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Hinchcliffe injury puts spotlight on safety

PressSnoop's Lynne Huntting looks at issues of driver safety and helmet design in IndyCar following an eventful inaugural Indianapolis road race on Saturday.
Rookie Martin Plowman took a drive on the wild side in Saturday's inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course race. He and Franck Montagny came together in turn seven, and Plowman went airborne up and over the Frenchman.

Upon review it was concluded that Plowman was - as were the other drivers - driving to the outside edge of the kerbs, and he evidently hooked the kerb's outer lip which then flipped the AJ Foyt Racing #41 up into the air.

"I was just a passenger," Plowman said after finishing eighteenth. "That was a tough break there. I was just flying through the air thinking, 'This is going to hurt really bad.' Luckily we came out of it unscathed. The car was in relatively one piece. We got it started again on the lead lap."

Plowman, as is the case with all Verizon IndyCar drivers this season, was wearing the carbon fibre Visor Shield mandated this year by IndyCar. The visors are made of high-tech materials and cover the open face part of the helmet, which protects the eyes.

Derrick Walker, IndyCar President of Competition, said the visor strongly reinforces the helmet opening. He noted that the piece is a developmental project which is still evolving, and that for the time being the visor is being taped onto the driver's helmet.

Bell Helmets, which makes Plowman's head gear, said super adhesive aircraft tape is currently used, but eventually the visors will somehow be more permanently attached to the helmet. Bell supplies head gear to 13 of the IndyCar drivers; some drivers leave the helmet visor as is with the carbon fibre showing, while others decorate their visors with the team's livery, logo or design. The covering does not compromise the visor effectiveness.

Bell and the Foyt team each confirmed that Plowman's Visor Shield worked and his helmet was not compromised in the clash with Montagny.

Last year Marco Andretti was the only IndyCar driver who wore the Visor Shield. F1 drivers have been wearing them since the serious head and eye injuries suffered by Ferrari driver Felipe Massa at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, when Massa was hit by a piece of flying debris that had dropped from a car in front during a qualifying session.

Andretti Autosport said that the helmet worn by James Hinchcliffe has not yet been returned to the team after his accident during Saturday's race. A spokesperson said Hinch was hit in the head on that new Visor Shield portion and that there was no intrusion, but that the impact must have been severe enough to cause a concussion.

"I was actually next to him on track when all of a sudden debris went everywhere," Hinchcliffe's teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay recalled. "He slowed up. I thought he maybe did a front wing."

The team is not sure where the debris originated that hit Hinchcliffe, but it is thought it may have come from the front wing of Justin Wilson who had just undergone some 'incidental contact' with the rear of race-winner Simon Pagenaud's car.

The latest news from Andretti Autosport regarding Hinchcliffe's concussion is that he is out of hospital. He was at the track Sunday and joking with his crew - as if it would be any other way for Hinch. For now there has been no medical reevaluation, which is required before he can be cleared to drive, and he has gone to stay with family in Indianapolis.

IndyCar mandates what is known as Baseline ImPACT Testing for head injuries, a protocol in place since 2011. Before the season, or before a driver competes in an IndyCar event, drivers are required to establish their 'baseline' data by taking the half-hour ImPACT Cognitive test. This year the ImPACT test is supplemented by the NFL Sideline Concussion Assessment Tool, which is a shorter cognitive test.

After a head injury, once the driver no longer exhibits any concussion systems, he/she is tested again, comparing results with the baseline tests, which allows the doctor to diagnosis the injury severity and better prescribe treatment. In the past IndyCar and CART sat a driver down for seven days after a concussion.

With the advancement of baseline testing, the process is much more accurate and scientific. Drivers could come back sooner, or later - depending on the results of the baseline testing. In IndyCar, IndyCar Director of Medical Services, Dr. Michael Olinger, consults with neurosurgeons before making the determination of a driver's ability to return to driving.

In the meantime, the #27 Andretti Honda is being 'shaken down' by IndyCar driver EJ Viso who doesn't have a full ride this season but who raced with the Andretti team last season. Viso will continue in the car on Monday to start going through the checks and tests the car goes through in preparation for Saturday's qualifying. Viso was sixth fastest of 24 drivers Sunday, and he will be in the car until "Hinchcliffe recovers, and until a definitive decision in made in regard to the driver for the Indy 500."

Walker said IndyCar's Safety Committee is a new initiative this year, to be further reaching, more transparent, and include more people. Its scope is Driver Safety, Gear and Environment. The Committee considered the eye safety issue and made the recommendation. The visors were then presented for discussion with all the drivers. The current Safety Committee consists of two IndyCar drivers, Charlie Kimball and Hinchcliffe; IndyCar Safety Consultant Dr Terry Trammell; IndyCar Director for Engineering/Safety Jeff Horton; and IndyCar Vice President of Competition, Brian Barnhart.

Walker said IndyCar uses FIA guidelines and its expertise regarding circuits and courses. If additional work needs to be done, IndyCar works with the promoter of an event for any additional safety layers, and lets the FIA know.

In the case of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Walker conceded that the road course kerbs will need smoothing out on the outer lip edge for next year which should alleviate the airborne problem, as well as eliminating the rutting on the bottom of the cars which went over the jags. There will be additional kerbs on the course next year.

Other IndyCar race car safety improvements for the 2014 season include chassis upgrades, by adding carbon fibre panels to the exterior and interior to reduce potential intrusion into the cockpit, and improving head surrounds for road and street course events.

By Lynne Huntting, PressSnoop.com


Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
James Hinchcliffe after qualifying in second place at Barber Motorsports Park (Photo by: Eric Anderson for IndyCar Media)
Crash at the start of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis (Photo by: Dana Garrett for IndyCar Media)
Sebastian Saavedra exits his car (Photo by: Dana Garrett for IndyCar Media)
Martin Plowman flies over Franck Montagny (Photo by: Eric Anderson for IndyCar Media)
Mikhail Aleshin sits in his machine prior to practice for the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Richard Dowdy for IndyCar Media)
Mikhail Aleshin receives a handshake before his qualification attempt for the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Richard Dowdy for IndyCar Media)
Will Power sits on pit lane prior to the evening Open Test session at Auto Club Speedway (Photo by: Joe Skibinski for IndyCar Media)
Scott Dixon (Photo by: Chris Owens for IndyCar Media)
The cars of Ryan Briscoe and Sebastien Bourdais go off course during the start of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (Photo by: Richard Dowdy for IndyCar Media)
The cars of Ryan Briscoe and Sebastien Bourdais go off course during the start of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (Photo by: Richard Dowdy for IndyCar Media)
The cars of Ryan Briscoe and Sebastien Bourdais go off course during the start of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (Photo by: Richard Dowdy for IndyCar Media)
The field scatters as the drivers avoid the cars of Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Briscoe at Sonoma Raceway (Photo by: Richard Dowdy for IndyCar Media)
Graham Rahal shows off the his new helmet prior to the morning warmup for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Graham Rahal gets strapped into his machine before the start of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (Photo by: Chris Owens for IndyCar Media)
James Hinchcliffe flashes across the start/finish line during practice for the ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 at the Milwaukee Mile (Photo by: Shawn Gritzmacher for IndyCar Media)
The cars of Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti sit in the Esses of Turns 4 and 5 after contact during the start of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Photo by: Joe Skibinski for IndyCar Media)
The field scatters as cars avoid contact during the start of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Photo by: Joe Skibinski  for IndyCar Media)
Sebastien Bourdais at Mid-Ohio (Photo by: Chris Owens for IndyCar Media)

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