suzuka when Jules Bianchi had his accident. But it happened, it was a freak accident and will in most likelihood never ever happen again, halo or no halo.”

On IndyCar’s new universal kit coming for 2018, he writes, “Aesthetically the new car certainly looks a lot better than the previous ones, it would have been nearly impossible to design one that could look any worse though. I guess this also fixes the disparity between the Chevy and Honda aero but what a pointless exercise the manufacturer aero kits were.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, exits his car after his engine expired during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While noting the manufacturer spend, Johansson also notes how much buzz Fernando Alonso generated from his Indianapolis 500 bow: “If the penny hasn’t dropped that maybe it’s not new car designs we need, but instead a much bigger focus on the drivers, who are the heroes that people want to watch. The value of Fernando Alonso racing at Indy this year is probably the best marketing IndyCar has had for the last 20 years.”

And on LMP1’s demise within the FIA WEC as three of the four manufacturers from 2015 have all pulled out? “I can’t see the WEC surviving. If Toyota follows Porsche what is there? What they should do is a pan-American/European championship of some kind. They should create some kind of hybrid series that brings IMSA and the ELMS together, spanning both continents.

“Look at Le Mans this year. The race was almost won by an LMP2 car at almost exactly 100 times less than the budget of the P1 teams – 100 times less! That should tell you something. Sports car racing has to be much more reasonable in terms of the costs. Look at the LMP3 class.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

2017 columns:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Acura ARX-05 formally revealed at The Quail (PHOTOS)

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After a teaser video was released a couple weeks ago, the formal, full unveil of Acura’s new ARX-05 prototype for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, to be fielded by Team Penske, took place today at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, in Monterey.

A photo from a private, VIP event emerged on social media on Thursday night ahead of the proper unveil, but now the car is officially out in the open for all to see.

A striking nose assembly section to the ARX-05, on top of the base Oreca 07 chassis, is perhaps the most notable visual identifier on the car.

The full release and a handful of photos are below.

Acura today unveiled the new Acura ARX-05 prototype race car at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering. Acura Motorsports will join forces with the legendary Team Penske organization to field a pair of the new Daytona Prototype International (DPi) entries in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.  

The Acura ARX-05 (Acura Racing eXperimental, generation 5) is the latest in a line of endurance prototypes to be fielded by the brand dating to 1991, just five years after the 1986 launch of the Acura marque. Based on the very successful ORECA 07 chassis, the new ARX-05 prototype showcases Acura-specific bodywork and design features, including Acura’s signature Jewel Eye™ headlights, and utilizes the race-proven AR35TT twin-turbocharged engine, based on the production 3.5-liter V-6 that powers the Acura MDX, RDX, TLX and RLX models.

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

“At Acura, Precision Crafted Performance is at the heart of everything we do.” said Jon Ikeda, Acura vice-president and general manager. “Whether it is our production cars or a prototype race car, if you want to be a performance brand you need to perform.”

The multi-year DPi program will be administered by Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for both Acura Motorsports and Honda Racing in North America. The competition debut of the Team Penske Acura prototypes will take place at the season-opening Rolex 24 in January, 2018. One of the team’s two ARX-05 entries will be piloted by the legendary Juan Pablo Montoya along with sports car champion Dane Cameron. The second driver pairing will be announced at a later date.

“Right from the start, Acura has raced – and done so successfully,” said Art St. Cyr, President of HPD and Acura Motorsports. “We’ve won with the Acura Integra Type R, the RSX, the first-generation NSX and with the Le Mans prototypes. Most recently, we’ve won with the new Acura NSX GT3. The ARX-05 is our fifth-generation prototype, and we expect great things from our partnership with Team Penske.”

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

DPi rules require manufacturers to use one of four approved prototype chassis, fitted with IMSA-homologated, manufacturer-designed and branded bodywork and engines. In the case of the ARX-05, the bodywork was developed by a team led by Acura Global Creative Director Dave Marek.

“We created a variety of initial sketches, then pared those down a handful of potential designs. Next came aero and wind tunnel model testing, and time for the engineers to have their say,” Marek recounted. “The design continued to be refined throughout the testing and evaluation process, until we came up with a final treatment that met our performance goals while maintaining Acura styling cues. It’s been an exciting process.”

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

The Acura ARX-05 will add to a rich legacy of Acura sports car racing successes, including the 1991-93 IMSA Camel Lights manufacturer and driver championships; 50 IMSA and American Le Mans Series class or overall race victories (through Watkins Glen 2017); and the 2009 American Le Mans Series manufacturer, driver and team championships, in both the LMP1 and LMP2 classes.

Based on the “J35” family of engines found in Acura MDX, RDX, TLX and RLX production vehicles, the Acura AR35TT engine has powered class winners at the 12 Hours of Sebring (2011-13); the 24 Hours of Le Mans and LMP2 World Endurance Championship (2012).  The engine also powered entries to American Le Mans Series LMP2 titles in 2012-13; and the overall winners at the Rolex 24, 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans in 2016.

Acura Motorsports currently campaigns the Acura NSX GT3 in the IMSA GTD category with Michael Shank Racing – where it has already won at Detroit and Watkins Glen this season – as well as with Real Time Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge GT division.

Following today’s official unveiling, the Acura ARX-05 will also be on display at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (August 19) and on the Concept Lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (August 20).

Manor alters No. 24 crew line-up for WEC Mexico

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Manor’s Jean-Eric Vergne will be joined by two new drivers in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson for the upcoming FIA World Endurance Championship round in Mexico following a revision of the team’s line-up.

Manor fielded ex-Toro Rosso Formula 1 and current Formula E racer Vergne alongside Jonathan Hirschi and Tor Graves in the No. 24 Oreca through the opening three rounds of the season, the trio recording a best finish of fourth in the LMP2 class at Le Mans.

Vergne was replaced by Roberto Merhi for the last round at the Nürburgring due to Formula E’s clashing commitments in New York, but will be joined by an all-new line-up for the next race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City on September 3.

Matt Rao returns to Manor’s LMP2 line-up after featuring last season ahead of a move to Signatech Alpine for 2017, acting as its silver-rated driver.

Vergne and Rao will be joined by British racer Ben Hanley, who moves onto his third team of the WEC season after featuring for TDS Racing, DragonSpeed and G-Drive Racing so far this season at Spa, Le Mans and the Nürburgring respectively.

Manor’s No. 25 Oreca line-up remains unchanged, with Vitaly Petrov being joined by Simon Trummer and Roberto Gonzalez for Mexico City.

Click here to see the full entry list of the 6 Hours of Mexico.

Porsche staying coy on Formula 1 engine rumors

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Porsche has remained coy on rumors it could be set to enter Formula 1 as an engine supplier in the near future despite confirming that it is in the process of developing a “high-performance, high-efficiency engine”.

Porsche rocked the motorsport world last month by announcing it would be closing its LMP1 program at the end of the season in order to prepare for an entry to Formula E in 2019.

The realignment of its motorsport strategy came following Porsche’s attendance of meetings regarding F1’s future power options, set to come into play for the 2021 season.

The German marque had been rumored to be considering entering F1 as an engine supplier alongside its Formula E commitments, with member of the executive board research and development Michael Steiner responding to the speculation.

“Like other manufacturers, we participate in discussions on the future Formula 1 powertrain at the invitation of the FIA,” Steiner said.

“At the moment, the team in Weissach is not working on an F1 engine, but it is working on a high-performance, high-efficiency engine, specifically at the design level.

“So far, we have not decided what we will do with this engine, or in other words whether we will use it in series production or in motorsport. If the LMP1 programme had continued, we would have worked on efficient high-performance engines, and we are now pushing ahead with this development.

“The development contract with the engineers will run for the next 18 months.”

When asked directly if Porsche would be entering F1 in 2021, Steiner said: “I am not working on that assumption, but there is no statement to be made about this.”

F1 currently boasts four engine manufacturers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault – but is known to be discussing its future regulations with a number of parties both inside and outside of the sport.

Porsche last featured in F1 as an engine supplier in 1991, powering the Footwork team for six races before its switch to Ford engines for the remainder of the season.