The heavy impacts last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even had an IndyCar veteran like Scott Dixon cringing, particularly when James Hinchcliffe slammed the wall in qualifying.
“Some of those crashes, when I saw them, I was like, ‘Oh man, that was a pretty big hit,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “Qualifying can be the worst because your corner speed is so high, if you do lose it in qualifying, it’s going to be massive.
“I was a little worried for Hinch, because I’m like man, that’s going to be a really big hit, much like we saw with (Bourdais, just not as direct head on, but I was really pleased to see him get out and walk around and get in another car a couple of hours later.”
Unlike the Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash two years ago that sidelined Bourdais with a broken pelvis for several months, every driver walked away.
Besides Hinchcliffe, there were jarring impacts in practice that involved Felix Rosenqvist, Kyle Kaiser, Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso.
IndyCar president Jay Frye told NBCSports.com that it’s a validation of several safety enhancements, particularly a crushable impact zone on the driver’s side. IndyCar made the piece less rigid after testing last year.
“Safety is always our No. 1 priority, so the outcome of each of those incidents was good,” Frye said. “Each driver was OK and cleared. When things happen, we analyze it immediately and see how it compares to other incidents over the course of the years. In general, we’re encouraged by the outcomes. We made thousands and thousands and thousands of laps last week, and you ask, ‘Is there a trend?’ We don’t necessarily see a trend.”
If there was some commonality among the wrecks, it’s that four of the cars briefly got airborne.
But unlike Dixon’s terrifying upside-down crash in the 2017 Indy 500 (when the Chip Ganassi Racing driver avoided injury despite his car’s cockpit nearly landing on the inside SAFER barrier), Rosenqvist, Hinchcliffe, Kaiser and O’Ward each escaped having their cars turn over entirely.
The closest was Hinchcliffe, whose Dallara-Honda did slightly more than a half-flip and got up on its side before landing on its wheels.
Frye said the series worked to keep cars on the pavement by moving weight toward the center of the car.
“Not going over is obviously a good sign; that’s the result we’re looking for,” Frye said. “When the cars have turned or got up on the side, what appears to be happening is, because some of the stuff that’s been moved, they pivot right back down. That’s a great result.
“Obviously anyone getting on their side that’s something we monitor of how and why that happened. We feel very good about where this car is at from a safety perspective. Everything that happened here, the result ended up being what we always strive for, each driver got out and walked away. They were immediately cleared and competed again right away. We always look at data. That’s as good a data as you can get when that result happens.”
Frye said IndyCar had no changes planned in part because there can be “unintended consequences” from being too proactive. “The car has done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “It’s come back down. Anything you do now could possibly have a more negative effect than a positive effect.”
Other IndyCar veterans also credited some floor holes that IndyCar has added to affect aerodynamics and help keep the cars grounded.
“The holes they have in the floor definitely prevent the flips,” Alexander Rossi told NBCSports.com. “I think that’s exactly what we were looking for. There was a period of time where we had these big pieces of body work on that were kind of designed to do the same thing, but they were atrociously ugly and ineffective and inefficient.
“So the fact we have a car that looks the part and performs the way it does but also stands up to the impacts at Indianapolis is a huge testament to what IndyCar has done, and they did a really good job at it.”
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said IndyCar had done a good job with mitigating the inevitable at Indianapolis.
“We’re always going to have big hits here; it’s impossible to run around that month and not have someone smack the wall,” Newgarden said. “It’s really easy to do. You see Fernando Alonso, Felix Rosenqvist, Patricio O’Ward, those are all extremely talented people, and they had very capable race teams. The place is tricky, and we’ve continued to evolve safety.
“You look at the cars and the way they hit the wall, the way the airflow starts to shear over the car in a sideways, reverse impact. That’s where (IndyCar) made a lot of gains. In particular when the car gets up on its side, there’s so much surface area on the floor, because the floor is so big on the car, it turns into its own wing, but the way they’ve got the holes in the floor, the way they’ve put the reverse flaps and rear wing, it’s all worked really well. You see people get up, and the wind can catch the underside of the car, but you don’t see it turn into much more than that. So it is encouraging. Everything they’ve done seems to be proving out.”
Said Dixon: “All the guys have walked away, so I think obviously the cars are still getting up a little bit, but it seems the devices they have are thankfully stopping (full flips). I think the next iteration of car or version of car, there’s probably something we can do to help that again. I think getting rid of a lot of the surface area from the wings has really helped.”
IndyCar also has added a new Advanced Frontal Protection device to its cars at Indy to help deflect debris away from drivers in crashes. On Friday, series officials are expected to unveil the second phase of open-cockpit protection.