OCTOBER 23, 2003
Can F1 learn lessons from the death of Tony Renna?
Safety engineers have long been saying that the biggest danger for motor racing in the modern era is a car flying off the race track and into a crowded spectator area. With open-wheeler racing machinery there is always the possibility that one car will ride over the top of another and become airborne. This has happened several times this year in different forms of racing around the world: notably in Melbourne in March when Ralf Schumacher had a dramatic start to his F1 season when he ran over the back of Rubens Barrichello at the first corner in Albert Park. Circuit racers have an advantage in this respect as the tracks can be designed with space so that such incidents can be contained within the safety cordon.
Having said that there have still been some very nasty accidents, notably in the CART race at Toronto in 1996 when Jeff Krosnoff was killed when his car took off after hitting another car and flew along the debris fence, clipping a tree and then hitting a concrete light post which was on the track-side of the debris fence. That accident also claimed the life of Gary Avrin, a track marshal.
Formula 1 had a similar crash in Melbourne in 2001 when a tyre from Jacques Villeneuve's flying BAR-Honda hit a track marshal Graham Beveridge in the chest. Back in 1994 Pedro Lamy survived an enormous testing accident which saw his Lotus go clean through a similar safety fence. The car ended up inside the spectator tunnel underneath the track, having rebounded after hitting the ground.
The problem is not restricted to open-wheelers as the death of Michele Alboreto in an Audi sportscar at the Lausitzring in April 2001 highlighted.
In oval racing the problem is accentuated by the lack of available space. The Indy Racing League has been fortunate with accidents involving cars becoming airborne, notably in 1996 when Alessandro Zampedri flew along the debris fencing at Indianapolis without any spectators being serious hurt.
But this year there have been a spate of such accidents.
Renna's accident is the fifth this year for the Indy Racing League: Mario Andretti hit debris while testing at Indianapolis in May but was unhurt in the spectacular crash which followed, during which the car clipped the top of debris fencing; Dan Wheldon flipped at the Brickyard during the Indianapolis 500 when he hit Sam Hornish's car; Helio Castroneves ran over Tony Kanaan in testing at Richmond and his car punched a hole in the debris fence on the outside of the track, ending up upside down and on fire on the track; and a few days ago Kenny Brack was seriously hurt after his car took off after a crash with Tomas Scheckter.
The current IRL regulations dictate that the cars have flat-bottoms but generate downforce with aerodynamic wings and sidepods. If air gets under the cars at high speed they can take off, despite weighing 700kgs.
Renna's accident happened in the short straight after Indianapolis's Turn Three. The temperature at the track was very low - about 50 degrees - and tyre temperatures may have been a problem but it was his fifth lap out of the pits and so this may not be a contributory factor. Eyewitness reports say the car spun and then air got beneath it and it took off. At that point of the circuit the cars are traveling at around 180mph. The car flew into the debris fence. This is made of a steel grille, with heavy steel cables placed horizontally to add to its strength. Photographs reveal that Renna's car took down a large section of the fencing (probably 50ft). Two support posts were flattened. A substantial part of the car, it is unclear what, hit the edge of the walkway at the bottom of the North Vista grandstand, about 10ft above the ground where on race weekends the public would be, going to and from the grandstands and visiting concession stands.
There were no spectators present on Wednesday morning.
The survival cell of Renna's car appears to have ended up back on the race track. The fact that Renna was declared dead at Methodist Hospital only 23 minutes after the crash would indicate that the rescue crews were able to get to him quickly and that they realized that they could do little at the scene of the accident.
There were very few eyewitnesses to the accident and it seems that no closed circuit TV was in operation. The cars are usually fitted with an accident black box, which will provide some evidence of what happened - if the car was fitted with it.
"The League will work with teams and speedway officials to see what they can learn about this crash to see if there is anything that can compare to other crashes," said and Indianapolis spokesman. "Right now it's too premature to make any kind of judgments on how the crash happened and what actually happened in the crash."
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