Years in the making, the NTT IndyCar Series introduced its aeroscreen safety device at the onset of the 2020 season. It wasn’t perfect, but it appeared to serve its purpose by offering drivers a new and heightened level of cockpit protection.
The series took the lead on developing an aeroscreen of its own, which was tested on a few occasions in 2018, but lingering problems led to tabling the concept in favor of a blade-like deflection device, the Advanced Frontal Protection (AFP) piece. It was better than nothing, but felt like a token effort at the time.
Reflecting on the process of bringing the aeroscreen online and its performance, IndyCar president Jay Frye, who took control of the struggling project, expressed pride with how it eventually came together and built momentum leading into the most recent season.
“It was a paddock-wide effort,” he told RACER. “And to me, the most amazing thing was we worked on this for a couple of years, and then at the COTA Open Test in 2019, we got the drivers together and basically told them we got to a certain point with our aeroscreen, but we were having trouble getting it over the finish line. So we had an idea, and the idea was, ‘Hey, if we put an AFP on the car, we can do that quickly while we call our friends at Red Bull to see if they would be willing to work with us on this aeroscreen. We like their application. It’s exactly kind of what we were thinking about doing anyway. And would this work? What do you think?’
“So everybody was enthused about that. We put the AFP device on the car. Red Bull immediately jumped on it, got PPG, Dallara, and Pankl involved. One year later, at the 2020 COTA Open Test, we had 26 cars equipped with aeroscreens. So it was a massive effort by so many people for something that really was turned around in 12 months. That’s unbelievable from an engineering perspective.”
Drivers expressed few issues with adapting to racing behind a thick laminate screen, but the same can’t be said about the corresponding lack of cool, onrushing air being delivered to the cockpit. With air now diverted over and around their helmets, ambient temperatures and heat soak from the side-mounted radiators could make sitting inside the Chevy- and Honda-powered cars feel like being stuck inside a cruel sauna—all while trying to race and win.
Complicating matters, the arrival of COVID-19 led to a cancellation of all track testing, which meant the series and its drivers would be forced to learn about the cooling issues as they popped up from race to race. Solving problems in public, in the midst of an active championship, was never the intent, but Frye says his engineering team and aeroscreen partners did their best to adapt on the fly.
“We did the COTA Open Test, and then we really did not turn another wheel until the Texas Motor Speedway race (in June) because of the pandemic,” he said. “So we get to Texas. Obviously it’s really hot, and cooling was put to an extreme test right off the bat. Obviously, we worked on lots of different cooling options throughout the course of the year.
“We think we’ve got a lot at the team’s disposals right now. We only mandated the helmet cooling hose, and the rest of the tools that the teams have are optional. At St. Pete, which was a really hot day, a really humid day, last race of the season, you saw a varying effect with different teams using different pieces, which is what we want. It’s like, ‘Guys, you have the tools. Use them.’ And some use more, some less. So we’ll continue to work on it as we do everything, but we think the toolbox is pretty well equipped with cooling devices.”
A few more improvements are in the works for 2021.
“There was some dust and debris and things like that got in the cockpit, so filtration, and things like that that we’re working on,” Frye said. “We’ve got anti-fogging heat elements in them. So we’re looking at all of the boxes we checked and asking how they performed, and if some things are or aren’t needed.”
The aeroscreen was put through a couple of challenges at the Iowa race, where the flying car of Colton Herta was prevented from striking Rinus VeeKay’s helmet, and it also kept flying debris from the crash making its way into Marcus Ericsson’s cockpit. Of all the incidents where the aeroscreen served its purpose, Iowa – as with Romain Grosjean’s halo in the Bahrain Grand Prix – offered clear answers as to why the safety device was commissioned.
“Throughout the course of the year, there were a few incidents that certainly came into play that had the positive results that we will always want, which was the drivers walked away,” Frye said. “Overall, you don’t get too loud when something does its job like the aeroscreen did; I mean, that’s what it’s there for. But it was a real success that a lot of people were part of, and we’re really proud of it.”
Frye says IndyCar will continue to share crash data and how the aeroscreen performs with the FIA and Formula 1, just as they share details on their findings with the halo with IndyCar. One area in the Grosjean crash that stood out for IndyCar’s review was the amount of time it took for the Frenchman to extract himself from the car.
With a tight head-surround device, a six-point racing harness, radio and drink bottle connections, and the aforementioned mandatory helmet cooling hose keeping IndyCar drivers tethered to the car in multiple ways, the series is looking into ways where unplugging all lines and hoses might be done in a shorter duration when faced with an emergency.
“That’s something we’re looking at that’s part of this off-season process,” he confirmed. “We’ve had one off-season team manager meeting and another one coming up here shortly, and we’ll go through this and standardize some things. We all saw what happened with [Grosjean], and what’s the result? Well, the result was what you want, and the driver was okay.
“And obviously it was a big incident, so we were already looking at some quick disconnect options on a few things, and when we get the report – the findings – on the F1 crash, we’ll also see if there’s anything in there we could do better, do differently with our frame and screen. Our system is different than theirs, but there’s a lot of similar things that can carry over.”