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.

IndyCar: Foyt, Coyne, RLL teams begin Sebring test

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Carlos Munoz in his first test with Foyt. Photo: IndyCar
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Three teams and five cars in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series have headed to the happy hunting grounds of Sebring International Raceway’s short course for their first tests ahead of the 2017 season.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, past teammates themselves, were both on track for the first time since a test at Gateway Motorsports Park last October.

Rahal’s No. 15 Honda was adorned in United Rentals primary colors, with other RLL Racing partners such as Steak ‘n Shake, Mi-Jack, Hyatt and D-A Lubricants also on board. It marked a quick change from the all-red livery that was on for the Gateway test. This also presented RLL the first track opportunity to work with new engineering consultant Tom German, formerly of Andretti-Herta Autosport, and a multiple-time Indianapolis 500-race winning engineer.

For Bourdais, his No. 19 Coyne Honda was back in the black-and-green colors of Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality this test, albeit without that signage present. Bourdais, who’s bullish but cautiously optimistic on his return to Coyne for the first time since 2011, had his first day of on-track running with all three of Coyne’s key engineers (Craig Hampson, Olivier Boisson, Mike Cannon). Boisson, like Bourdais formerly of KVSH Racing, was still under contract to KVSH when the team tested at Gateway.

This also marked the first IndyCar test with his new team for Ed Jones, the 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion. Jones tested multiple times with RLL Racing in 2015 and 2016 and like Bourdais, was sidetracked from his would-be first test in December. The team rescheduled that test for these two days.

A.J. Foyt Racing, meanwhile, took to the track for the first time with Chevrolet engines and aero kits. The deal was long in the works for the team to switch from Honda, but was only formalized last week. This also marked the first chance for the team to run with new technical director Will Phillips, formerly of INDYCAR.

This gave new drivers Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz time to get on track for the first time since the end of the 2016 season at Sonoma, and first run overall both with the new team and the Chevy kit. Both drivers were Honda drivers in 2015 and 2016.

The test continues tomorrow; more info on today’s test can be found via IndyCar.com.

Chuck Weyant, oldest Indy 500 starter, dies at 93

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Chuck Weyant in the #41 Federal Engineering Special (KK3000/Offy) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IMS Archives
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One of the rare drivers who’d raced in Indy car racing’s front-engine days, Chuck Weyant, has died at age 93, Springfield, Illinois’ State Journal-Register has confirmed.

Weyant competed in 18 open-wheel starts from 1952 through 1962, including four Indianapolis 500-mile races (1955, 1957, 1958, 1959).

His best career finish was was eighth on two occasions, and his best finish at Indy was 12th in his 1955 debut.

Weyant was born in St. Mary’s, Ohio and resided in Springfield. A video the State Journal-Register did in 2011, the year of the centennial Indianapolis 500, is linked below via the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Twitter account.

Here’s a handful more images, via the IMS Museum and its archives:

Matchett: The end of an era

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 10:  F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone looks on in the paddock during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 9, 2016 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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I’ve played various roles within my near 30-year involvement with Formula 1: Race mechanic, journalist, author, television broadcaster. During these years I’ve witnessed many memorable events, some triumphant, some tragic, and I’ve seen an untold number of changes unfold within the industry, too.

Drivers have arrived in the paddock as unknowns, have won their championships and then faded away; mighty engineering empires have fought tooth and nail to claw themselves to the top, claiming their trophy only to then come slithering down the other side of the mountain. Team principals, engineers, mechanics, hospitality crews, drivers, race venues, tire suppliers, car designs, engine specifications, aerodynamic configurations, on and on and on: all have come and gone, replaced by others.

matchettThroughout all these upheavals, and stretching back years before my time in the sport, there has always been one constant: Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

And his seemingly unstoppable 40-year reign over this mighty industry came to a quiet close yesterday afternoon, around tea time. No cataclysmic boardroom explosions, no ‘he-said-she-said’ slanging matches in the tabloid press; rather his removal from office was signaled via a simple press release, a memo announcing that Bernie is no longer chief executive of the Formula One Group.

The former ‘F1 supremo’ is now ‘chairman emeritus’, a sinecure, an honorary position to the newly appointed three-man group at the helm. And with this announcement the much vaunted Liberty Media takeover of the multi-billion dollar business appears complete.

And Formula 1 will never again be the same.

Nelson Piquet, in the No. 20 Benetton Formula Benetton B190 Ford V8, won the 1990 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

My first interaction with Bernie was back in 1990, my opening year working with Benetton. Strolling across the paddock, returning to the Benetton pits, I noticed him standing near one of our two brightly painted trucks, with Bernie’s expression suggesting he was distinctly unhappy about something. He was looking down the line of parked trucks, two-by-two, team by team, all standing in a uniform line outside the pit garages of their respective teams.

Bernie noticed me and stopped me in my tracks. “This truck is out of line,” he said, “it’s too far forward, get your truckies to move it back an inch.” And with that he moved away, without another word. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking. I told one of our truckies what had just happened and he immediately stopped what he was doing and reversed his truck, repositioning it one inch rearward. Bernie’s word was law in the F1 paddock. Everything was carried out to perfection.

Bernie has worked tirelessly to turn grand prix racing into the highly successful, highly respected, military-type operation we see today. The professionalism of the teams, their own standards, and their own orchestration has visibly improved every year over the past decades. For an extreme example of this, compare an image of an F1 pit garage from the mid-1980s (the start of Bernie’s rise to prominence) with an image of a pit garage from 2016. In terms of cleanliness, the latter shares more commonality with a hospital’s operating theatre than a temporary trackside place in which to rebuild a race car.

Beyond his obvious entrepreneurial skills, his well-reported ability to strike phenomenal business deals, Bernie’s greatest attributes are to be found in things kept out of sight; those operational skills often overlooked by those who do not live inside F1’s microcosm. For example, take the unending international air transport of the race cars and the tons of freight that need to be moved around the world from venue to venue. The cars and equipment must arrive in their next destination on time. Each time. Every time. No hassles with customs; no cars missing from Sunday’s grid because their engines or transmissions are not scheduled to be released from border inspections until the Monday following a race. Bernie makes it happen. Every race. It was his job to make it happen. Until now.

Permane on the pit wall at the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

On hearing yesterday’s news, Alan Permane, Sporting Director to Renault’s F1 team said this to me: “I’ve worked in Formula 1 for 28 years now, and I’ve seen the sport continually grow due to Bernie. I will be forever grateful to him for making the sport what it has become during my career. I’m sure he will be missed but we must now look forward and embrace a new era.”

As to this new era, I have no doubt whatsoever that F1’s new boss, Chase Carey, along with his two managing directors, Sean Bratches and Ross Brawn, are all perfectly capable of leading F1 into the future. All three men have experienced remarkable success in their respective fields.

Personally, I’ve had no dealings with Carey or Bratches but I have worked alongside Ross Brawn, Benetton’s technical director for five years. Ross is one of the most respected engineers, one of the most successful strategists in the history of Formula 1; a winner of multiple world championships, and yet he remains a firmly grounded individual, an approachable leader.

Alan Permane has also worked alongside Ross Brawn: “I don’t yet have details of what Ross will be doing in his new role but if charged with looking after the Sporting and Technical side of the Championship then these aspects are in very safe hands, and I certainly look forward to working with him again.”

A brave new world, then, and one that is all but guaranteed to better exploit social media and the ever expanding digital world, aspects of the industry that Mr. Ecclestone never fully embraced, seemingly never wanted to.

Some may suggest that Chase Carey should have cut all ties with Bernie: out with the old and in with the new. All new. Personally, I believe he has done right in making the sport’s ex-supremo available as a consultant. The first time the sport’s new management receive notification that fifty-thousand tons of F1 equipment is sitting on a runway in Paris, Texas, not in its intended destination of Paris, France, that decision to keep Bernard Charles Ecclestone close at hand might well pay dividends.


Alex Lynn joins DS Virgin in Formula E as reserve driver

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© DS Virgin Racing
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Recent GP2 race winner and Williams Formula 1 test driver Alex Lynn has joined Formula E outfit DS Virgin Racing in a reserve role.

Lynn, 23, won the GP3 title back in 2014 before spending two years in GP2, balancing his racing commitments with a test/development position at Williams.

Lynn announced in the summer that he would be exiting GP2 after 2016, and angled for a drive with Jaguar’s factory Formula E operation ahead of its on-track debut in October.

Despite testing for Jaguar at Donington Park, Lynn missed out on the seats to Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans, prompting the Briton to look elsewhere for a drive.

On Monday, DS Virgin Racing announced that Lynn would be joining as its new reserve and test driver on a multi-year deal.

“Formula E is arguably the most competitive motor racing championship in the world, with the highest caliber of drivers,” Lynn said.

“As a driver I want to be competing in the top series, which is why I’ve been trying so hard to get into Formula E, and DS Virgin was my first choice. So I’m delighted to have signed a multi-year deal with DS Virgin Racing.”

Lynn’s arrival comes at a time when DS Virgin Racing is braced to possibly lose both of its drivers for at least one event in 2017, owing to clashes with the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Sam Bird raced for Ferrari’s factory GT team in the GTE Pro class of the WEC last year, and could be forced to miss the New York Formula E race due to a clash with the 6 Hours of Nurburgring.

Jose Maria Lopez is yet to enter the WEC, but is widely expected to be signed to a factory Toyota seat in the LMP1 class for 2017, putting the Argentine in a similar quandary.

The Mexico ePrix also clashes with the pre-season WEC test at Monza on April 1, but it is thought that drivers with clashes would split their duties between the two series – and two continents – over two days.