Sunday, October 16, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Is Anyone Working On It?

Marc Márquez clinched his third MotoGP world championship after victory at Honda's house while both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo fell while running second. Another team won in its own house. A Turk won another title. A German won another title. A Frenchman won another title. A Welshman is on fire. Alex Zanardi won the finale of the Italian GT Championship season in his return weekend to racing after taking over a year off to focus his training for the Paralympics. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Is Anyone Working On It?
The fifth anniversary of the death of Dan Wheldon passed this weekend. It is an accident that will go down as a marker in IndyCar history of when pack racing on mile-and-a-half ovals had to be addressed after almost a decade of finger-crossing and sighs of relief when the likes of Kenny Bräck and Ryan Briscoe survived flights though left race track in ambulances.

That day seemed to last a week and that week seemed to last a day. The accident happened so early that we waited and we waited and we waited. The championship was already decided after Will Power was involved but 188 laps remained in the IndyCar season and in the single-engine, IR07-era and there were still about 20 cars with all four wheels intact. It just seemed inevitable the race would never be restarted even though a façade was erected saying otherwise. After the announcement and the cancellation and the tribute laps and the sunset, it is all kind of a blur. It ended up being the final IndyCar appearances for Danica Patrick, Davey Hamilton, Vitor Meira, Jay Howard, Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy, Alex Lloyd and Buddy Rice. Some drivers had to go to Australia. Some drivers were planning to go to a funeral. Some drivers decried IndyCar racing on ovals and most of those drivers didn't race in IndyCar. Some drivers decried the catch fences.

We all wondered what could have been done to prevent the accident. How could packs be broken up? How could the cars be kept on the ground? How could driver protection improve? How could catch fences be made better?

Breaking up the pack wasn't that difficult as all it required was different aero regulations and a degrading tire. The changes in aero regulations and wheel guards, though wheel guards have been met with hostility, have kept the cars on planet Earth and for the most part prevented cars from somersaulting over one another after wheel-to-wheel contact. We are making progress on protecting drivers through some type of windscreen/canopy/halo device but the one aspect of Wheldon's accident where it appears to have zero development since the accident is catch fencing.

Catch fencing was a sticking point after Wheldon's accident after it was found that his head trauma came after his head struck a pole that was located on the inside of the fence itself and not on the outside. It led to a very public war of words between drivers, notably Oriol Servià, and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage. Since those bitter days within the year of the accident, all has gone quiet on the development of catch fences. Within that first year we all expected someone to take the reigns and lead the charge in catch fence development the same way Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Dr. Dean Sickling, then working at the University of Nebraska.

However, five years later with no reported improvements, no reports of prototyped designs being tested, no track with a massive press conference announcing it has taken the baton of motorsports safety development and is setting the standard going forward, I have to ask: Is anyone working on a new and improved catch fence?

I thought we would have heard something by now considering it has been five years. Safety developments take time. It took four years for the SAFER barrier to reach its full potential. The PEDS barrier debuted in 1998 but showed its flaws and the SAFER barrier's introduction in 2002 addressed those issues and 14 years late SAFER barriers are as unnoticeable at a race track as the snow cone vendors. But it feels we haven't even reached the PEDS level of catch fence development and the biggest reason is money. In a 2012 Autoweek article, Dr. Sickling estimated that it would take $100 million to research a new catch fence design. Bricks of money aren't raining down on motorsports. Budgets are getting tighter and tighter and there isn't uniformity over the issue. While catch fences are a concern for IndyCar, they are less of a concern for the FIA and NASCAR, even though in recent history car have frequently gotten into the catch fences at Daytona and Talladega.

The only way advancements in catch fence development will be made is if all parties pitch in together for a change. Ideally, the next-generation of catch fences wouldn't grab a car and tear it to bits but let a car glide along while not shredding it like cheddar, keeping the debris from spreading across the race track and potentially getting into the grandstand. That catch fence would not only benefit IndyCar but NASCAR as it wasn't that long ago 30 spectators were injured after Kyle Larson got into the catch fence in the tri-oval at Daytona.

Motorsports will never be 100% safe and a lot of improvements have been made since Dan Wheldon's accident but there are still a few areas that are lacking and the catch fence is one of those areas. It isn't an impossible fix but it will take cooperation. While $100 million is a lot of money, it is absolutely worth it if it means keeping drivers and spectators safe.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez but did you know...

Kenan Sofuoglu clinched his fifth World Supersport championship and second consecutive with a victory on Sunday at Jerez.

Marco Wittmann won his second Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship with a second-place and fourth-place finishes at Hockenheimring.

Sébastien Ogier clinched his fourth consecutive World Rally Drivers' Championship with victory in Rally de Catalunya.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Márquez, Sofuoglu and Ogier but did you know...

The #6 Toyota of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Stéphane Sarrazin won the Six Hours of Fuji. The #26 G-Drive Racing Ligier-Nissan of Romain Rusinov, Alex Brundle and Will Stevens won in LMP2. The #67 Ford GT of Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell won in GTE-Pro. The #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda won in GTE-Am.

Thomas Lüthi won his third Moto2 race of the season at Motegi. Enea Bastianini jumped to second in the Moto3 championship with victory at Motegi.

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Cup race at Kansas. Kyle Busch won the Grand National Series race.

Miguel Molina and Edoardo Mortara split the DTM races at Hockenheimring.

Chaz Davies swept the World Superbike races at Jerez.

Coming Up This Weekend
The United States Grand Prix takes place at Circuit of the Americas.
MotoGP heads to Phillip Island.
NASCAR's second round of the Chase ends at Talladega.
The European Le Mans Series season wraps up in Estoril.
Supercars run two races around Surfers Paradise.