Justin Wilson is currently in a coma, in critical condition at Lehigh Valley hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Despite never quite getting the recognition he deserves from the public and the media, Justin Wilson is beloved within the IndyCar community, he is one of the, if not the nicest guy in the paddock. He is also one of the best; Wilson has the distinction of being the only active driver to have competed in Formula One, CART, Champ Car and the modern IndyCar series. Working on a deal for 2016 with Andretti Autosport, his career prospects were as bright as ever, until lap 179 of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono today, when a freak twist of fate saw debris from Sage Karam’s wrecked car rain down on Justin, striking him and sending his Honda straight into the inside barrier coming out of turn one.
The outpouring of support and grief has been strong, the hashtag #PrayersForJustin has reached every corner of the racing community. Tony Stewart even lent his private jet to Justin’s family. The accident has been replayed and analyzed over and over again, a case of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time.
But instead of consoling myself with the fact that all the competitors know the inherent dangers of racing and that accidents like these are impossible to predict, I find myself furious. Once again a day of racing ends in tears, once again we are left asking why. Once again the greatest safety risk of modern open-wheel racing cars has been exposed, the fact that despite decades of safety improvements, the drivers heads are still very much exposed.
Henry Surtees, Felipe Massa, Dan Wheldon, Jules Bianchi, Justin Wilson…how many names need to be added to the list of drivers suffering life threatening head injuries before enough is enough?
IndyCar and Formula One have an unprecedented opportunity to address what is perhaps the biggest danger in racing today. With comprehensive new regulations coming to Formula One in 2017 and a new Dallara chassis scheduled to debut for IndyCar in 2018, the issue of driver head protection needs to come to the forefront of the discussion. A return of ground effect, simplifying front wings and a host of other sensible improvements that would make the racing safer, better and cheaper have been put forward as likely changes to the top open-wheel racers of the near future. Increased head protection for the drivers is the logical final step in this process; IndyCar and the FIA need to begin the work now of researching and testing potential improvements so they can be integrated into the new designs from the beginning.
When incidents like this occurred in the past, increased head protection always came up, and for the most part it has been acted upon. Extra wheel tethers, increased visor strength, higher side protection. The entire DW12 development took on the initials of Dan Wheldon not just to honor him, but to help ensure drivers of the future raced a safer machine.
Now is the time to get serious about what more can be done. Whether it’s simply a larger windscreen, a forward roll hoop, or a full on fighter jet style polycarbonate canopy. It is hard to say whether or not such measures would have made a difference in extreme incidents like those of Dan Wheldon or Jules Bianchi, but they could be of huge benefit in keeping debris from striking drivers inside the cockpit. It’s safe to say Felipe Massa would have had far less severe injuries from the errant spring, maybe Henry Surtees would still be with us today had his Formula Two car been outfitted with such a device.
Maybe instead of Justin Wilson fighting for his life, he could be celebrating a great race with friends and family, looking forward to a bright IndyCar future in 2016 and beyond.