The independent report on the fatal accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during the IZOD World Championship season finale to the IndyCar season may have concluded that Dan Wheldon's death was a result of a 'perfect storm'
of a number of factors, but IndyCar's President of Operations Brian Barnhart is all too aware that the report nonetheless highlights several areas that need addressing by organisers.
"Obviously, the accident has raised a lot of issues," started Barnhart at the press conference following the report's publication. "IndyCar has analysed data, video, still photographs and the physical evidence to better understand the dynamics of the accident and to document what occurred."
With the report stressing that the main contributing causes of the accident came from the combination of the handling of the existing Dallara IR3 chassis with the unique characteristics of this recently repaved variable-banked, multi-grooved high-banked 1.5-mile oval that allowed "limitless" racing lines, the most immediate question is how to spot in advance the danger of a similar combination arising in the future.
Currently, IndyCar conducts formal two-day compatibility and performance tests at new circuits before sanctioning a race there. In the case of LVMS, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe carried out such a test 11 months before race day, and between them they completed a total of 400 laps with a top speed of 214.456mph - much slower than the speeds the cars were already reaching in the early laps of the race on October 16, 2011.
Even with further private testing by IndyCar and Firestone Indy Lights teams in the interim, none of these tests had indicated the problems that would emerge over the race weekend as practice and qualifying led to improving race set-ups that contributed to higher and higher speeds. The final straw was the cars racing en masse
in packs for the first time on race day, with drafting allowing for still higher speeds while simultaneously demanding close proximity.
"We've had pack racing at other racetracks before, such as Chicagoland or Texas or other one and a half mile high‑banked ovals, there is always a limit," Barnhart explained. "You can be two-wide or three-wide, but at times when you got to the upper lane of Texas or Chicago, whether it's dusty, the grip level lowered, whatever, you couldn't use the entire racetrack.
"What was evident in the Las Vegas event was that the entire racetrack was usable and the lanes were limitless. That was a variable that had not been seen before," he added, explaining that this lack of defined racing grooves led for unpredictability and uncertainty in where drivers would place their cars and lead to increased risk of contact.
That conclusion clearly puts a major focus on identifying when a similar occasion could potentially arise. "I think one of the things that's going to come out of it that's going to be a big deal for us is as we talked about extensive testing to do our best to replicate race conditions," agreed Barnhart. "To identify the overall track geometry at any track where we are looking to run IndyCars to come up with the best understanding of the aerodynamic package, the technical specifications to allow us to race there as well as we possibly can.
"It is virtually impossible for us to replicate race conditions, as much as we do in the feasibility and compatibility testing, as much as we do in practice," continued Barnhart. "You never get an opportunity to run with everyone out there trying to achieve in practice what they do when the green flag drops in the race.