Opinion: IndyCar aeroscreens show lives matter more than looks

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Opinion: IndyCar aeroscreens show lives matter more than looks
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Oct 9, 2019, 10:25 PM

IndyCar’s Red Bull Advanced Technologies aeroscreen looks odd from the head-on angle, sexy from the side – but if it protects the drivers and they approve of its application, aesthetic appeal ceases to be a priority, writes David Malsher.

As 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power hurtled out of pitlane and onto the back straight at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Wednesday during the first test of the IndyCar aeroscreen, his Team Penske-Chevrolet struck a bird. It’s not unusual to have our feathered friends flapping back and forth between Turns 2 and 3 and the IMS golf course, particularly on relatively quiet testing days – remember Fernando Alonso’s first IndyCar test in 2017, when he managed to simultaneously kill two gulls

But that footage shows Alonso’s car hit the birds with his front wheels, whereas in Power’s case it was the new cool-air ducting vents right in front of his aeroscreen that struck the unfortunate creature and sent its pulped remains splattering into the cockpit. Now imagine the point of impact being just two inches higher and on Power’s next lap by, when the Penske would have been up to speed. In those circumstances, and with the car in 2019 spec – that is to say, without a screen in place – one can only speculate what might have happened. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to know what a one- or two-pound bird can do to even the toughest Arai when they meet at 220mph. However, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that, at the very least, the hit would have been hard enough to leave Power stunned and disoriented, perhaps rendering him unable to negotiate the next turn.

Those who have been expressing displeasure (and more) over IndyCar’s 2020 introduction of the Red Bull Advanced Technologies aeroscreen may argue that such an occurrence is one in a million, but it’s precisely those kinds of chances that I believe are unreasonable to expect a driver to take when there is a solution available to either ameliorate or resolve the problem – which there now is, in the form of the aeroscreen.

 

Photo by: IndyCar

Yes, motorsport has to be risky otherwise much of the challenge is gone for the driver, and therefore much of the allure has gone for the fan, but the dangers should be in the hands of the driver as much and as often as possible: he or she is, after all, the one with the most to lose. Bird strikes, flying debris and the like are quite clearly the racing equivalents of what insurance companies would describe as ‘acts of God’. Therefore it’s extremely sobering to realize that a common theme in most IndyCar and Formula 1 accidents that have caused traumatic head injuries or have involved alarming near-misses between helmet and foreign objects over the last 10 years is that the injured or lucky escapee was almost or entirely blameless in the accident.

Yes, of course racecar drivers know the potential hazards when they step in their cars, as that threadbare cliché goes, but they deserve as much protection as possible from incidents of the ‘wrong place, wrong time’ nature. Their challenges from race to race should not have to include dodging random bullets, but should instead involve doing what lesser mortals would find impossible due to lack of talent or bravery or both. I’m talking about taking calculated risks – the 50/50 outside pass, the win-or-bust outbraking maneuver, the conscious decision to push to the very limit of adhesion (or beyond) through a high-speed turn, and so on. Those too can have perilous consequences should they go wrong, but at least in those scenarios a driver’s destiny is largely within his or her control.

What is puzzling is the sheer depth of feeling among those resistant to this latest safety improvement. How could the aeroscreen provoke so much condemnation? Despite being an avid student of open-wheel racing history, I’ve never read of there being an outcry when drivers switched from linen or leather to hard helmets, or from open face to full-face helmets, or when drivers started wearing (vaguely) fireproof overalls instead of t-shirts and slacks, or when car builders switched from wire to solid wheels, started adding rollhoops to open-top racecars, or when seatbelts became compulsory…

And since I started following the sport closely in the early-1980s, I know that racers weren’t criticized for being ‘soft’ nor the rule-makers accused of behaving like overly protective nannies when drivers’ feet were moved behind their cars’ front axles, when quick-release steering wheels were introduced, when cockpit sides were raised, when wheel and wing tethers were introduced, when anti-intrusion panels were added to cockpits, when SAFER barriers were installed, and when HANS devices became compulsory. (The latter did initially cause some discomfort until they became more customizable, but the positives were rapidly acknowledged as far outweighing the negatives).

But IndyCar’s aeroscreen has been slammed by many fans and certain members of the media for not only its unusual appearance from the head-on angle but also for doing the job it was designed to do – adding protection for the driver. “It’s the start of a slippery slope,” and “This is the beginning of the end,” were two of the politer comments I saw across social media and comment forums, while there were several that went along the lines of, “I’m done with IndyCar.”

Now I admit that aesthetics have an important role to play in the appeal of racecars, and the universal aerokit produced for the 2018 season by designer Chris Beatty and the series’ head of aerodynamic development Tino Belli made IndyCar the best-looking open-wheel series on the planet over the last two years. The aeroscreen, when seen full frontal, or within 10 degrees either way, does rather ruin that; the optical illusion – accentuated when a screen isn’t fully ‘liveried up’ – is that of a transparent bucket around the cockpit. The result had one or two talented and imaginative fans photoshopping Disney Pixar-style ‘eyes’ on the screen, as if it were in the Cars movie franchise (Ha! The chance of such promotion would be a fine thing for IndyCar), while many compared the screen with a giant welding mask or riot helmet.

Not helping the visuals was that the screen’s thick titanium frame stands out all the more when the car is in superspeedway trim as per the two cars that tested at IMS, because of the minimal chord and near-flat angle of the front and rear wings. The road/street course/short-oval wing package mutes that effect a lot, especially when the frame is painted body color, as on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport machine that tested on Monday at Barber Motorsports Park.

 

Photo by: Ray Gosselin

When the screen is viewed from any perspective where you start to see the angle and curvature of the aeroscreen, the car looks fantastic – but that’s just my opinion, and I’m aware that looks are a very subjective subject. To those still convinced that IndyCar and Red Bull Applied Technologies have ruined the appearance of a previously handsome car, I’d urge you to 1) give yourself some time to grow used to the aeroscreen as it stands, and 2) remember this is an ‘aftermarket’ part applied to a car that in original form first raced in 2012. Once Beatty, Belli and Co. are able to include the aeroscreen from the very conception of the 2022 chassis, expect a more harmonious design, particularly in the area where the top arch of the screen attaches to the base of the rollhoop.

To those who imply that today’s IndyCar drivers are chicken-hearted for wanting their heads protected from flying debris, I will merely comment how easy it is to be brave with other people’s lives – and also point out that the current breed of racers lack nothing in terms of valor. The same guys (with one possible exception) would race in 2020 even if the aeroscreens were delayed until 2021. But that does not mean IndyCar can afford to soft pedal on safety matters: provided there are no last-minute hitches there can now be no excuses for not using the aeroscreen.

Questions answered

Back when an F1 halo-type device was being discussed as a possibility for installation on the current IndyCar, there was a popular and understandable assumption that it wouldn’t work because the top bar would obstruct a driver’s view on banked ovals, where it’s vital that he or she can see a very long way around a very fast turn. Maybe that would have been the case had the framework of the aeroscreen replicated the halo more exactly and swept down to join the raised cockpit sides. However, five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon killed off that misconception early on in the development process by pointing out that the height of the screen and its frame lifted it well out of the necessary field of vision. The fact that the horseshoe-shaped top bar remains at that height all the way around to join the chassis at the root of the rollhoop also removes any worries over potential accidents caused by restricted peripheral vision.

Nonetheless, given the fact that solving a few problems can create a few more, there remained some obvious questions. One was the driver’s vision in the rain, which 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud revealed on Monday was a non-issue as he and 2012 champ Hunter-Reay conducted the first road course test for the aeroscreen at Barber. This year’s Indy 500 winner reckons water disperses better from the screen than it does from a helmet visor, while an inbuilt filament solves fogging issues before they even arise.

Meanwhile for all conditions, tear-offs are added to the screen on either side of the central wicker, and these can be removed by a crew-member during pitstops, exactly like the windshield tear-offs in NASCAR. Hunter-Reay says that it’s only when the aeroscreen is carrying too many of these tear-offs that a driver will see some distortion. Even then, he added, it’s no worse than when a driver applies too many tear-offs to his helmet visor.

 

Photo by: IndyCar

RHR did reveal during his test at Barber Motorsports Park that keeping the driver’s head cool will require some modification to ducting and hosing, but that’s what off-season testing is all about, and otherwise he appeared to have no misgivings.

Provided that issue is resolved and provided no hitches emerge in next week’s short-oval test with Josef Newgarden and Dixon, and November’s simulated street course test at Sebring with Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe, the screen’s introduction appears to be running to plan. The assumption that drivers, engineers and Firestone can work around the revised weight distribution – the device and its accouterments add about 50lbs just behind the front axle – is a fair one, because although there will of course be knock-on effects in terms of handling balance, everyone adapts. They always do.  

The AMR Safety Team’s view

Which leaves one big safety-related question – How will the aeroscreen affect IndyCar’s AMR Safety Team in the event of an accident in which a driver is incapacitated and/or knocked unconscious? To answer this, Motorsport.com turned to Tim Baughman, IndyCar’s director of track safety. He recently retired from the Indianapolis Fire Department after 32 years, during which he became an auto accident extrication expert. He has already logged 30 years at IndyCar, and since 1996 has missed fewer than 10 events.

Tim Baughman, IndyCar director of track safety

Tim Baughman, IndyCar director of track safety

Photo by: IndyCar

There are 30 members on the Safety Team roster, 16 of whom will attend every event along with three Chevrolet Silverado trucks equipped with all the tools deemed necessary for emergency rescues. Among these tools are cutters/spreaders, courtesy of Holmatro, and these can cut into the aeroscreen and through the titanium frame. Ordering such tools was a preemptive move on Baughman’s part once he learned which direction the series was going with improving cockpit safety. It’s the fact that the Safety Team was part of IndyCar president Jay Frye’s considerations from the first devising of the aeroscreen which came as a relief to all.

“Jay came to me in late March or early April and said, ‘I want you to sit in and audit our engineering meetings on this aeroscreen project,’” recalls Baughman. “I loved that opportunity, because normally we’re handed a situation and told to deal with it. That’s what we do as firefighters on the street; we know of certain car designs and then start acquiring techniques for extraction and rescue.

“Here we were able to go to the meetings from the start of the concept, and I was completely blown away by Red Bull’s professionalism, and working with Dallara, Aerodyne, PPG, Pankl…. There were eight or nine companies involved. IndyCar asked me, ‘What do you guys need to take the driver out of the car?’ I said, ‘Let’s start from where we are today… Are we planning on removing the aeroscreen every time we’ve got to get a driver out of a car or is the opening going to be big enough to get him out with it intact and in place?’

“The current cockpit, once you pop the cockpit surround and headrest off, is 21.5 inches wide, and we have a thin carbonfiber backboard that we put down behind an incapacitated driver and that cradles his head, neck and spine and keeps it all in line with his pelvis. Well, IndyCar scanned one of these backboards and sent it over to Red Bull Advanced Technologies and said ‘this needs to fit down there’. Then we measured the drivers’ shoulders, and eventually Red Bull got back to us and said that the top frame of the screen will attach to the bottom of the rollhoop behind and above the cockpit, and therefore the width of the aeroscreen will be exactly the same as the cockpit.”

 

Photo by: Todd Dziadosz / LAT Images

So far so good: the Safety Team members will have the same width to work in as before, even if they don’t remove the aeroscreen – but there remains the issue of getting down to cockpit level.

“Yeah, with the screen adding height to the cockpit, it means we’re working downward and not from the side,” observes Baughman, “and the front ‘windshield’ part of it slopes down to the nose and that’s normally where we’d be and talking to the driver, assessing him and popping the steering wheel off. So I brought in some of our guys for extraction practice in late August and told them to do the first couple practice runs [with an aeroscreen mockup] in the same way we’ve done up to now. Well, we finished that tryout 100 percent confident that we could do the same extraction process with the aeroscreen in place. In fact, we were practicing with a plastic version so we couldn’t even lean on it or use it as a lever point, and our guys still did the job.

“So the only differences going forward will be to the backboard in changing its grab points. Up to now we’ve been down at the drivers’ level and we grab them by the shoulders and the hips as we lift them up and out, and someone else is controlling the head on the board. Now that we’re working from above, we’ll put extensions on the backboard handles, and we’re talking to firesuit manufacturers about putting more stitches in the epaulettes on the shoulders and adding epaulettes at the hip to give us handles to grab.

“Dallara told us that they’re going to make a tub available to us and Red Bull are going to provide an aeroscreen, so we can get practicing. By January and February of next year, we will have done it hundreds of times. So just as we practice laying the tools out beside the crashed car in a certain order and everyone has their assigned places around the car, we will be practicing these extraction procedures until they’re automatic. It’s all muscle memory. Believe me, we all sit in those trucks thinking of scenarios, thinking of extremes – What if this happens? What if that happens? – and so we know that the hundreds of times we practice are vital. That constant practicing that may shave 15, 20, 25sec off a rescue time may be the difference between us saving a life and losing it.”

Should the need arise, however, Baughman and his colleagues will have no hesitation – and apparently very little delay – in cutting the aeroscreen away from a stricken car to allow better access to its pilot.

 

Photo by: IndyCar

“From Day 1, I told IndyCar and Red Bull that I need to know the materials that this frame is made from so we can cut it,” he comments. “The folks at Holmatro developed a machine for cutting F1’s halo so we have video of them cutting using a reciprocating saw. They tried several different blades and it turned out to be the same blade we carry today, so we’re pretty comfortable with that.

“It literally takes 16-18sec to use – we put a saw each side right by the drivers’ shoulders, and once you cut through there, you take that same saw and go around the aeroscreen and take it out. And then the central spire that comes up from the AFP [advance frontal protection] device to join the top frame is far away enough from the cockpit that it doesn’t interfere with a driver extraction at all.”

The way that Frye has corralled all parties involved in the installation of the aeroscreen, and their methodical seeking and giving of advice, has left Baughman encouraged regarding IndyCar’s next step, the 2022 chassis. From a superficial perspective, it will be interesting for we fans to see how the aeroscreen works visually on a car that included said device from its inception, as opposed to being an add-on to what is basically a nine-year-old car design. Baughman, naturally, is interested less in cosmetics and more in continued safety improvements in the next-gen car, and he believes tidying the cockpit internals should be the next big step.

“I’d like to see the 2022 car’s cockpit cleaned out as much as possible,” he states. “We used to have the shifter and the weightjacker in there, all on rods. How many drivers do we know who got fractured femurs and pelvises because they had a side impact that pushed those devices into their legs?

“Thankfully the electronic paddleshift means there’s no shift-lever in there any more and the hand-operated clutch has reduced the number of pedals. That means there’s less to damage the driver in an accident, and also less to get hung up on during the extraction process. But the weightjacker is still there so I’d like to see that moved too, and there’s also the fire extinguisher under the driver’s knees – does that even need to be in the cockpit?

“Those are the things that I’d like to resolve next. So I hope the relationships we’ve established for adopting this aeroscreen will allow consultation over the 2022 car. I think it’s a very healthy dynamic; I’ve been very impressed with everyone we’ve dealt with.”

Asked to judge the significance of the aeroscreen’s introduction, Baughman allows himself a moment of reflection before describing it thus.

“We used to see drivers die from basilar shear,” he says, “guys like Jovy Marcelo, Scott Brayton, Gonzalo Rodriguez all died that way. Then the HANS device was introduced and we have not had one of those injuries since. Then SAFER barriers were installed and suddenly high-speed impacts that could have maimed or killed drivers if they’d been against concrete walls were suddenly less life-threatening because 30, 40, 50 percent of the G-forces were being absorbed wherever the SAFER was installed.

“Well, I feel very strongly that this aeroscreen is going to be another safety device that in several instances will help prevent our drivers from being hurt seriously. I look back and wonder if we’d had this aeroscreen 30 years ago, who’d still be with us today.”

 

Photo by: IndyCar

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Series IndyCar
Author David Malsher