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.

VIDEO: Ferrari fires up 2016 F1 power unit at Maranello

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel,of Germany, steers his car during a testing session of Pirelli Formula One rain tires, at the Paul Ricard circuit, in Le Castellet, near Marseille, Tuesday, Jan.26, 2016. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
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Ferrari has released a short video of the first fire-up of its new power unit for the 2016 Formula 1 season at Maranello in Italy.

Although there is nothing to suggest what the new car will look like thanks to some cannily-terrible camera work, it is nevertheless an interesting snippet ahead of the new season.

Ferrari is yet to confirm when it will launch its 2016 runner, but is likely to do so online in the days leading up to the first pre-season test in Barcelona on February 22.

There has been much speculation about the new car as Ferrari bids to overhaul Mercedes at the head of the field and secure its first championship in eight years.

Sebastian Vettel will be hoping to build on an impressive maiden campaign with Ferrari in 2015 that yielded three race wins, while Kimi Raikkonen remains keen to pick up more silverware in what may be his last season in F1.

Chilton says IndyCar test debut went “swimmingly well”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 12:  Max Chilton of Great Britain and Marussia speaks with members of the media during the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom on October 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Along with new Chevrolet aerodynamic components being tried out at the “it’s green in February and it’s never this green the later into the year we get” Sonoma Raceway, the other interesting storyline out of Wednesday’s six-car Verizon IndyCar Series test was that it marked Max Chilton’s testing debut with Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Chevrolet.

Chilton’s made the announcement, addressed the media and had his sponsor confirmed within the last week-plus.

But it was on Wednesday that the talking stopped and the driving restarted, for what was not only the 24-year-old Brit’s first time in an IndyCar but also his first time at Sonoma.

“It’s a bit of a shock today,” Chilton said, via a track-issued release. “I haven’t been in a racing car in six months and that was an Indy Lights car, so I’ve got to learn the track today and the car.

“But I think the morning went swimmingly well. I was quicker than I thought I would be.  It’s a really nice kit and I can’t wait to explore it throughout the season.”

Here’s a few photos on social media, either ones he or the track shared, of his maiden day in an IndyCar.

Chilton’s next test comes later this week, still in California, at Auto Club Speedway for his first oval run in an IndyCar.

Chilton joined his three Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, for the test. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud also tested on Wednesday.

Pabst adds Jordan Lloyd as third USF2000 driver

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Pabst Racing has added a third driver to its Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda lineup, in the form of talented 19-year-old Australian driver Jordan Lloyd.

Lloyd raced the first two weekends of last year’s USF2000 season with John Cummiskey Racing before being sidelined due to financial woes, but he showed quite a bit of promise in those two weekends at St. Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park. He finished second in one of the NOLA races.

For 2016, Lloyd returns to the U.S. after winning the CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 championship last year, and was thus awarded with the ‘Road to the World’ scholarship.

“I only touched the tip of the iceberg when I was here in 2015, so on a personal level there is a lot of unfinished business that needs to be tended to,” Lloyd said in a team release. “I am looking forward to a strong season.”

Lloyd, who will drive the No. 21 car, joins the previously announced pairing of Garth Rickards and Yufeng Luo at Pabst, the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin-based team, as the USF2000 field for 2016 continues to grow both in terms of size and talent.

Luca Ghiotto steps up to GP2 with Trident

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Luca Ghiotto (ITA, Trident) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
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Luca Ghiotto will step up to the GP2 Series with Trident in 2016 after an impressive season in GP3 last year that saw him finish second in the championship standings.

Ghiotto made his GP3 debut at the end of 2014 with a four-race run-out for Trident before remaining with the Italian team for 2015.

It proved to be a memorable year as he won five races – more than any other driver – but fell eight points short of the title as Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon was crowed champion in Abu Dhabi.

Ghiotto will remain with Trident for 2016, stepping up to its GP2 operation after a successful test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

“I can’t wait to line-up for this new adventure,” Ghiotto said. “Last year, it was tough for me to fight so hard and not winning the title. However, it has been an extremely useful experience with the help of the excellent teamwork among the whole Trident stable.

“I want to thank once again Maurizio Salvadori and Giacomo Ricci for their support, and the Italian Federation for believing so much in me. I really look forward to be back on-track.”