INDIANAPOLIS — IndyCar announced Friday it will start using its new debris deflector at the May 11 road race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, moving up the debut from the Indianapolis 500 two weeks later.
The 3/4-inch-wide titanium "AFP" piece is bolted to the car just in front of the open cockpit so it can knock away debris moving toward a driver’s head. It was slated to make its debut May 26 during the series’ marquee race, but IndyCar President Jay Frye said there was no reason to wait after recent work, testing and feedback.
"Thanks to a phenomenal effort by Dallara and all of the IndyCar teams, we are ahead of schedule in making this happen," Frye said.
Series officials have spent years trying to make racing safer, but Justin Wilson’s death in August 2015 reignited the discussion about head safety in open-wheel racing. The popular English driver died from injuries sustained when he was hit in the head by flying debris from another car at Pocono.
IndyCar engineers worked on a so-called halo device similar to the one adopted by Formula One in 2018, but shelved it because it couldn’t be fitted on the car and there were concerns about impeding drivers’ sight lines. Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden also worked with a clear windscreen last year, but series officials did not get the desired results and work is continuing.
Engineers have been fine-tuning the titanium piece since 2012. It will be used the rest of this season.
Drivers have been generally supportive of the device. Earlier this week, 2017 Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato said he detected an airflow change inside the cockpit and thought it affected his sight line.
"I think IndyCar has made an awful lot of progress, but of course it is distracting from a visibility point of view," the Japanese driver said after turning a lap of 226.993 mph on Wednesday. "It’s better than having nothing of course. But basically the first few laps, it’s like you’re looking out with one eye closed. So it’s a little distracting, but I think we’ll get used to it and I think it’s a necessary modification."
No one is really sure how it will work during a race. Debris could simply break into smaller, still dangerous pieces. Some might fly into the stands or land back on the track.
While F1 was the first major open-cockpit series to add protective head protection to its cars, IndyCar engineers face a daunting task because their drivers compete at faster speeds on ovals and superspeedways in addition to the street and road courses used on international circuits.
The AFP is bolted on the Dallara chassis. It weighs just under five pounds and IndyCar said it has passed the same load testing as the protective roll hoop sitting behind and above the driver.
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe, among the 29 drivers who participated in Wednesday’s test, praised the effort.
"Obviously, this is just step one in an evolution of head protection," he said. "But having been hit by a piece of debris that would’ve been prevented with this device, I’m all for it. It’s also comforting to know that behind the scenes we are still working hard on a more comprehensive solution."