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Hinchcliffe injury puts spotlight on safety

12 May 2014

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


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