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Your views: Driver safety in open-cockpit racing

'Dan Wheldon's two sons shouldn't have to live with the reality that their father died because he chose a profession in which his life wasn't the number one priority'
The tragic loss of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Dan Wheldon, is without a doubt the most significant death in open-wheeled motor racing in nearly two decades.

Not since the loss of Ayrton Senna has an open-cockpit formula lost such a high profile driver, nor has there been such calling for re-evaluation of driver safety.

Both drivers suffered remarkably similar deaths with Wheldon's from blunt trauma to the head, and Senna's from multiple skull fractures. In the aftermath of Senna's accident, wide spread safety changes were made to improve the protection of the driver's head in Formula One.

Initially, the FIA increased crash safety standards, as well as the height of the sills around the cockpit to offer more protection. Additionally, in 1995, research began into the feasibility of using HANS (Head And Neck Support) after an accident caused Mika Hakkinen to suffer a fracture around the base of his skull. HANS is designed to stop the head from whipping forward, helping to prevent the occurrence of basilar skull fractures. It has been mandatory equipment for all drivers since 2003.

Even with such improvements, critics of motor racing most often credit speed as the main reason for driver fatalities and injury. In recent years, high-speed crashes in Formula One have resulted not in driver fatalities, but in drivers walking away unscathed. Robert Kubica's crash into a barrier at 186 mph in Canada in 2007, Mark Webber flipping end-over-end at 190 mph in Valencia in 2010, and Sebastien Buemi's front wheel sheering off at 190mph in China in 2010, have proven the strength and rigidity of the modern Formula One car. These select examples show that speed alone does not, in fact, kill.

The real danger in open-cockpit racing is more correlated to head trauma than to anything else. The death of Formula Two driver Henry Surtees, from a blow to the head from a detached wheel at Brands Hatch in 2009, as well as the loose suspension spring which struck Felipe Massa on the head in Hungary in 2009 and left him in a coma and out of racing for almost a year, are two prime examples. Both incidents show that a driver's exposed head is the weak point in driver safety for open-cockpit racing, meaning that the most important part of a driver is the most unprotected and exposed.

Wheldon's death has once again brought the subject of larger windshields and full canopy's to the for-front once again. The FIA conducted tests earlier this year to demonstrate the increase in head protection which would be obtained from implementing either. The idea was quickly dismissed by most in top-flight, feeling a covered cockpit would detract from racing and make removing drivers from crashes more difficult.

However, excitement and driver safety should not be mutually exclusive. Motor racing will always have some level of danger, but actions should be taken to prevent foreseeable avoidable incidents. A closed cockpit at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, for example, would have offered Michael Schumacher some form of protection when Vitantonio Liuzzi drove over his car, only missing his head by a few inches.

The inherent problem of motor racing is the strong resistance to any form of change. Safety has always been reactive instead of proactive. Wheldon's death should act as a wake up call, a watershed moment, for open-cockpit racing that the status quo is not enough to protect the lives of drivers. Formula One, as the world's top flight open-cockpit racing series, should lead by example and make aggressive changes to improve driver safety through increasing head protection. Motorsports runs the risk of becoming antiquated if they refuse to make concessions which would knowingly save lives.

Steve McQueen's excuse that auto racing is 'a professional blood sport' can no longer be used. In 1971 it may very well have been, but 40 years later it is the responsibility of those who love motor racing to ensure that anything and everything is being done to protect the lives of drivers.

Dan Wheldon's two sons shouldn't have to live with the reality that their father died because he chose a profession in which his life wasn't the number one priority.

by viewer J. Graham McCormick

Related Pictures

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Dan Wheldon can`t believe he`s just on his second Indy 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday May 29, 2011. [Picture credit: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media]
Dan Wheldon, 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion. [Picture credit: IndyCar Media]
Dan Wheldon and his family, the day after winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, 2011. [Picture credit; Bret Kelley for IndyCar Media]
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November 02, 2011 2:10 PM

"Dan Wheldon's two sons shouldn't have to live with the reality that their father died because he chose a profession in which his life wasn't the number one priority" Sorry Mr. McCormick but I think that's a crock of s**t. To say that Motor racing as a whole or even specifically IndyCar as a series doesn't value the life of the participants is wrong. And not only that you provide ZERO evidence to support that statement. You site a couple of F1, F3 examples but didn't mention Wheldon's accident. Why? Because you have ZERO evidence or data that even a closed cockpit would have saved Dan. And since you mention a closed cockpit, it will not work on a formula simply because formula cars don't have doors or windows - how in the world would drivers get out the cars in some accidents? What happen to Dan and the ramifications for his family is horrible indeed. But let's not throw around damning statements and false solutions without any actual facts or data to back them up.

Martin - Unregistered

November 02, 2011 3:16 PM

What a load of twaddle. To suggest that the IRL doesn't care about the safety of its drivers is extremely offensive, borderline libellous. Oval racing is an especially hazardous form of racing, which nobody is forced to compete in, yet they went almost 5 years without a fatality or lifelong injury. Enclosing the cockpit area on open-wheel cars would not only be worse in the case of fires or overturned cars, but would also reduce visibility, probably causing more accidents. You haven't even mentioned the main causes of Dan's death - the crazy 'beat the regulars from the back of the grid for big money' scheme, the too-large field on a circuit unsuitable for open-wheel cars of such speed, the catch fencing and the ease with which current generation IRL cars take off on wheel-to-wheel contact (which the new-for-2012 car has dealt with). Mistakes have been made and lessons can be learnt, but this article is a hideously inaccurate assessment of the situation.

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