My Take On The IndyCar Windscreen

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Although photos have been out there for over a week now, the new wind screen (or debris deflector) didn’t hit the track until yesterday. A few of you e-mailed me about my thoughts on it and I said I wanted to wait until it had been tested on the track before commenting.

Now that it has been tested for the amount of scheduled laps, I’ll go ahead and give my opinion on the entire situation. My opinion and five dollars might buy you a trendy cup of coffee at Starbucks.

If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know that I have not been one of those beating the drum for any type of protective device on Indy cars – and it’s not for the reasons that I’ve been accused of.

When it was determined that Dan Wheldon’s 2011 death was brought on by blunt head trauma – there was an immediate outcry that canopies, similar to those on fighter planes, must be installed on the new 2012 car before it even turns a wheel. The cries may have been from a small group, but they were loud and vocal. The exact same people were screaming even louder, when Justin Wilson lost his life at Pocono. In fact, Wilson had not even been extricated from his car before those rabid loons climbed up on their soap box. I am of the belief that a lot of this bunch just likes to complain because it shows everyone that they care more than you do.

Both times, whenever I spoke out against canopies – I was accused of being an unreasonable traditionalist that was opposed to a protective canopy for the sole reason that it changed my perception of what an Indy car was supposed to look like. I was made out to be some troll that was so anchored in the past, I was willing to let more drivers die just to preserve my sense of aesthetics. I’m shallow, but I’m not that shallow.

Over the years, I’ve felt obligated to lay out what I thought was a very reasonable series of arguments against enclosed cockpits. From something as minor as; it would get awfully hot in there, to the more likely cases of unintended consequences – the list of possible problems has been lengthy. My biggest concern was what might happen in the case of a fire after a crash that damaged the cockpit. I also remembered the image of Simona de Silvestro being trapped in a burning car that was upside down during practice at Indianapolis in 2011. I shudder to think what might have happened had a damaged cockpit been involved that day.

Fortunately, this was one time when IndyCar was smart not to listen to some of the more vocal fans. While they avoided knee-jerk reactions to placate fans, they took their time and tried to find a solution that kept the safety of the driver in mind, while also trying to avoid some of the unintended consequences that were lurking.

My concerns were not unwarranted. I have a close friend who was an engineer for General Dynamics in the seventies and was on the design team for the F-16. When I asked him about the possibility of canopies on an Indy car, he cringed. He shared stories of polycarbonate flexing enough in high impact to come in on the pilot and of course, the various issues with a fire.

Still, IndyCar and Formula One both felt the need to do something. Not only had IndyCar lost two drivers in four years by being struck directly in the top part of the helmet – there was the ongoing and more likely fear of a driver being struck in the front part of the helmet by debris.

James Hinchcliffe was struck in the face of his helmet by a piece of debris that had been sent flying after being struck by Justin Wilson’s car in the Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis in 2014. Hinch was dazed or even knocked unconscious as his car drifted into a tire barrier. He was carried off on a stretcher and his participation in the next week’s Indianapolis 500 qualifying was in doubt. Hinchcliffe was ultimately cleared to drive and put his car in the middle of the front row. Still, it was a scary sight nonetheless, and the outcome could have been devastating.

In Formula One, Felipe Massa was struck in the face in 2009, by a suspension spring that fell off of the car of Rubens Barrichello. His recovery was not as quick as Hinchcliffe’s. Massa required surgery near his left eye. He eventually had to have a plate inserted into his skull. He underwent a series of neurological examinations before being allowed to return to racing.

Formula One’s answer to protecting the driver’s head was the obstructive (and ugly) Halo Device. It’s essentially a strong bar surrounding the drivers head, supported in front of the driver. It has few fans on either side of the pond.

IndyCar was a curious observer of the Halo Device and eventually decided to go another way. What they decided to do was what they call a windscreen – similar to the clear windscreen that adorned Indy cars through the early nineties, in some form or fashion. They released the first photos last week after they had already announced that the screen would be tested on Scott Dixon’s car at Phoenix. Although I was much more in favor of the windscreen approach instead of the Halo Device; I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I saw the first photos that showed only close-ups.

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My fear was that after the IndyCar powers-that-be had finally gotten the car looking right, that the now-sleek looking car would be ruined with what looked like a very bulky addition. I felt like they had taken two steps forward and two steps back and would be back with an overall ugly car. But the material sounded more advanced than the polycarbonate my engineer friend was familiar with. The material is called Opticor – a proprietary product from PPG. It is supposed to be lighter, stronger and more impact-resistant than polycarbonate. Still, I was less than thrilled with this thing being mounted to this new sleeker looking body kit. However, if it performed well and protected the drivers – I was all for it.

Yesterday, we all saw the device on a real car for the first time. I’ll admit it looked pretty good. It did not look like some makeshift attachment that was crudely bolted on to the car, Instead, it had the look of something that was meant to be there all along. It reached out far toward the front of the car and gradually swept up to be well above the driver’s head. (Photo: Marshall Pruett)

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The material is reported to be 0.4 inch thick and it sits at a 25° angle. I’ll be curious to see if there is any distortion reported from the cockpit. If you listened to Trackside last night, you heard Curt Cavin quoting Dixon after the run saying that it was very noticeably quiet. There was no wind buffeting the helmet and things seemed so much smoother. He did notice that it was much warmer in the cockpit than usual. Dixon added that as strange as it seemed at first, he got more comfortable with it, lap after lap. I’m interested to hear what kind of aerodynamic changes were noticed. Looks-wise, it reminded me of some of the cars of the mid-eighties.

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Supposedly, this windscreen or debris deflector or whatever it’s called was over two years in the making. I give Jay Frye and his team full credit for taking their time and doing this the right way. They didn’t rush into things just to satisfy and silence the complainers. They developed something that still maintains the aesthetics of an open-cockpit, without limiting vision. Most importantly, they have minimized the threat of a driver being struck by debris directly in the face.  (Photos: IndyCar)

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Even if the screen had been installed on the cars of Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson; I’m not sure that it would have saved either one of them. I think most would agree that they were both unique accidents, maybe even flukes. But it would have minimized the blows suffered by Hinchliffe and Massa.

The fans of canopies will call this a compromise. This is no compromise. This satisfies everything they wanted in driver protection without all of the potential hazards that comes with a canopy. If that crowd wanted something that 100% guarantees a drivers safety, they need to seek another sport.

There is no timetable when we might see the windscreen on cars. It may be next week, it could be next year or it may never show up. Last night, Curt Cavin was speculating that it would probably be next year before we saw it in use. That’s probably about right. Time will tell.

A few years ago, I had resigned myself to the fact that some horrible device would eventually be placed on top of an Indy car that would destroy my vision of what an Indy car should look like. From what I saw yesterday, I don’t think it will take too long for us to think that the car looks funny without it. That’s how good a job IndyCar did with this.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “My Take On The IndyCar Windscreen”

  1. Frank Roales Says:

    George, back in 84/85 when I was involved with Usona Purcell’s cars at Indy we had windscreens on our cars and one of the tweaks we worked with was massaging the height and shape of the windscreen, I’m guessing however that this won’t be a option here. Just to say
    ‘it ain’t new”

  2. James T Suel Says:

    I really was against anything like a canpoy. This windscreen ,if that’s the right word for it is ok with me. It’s much taller and bigger then anything we have seen in the past. It’s not going to save a driver but if it makes everyone feel better so be it. Iam sure it will be a modest increase in saftey, and maybe a good thing once it’s fully developed.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I think it will take some getting used to aesthetically, but I see no reason to be unhappy with it as a safety solution. It appears, thus far, to provide most of the advantages of a canopy with few of the drawbacks.

  4. […] thinking about some things happening in IndyCar. So if you want more details read George Phillips blog post about Windscreens or Mark Glendenning’s article on Racer.com about Matheus […]

  5. I like it though that don’t count for much since I am not a driver.

  6. It looks a lot better than rear bumper pods!

  7. It looks fine to me. I wonder how they tested it. Did they haul out the Chicken Canon used for testing aircraft windshields or just pitch bowling balls at it.

    Interesting.

  8. Tom from Lake Forest Says:

    Can anyone tell me what impact the windscreen will have on downforce and in turn, the car’s performance in traffic?

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