Dario Franchnitti

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.

WATCH LIVE: Indy Carb Day on NBCSN at 11 a.m. ET

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INDIANAPOLIS – Five and a half hours of live coverage await today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBCSN, with Carb Day coverage. It’s also live streamed via NBC Sports Live Extra for participating providers at this link.

It starts live at 11 a.m. ET and goes through to 3:30 p.m. ET, prior to the NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special. The latter show also has the same stream link via Live Extra.

The coverage includes the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Carb Day practice in advance of the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, leading straight into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 after noon (12:30 p.m. green flag), and the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Challenge, tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m.

Kevin Lee will lead NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, filling in for Leigh Diffey who will be in Monaco, with Paul Bell and Robin Miller in the pits. Jon Beekhuis, Marty Snider, and Katie Hargitt will handle the pits.

Townsend Bell will also be on and available intermittently following his practice in the morning, driving his No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda for Andretti Autosport. He starts fourth for Sunday’s race.

Following the five and a half hours of Carb Day coverage, NBCSN will also have the NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special, featuring live updates on site from Monaco (F1), Indianapolis (IndyCar) and Charlotte (NASCAR).

From Indianapolis, Marty Snider, Townsend Bell, and Ray Evernham co-host coverage.

New Tatuus USF-17 chassis revealed

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Photo: Andersen Promotions
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INDIANAPOLIS – More to follow but the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis, the new car for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda on the Mazda Road to Indy, was unveiled this morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The full release is below:

The latest generation of chassis that will form the basis for the first two steps on the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel racing development ladder – which offers Mazda scholarships to allow racers to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the Verizon IndyCar Series – was unveiled this morning at the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway during the lead up to the historic 100th Indianapolis 500.

The new Tatuus USF-17 will be the series’ standard for at least the next five years, and features a state-of-the-art carbon fiber monocoque chassis to meet the latest FIA safety standards as well as the proven 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine and Cooper racing tires. It will replace the stalwart Van Diemen/Elan tube-frame car which has provided the backbone of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda since 1999.

The USF-17 is based upon the same FIA-approved Formula 4 T-014 design which is utilized in the Italian and North European Zone F4 series, as well as the new-for-2016 BRDC British Formula 3 Championship. Significant enhancements include the provision of a PFC four piston brake package, Cosworth Omega L2 Plus data system with Cosworth CFW 277 steering wheel (complete with integrated dash and gear change paddles) and a Magneti Marelli electronic gearshift system, forged aluminum American Racing Technomesh wheels and stainless steel exhaust headers.

Unique USF2000 sidepods, engine cover, front and rear wing end plates, nose cone and front cover combine to form an aero package that includes carbon composite wings with adjustable twin-element rear wing and a carbon composite diffuser. The rolling chassis is priced at $51,800, which is significantly less than the current USF2000 car.

“Today marks yet another great moment for the Mazda Road to Indy as we take another step forward into a bright future with the new Tatuus USF-17,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “I have watched Tatuus work with my staff and our partners on this project over the last six months, and I am convinced we made the right choice on this new car. They listened to what I wanted in a race car and delivered a beautiful, technologically advanced and, I believe, fast racecar. I have to thank Project Manager Scot Elkins, who has shepherded this project from its inception.”

The prototype USF-17 car will undergo a rigorous test and development program over the course of the next six weeks at four different race tracks in North America, after which the final specifications will be fixed. Mazda sports car talent and USF2000 steward/driver coach Joel Miller will handle the bulk of the testing duties.

Delivery of the first batch of 15 cars – all of which have already been sold – is set for September, with an initial two-day series test slated for late October. A second batch of 15 cars is scheduled for delivery in December. A second series open test will take place in January of 2017.

The winner of next year’s USF2000 championship – the first to be run with the new Mazda-powered Tatuus USF-17– will receive a Mazda scholarship to assist in graduation to the 2018 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, which will see the debut of another brand-new car featuring the same chassis along with an updated Mazda engine, enhanced aerodynamics and wider Cooper Tires.

“We talk a lot about the Mazda Road to Indy as the finest and most comprehensive driver development ladder in the world,” said John Doonan, Director of Motorsports, Mazda North American Operations. “The unveiling of the USF-17 today is the next step for Andersen Promotions to continue to improve the safety, performance and value of each series. We can’t wait to see the USF-17 racing next season and then the new Pro Mazda chassis to follow in 2018. To go along with the sleek Indy Lights IL-15 chassis, we will have the finest lineup of race cars anywhere.”

Interest in the USF-17 has been high. The September shipment of 15 cars has been sold as well as half of the second shipment in December. They will be delivered to 12 different teams, nine of which are new to the series.

“For me and for all of the people working at Tatuus, this is a fantastic day,” said Gianfranco De Bellis, Tatuus Race Cars Director. “I have great memories from my first experience with Dan Andersen 20 years ago in America. Our commitment and wish was to build the best car possible. I hope this will be appreciated by all the teams and something that we will all be proud of. I want to thank Scot and everyone involved in this project. We will look forward to seeing the car on track to be sure that it is not only a beautiful dream, but a reality.”

Testing will begin in June at NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Ky., followed by dates at Barber Motorsports Park, Road America and Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Media are invited to attend the Road America test on June 27, which takes place the day after the Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy race weekend.

Dennis: Michael Schumacher agreed to leave Ferrari for McLaren

2 Jul 2000:  Michael Schumacher of Germany and Ferrari struggles to hold off David Coulthard of Great Britain and McLaren-Mercedes during the French Formula One Grand Prix at Magny-Cours in France.  Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason /Allsport
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McLaren Group CEO Ron Dennis has revealed that Michael Schumacher provisionally agreed to leave Ferrari for the British team in the late 1990s.

McLaren is celebrating 50 years of racing in Monaco this weekend, with Dennis having headed up its Formula 1 interests since 1981.

In an interview with the official F1 website, Dennis reflected on the drivers he had worked with at McLaren and those who he had missed out on signing.

Schumacher joined Ferrari from Benetton in 1996 after winning his first two world championships, and would go on to win five in a row between 2000 and 2004 with the Italian marque.

However, history could have been very different had he joined McLaren as he provisionally agreed to with Dennis at one point, setting up a partnership with fierce rival Mika Hakkinen.

“When he was already driving for Ferrari, Michael and I agreed for him to drive for McLaren,” Dennis said.

“Our meeting took place not during the grand prix weekend; no, we met secretly at a Monaco hotel at another time.

“But in the end it did not work out because his management insisted on controlling his image rights – they basically wanted to retain them all, plus get paid a lot of money of course.

“That was disappointing. I think Mika and Michael would have been a truly fabulous driver line-up.”

Schumacher remained with Ferrari until the end of 2006 when he announced his retirement from F1, only to return with Mercedes in 2010, racing for another three seasons.

Schumacher remains in rehabilitation after sustaining head injuries in a skiing accident in December 2013.

Lauda expects Rosberg to sign new Mercedes contract in next three weeks

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda expects Nico Rosberg to sign a new contract with the German marque in the next three weeks.

Rosberg currently leads the Formula 1 drivers’ championship by 39 points after winning four of the first five races of the 2016 season.

Rosberg’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of the season, having last signed a deal back in 2014, and is yet to agree to an extension.

Reports in Italy claimed that Rosberg could be an option for Ferrari for 2017 in place of Kimi Raikkonen, but Lauda fully expects the German to continue his relationship with Mercedes.

“I’m sure we want to keep Nico, and Nico wants to stay,” Lauda told Sky Sports.

“I don’t see any issues at all. This will be fixed very soon.

“We have to decide it in the next three weeks. This is my point of view, to let him know that we all stick together for the next couple of years.”

Teammate Lewis Hamilton is locked in with Mercedes for the foreseeable future after announcing a new contract at last year’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Team boss Toto Wolff hinted over the off-season that a change in line-up may be required if tension between Hamilton and Rosberg boiled over.

However, with Rosberg in the form of his life, it seems unlikely that a switch will come in the near future – relying he wants to extend his seven-season stint with Mercedes.