Slater: A title won, a champion lost

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Steve Slater looks back on a week blighted by tragedy at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Motorsport News: Dan Wheldon

Motor racing often brings bitter-sweet moments, but few are as dramatic or tragic as last weekend.

The Korean Grand Prix brought Red Bull Racing their second consecutive Constructor's Championship, with Sebastian Vettel again dominating, chased down by the McLarens of Hamilton and Button. Mark Webber beat Button to third and could so easily have made it a Red Bull one-two, had his team not made a tactical error in pitting him at the same time as Hamilton.

The shift in time zones then meant that it was late night in Asia when another major race started. The season finale of the Izod Indy Car series in Las Vegas USA, was billed as "The Big One", plenty therefore stayed up to watch the action.

The promoters had put up a multi-million dollar prize fund which attracted a record 34 cars to the starting grid of the 2.4 km banked oval race track. In hindsight, it proved a fatally flawed plan.

For those that have never seen Indy Car racing at the trackside, it is hard for TV pictures to give a sense of the raw speed. Pushed onto the track by the centrifugal force of the banking, the cars complete each lap at 360km/h, faster than Formula One cars reach on the longest straights.

While most Formula One overtaking moves are made under braking from high-speed straights into slower corners, in Indy Car overtaking is almost continuous. Racing flat-out in top gear, the drivers use the slipstream of the cars around then to gain an advantage.

It means racing in very close proximity. In Las Vegas, the majority of the field were racing in a pack three-abreast just centimetres apart. There are no run-off areas either. A banked oval track is surrounded by a deformable barrier, a concrete wall and a debris fence, designed more to protect the spectators outside the track, rather than the drivers on it.

Just a dozen laps into this gladiatorial race, two cars made contact and spun at the head of the field. The result was carnage, a nineteen car pile-up of unimaginable violence. One car, that of British driver Dan Wheldon, was flung high into the air before smashing upside down onto the track.

A couple of hours later, the majority of drivers had walked out of the track's medical centre after treatment for only minor injuries, but sadly not Dan. The announcement that he had succumbed to his injuries brought IndyCar's showcase race to a grief-stricken end.

Wheldon could so easily have been racing in Formula One rather than IndyCar. In the late 1990s when he graduated from karting with Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson, the three "Rye House Boys" had pretty much won every championship.

While Button and Davidson graduated to Formula One, Wheldon instead crossed the Atlantic to further his racing career. In 2005, he became a household name across the USA after winning America's biggest race, the Indianapolis 500.

In 2006, he was offered and declined, a chance to drive in Formula One as third driver with BMW Sauber. Had he done so, it might have been Wheldon rather than Sebastian Vettel, who made his F1 race debut in the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Wheldon went on to win the Indy 500 again this year in one of the most dramatic finishes ever. He took the lead on the last corner of the last lap of the 500 mile race.

Some have called Wheldon's death the "Senna Moment" for Indy Car. The death of the Brazilian three-times world champion at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 catalysed Formula One safety.

As we look forward to the Indian Grand Prix on the Buddh International Circuit, its wide run-off areas, gravel traps and deformable barriers, as well as the safety structures of the cars themselves, are testament to Formula One's subsequent commitment. One hopes America will learn its lesson too.



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