When you're racing in the southern hemisphere, particularly 'down under' in Australia, the last thing you expect is to be facing the right way up for the northern hemisphere.

But that's exactly what happened to A1 Team Canada's James Hinchcliffe in round seven of the World Cup of Motorsport, as he became the latest driver to test the strength of Lola's A1 Grand Prix chassis. The 20-year old rookie survived a heart-stopping 160kph double barrel-roll on the opening lap of the feature race at Eastern Creek, ending his race parked upside down in the turn four gravel trap.

Hinchcliffe's spectacular exit came as his right-rear wheel was tagged by the front-left of Team Singapore's Christian Murchison, who dived up the inside of the Canadian car. The contact between the two was enough to send Hinchcliffe barrel-rolling across the track before the settling dust revealed the white-and-red Lola beached upside down on its roll hoop.

"It's funny, as it felt like it was happening in slow motion," Hinchcliffe reflected, "Looking back when I replay it in my head, it all happens quite quickly, but I remember, when I was actually going through it, there was a lot going through my mind and it felt like it played out over a longer period of time.

"Obviously my first thought was 'oh no, I'm flipping', but it was closely followed by 'hold on, this could hurt!'. I didn't know which angle I was going to hit at, so I just grabbed the bottom of the steering wheel, ducked my head down and prayed for the best. I knew, when we rubbed tyres, we were travelling pretty quickly into the turn so, when I hit the ground the first time, I knew it probably wasn't going to be the last time. Sure enough, I went over again."

The Champ Car Atlantic frontrunner's ordeal didn't end there either, as he then found himself dealing with a personal phobia.

"One of my biggest fears in life is landing upside down in a race car, as I can get pretty claustrophobic," he explained, "Until Australia, I'd never had to worry about it, as I'd never flipped a race car but, just my luck, I had to deal with exactly that. I took a few deep breaths, established that I wasn't hurt in any way, then radioed the guys in the pits to say I was okay. I stayed in the car, as I knew it would be pretty awkward to try and get out on my own, so I hung in upside down until the safety crew arrived.

"They eventually put the car on its side and I popped the seat belts and freed myself from the tub - it was a little easier than if I had tried to get out on my own. It's standard procedure to go back to the medical centre and get checked out following an accident like that, so I headed over there. They kept me monitored for half an hour to let the adrenaline settle and see if any major aches or pains developed, but thankfully they didn't."

With both Hinchcliffe and Murchison agreeing that what had happened was simply an on-track racing incident, there was no ill-feeling following their respective retirements.

"It was absolutely a racing incident," Hinchcliffe insisted, "It was nobody's fault and there was nothing intentional about it. Christian kindly came up to me afterwards to see if I was alright, as he obviously had the best view in the house to see me flipping over. As a fellow driver, he would have known it was a bit of a hairy shunt, so it was cool of him to come over and check everything was fine - which it was."

Hinchcliffe's roll was the latest in a line of similar accidents in the season-and-a-half of A1GP competition, with Basil Shabaan and Hayanari Shimoda (twice) testing the strength of the Lola chassis in 2005-06. The car's safety provisions were again praised again following the Eastern Creek accident, with no-one more grateful for the safety measures in place in the design and build of the chassis and roll-hoops than the driver himself.

"I landed right on the roll hoop on the asphalt when I went over, and we were doing something like 160kph into the turn, so it was a significant impact first time around," Hinchcliffe reflected, "I walked away unharmed with nothing more than a headache to deal with, which really says a lot about what these cars can take in the way of impacts. They're built like tanks. As far as safety goes, the car did its job, which will allow me to keep me doing mine!"

Constructor Lola was equally pleased to see its product withstand the crash test.

"James' accident was certainly a significant one, but all our engineers are world class when it comes to ensuring the drivers' safety," commented communications manager Sam Smith, "Safety is - and always will be - the main priority when it comes to designing racing cars there days. The A1GP Car went through a full FIA-spec crash test before the car even turned a wheel. The roll hoop test went through a static load of 78.75 kilo Newtons - that is some eight metric tones of force, or over ten times the weight of the entire car. This load is applied in a compound fashion too, meaning that some is applied laterally and some vertically.

"It looks like James experienced several impacts on both the tarmac and in the run-off area, but this is legislated for in the crash tests. On top of the load tests that we subject the cars to, we also laminate a steel plate into the carbon fibre roll hoop, which protects the structure should it be subjected to multiple impacts and, in particular, a prolonged grinding. In terms of strength design, the roll hoop itself has more material [carbon fibre] than the cockpit and is also bonded and bolted on to the chassis itself."

Hinchcliffe is far from cowed by his Australian experience and will have the chance to put the disappointment of round seven firmly behind him when he straps back into the car in South Africa at the end of the month.



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