Formula One Driver Romain Grosjean pulls himself from burning Car thanks to F1’s relentless approach to safety
After Romain Grosjean’s horrific crash at last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, many believe he was exceedingly lucky to have escaped with his life. Matthew Henderson looks into exactly how Grosjean was able to survive the incident and how seriously F1 takes the safety of their drivers.
The 2020 Formula One season has been somewhat different this year, not only with the COVID precautions but the fact that some tracks are hosting two races. This is due to the F1 paddock not being able to travel to certain countries. One such circuit was the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain and on Sunday 29th November it hosted the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, the first of two to be held there this season.
The race started out as fairly normal, with Lewis Hamilton on pole and taking an early lead. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen also had a good start, coming out of the often chaotic first corner second, leading Racing Point’s Sergio Perez who also performed well off the mark, jumping up to third ahead of the other Mercedes driver, Valtteri Bottas who had a pretty poor start by his standards.
Further down the grid, many drivers found themselves battling for position in very close quarters, with the action forcing some off the grid and causing others to drive extremely carefully as they went wheel-to-wheel with their competitors. This is where is all unfolds for Romain Grosjean. Near the back of the grid, the Haas driver saw the action develop in front of him and chose to take what seemed like a safe route in moving down the right hand side of the chaos. However, the Alpha Tauri of Daniil Kvyat was in Grosjean’s blind spot, and there was a coming together between the two. The impact, while seemingly minimal. sent Grosjean careening towards the barriers at arounf 130mph with an impact measured at 53 times the force of gravity (53Gs).
As the car crashed into the barriers, it spun slightly, with the impact creating a force that tore the rear of the car from the front. Formula 1 cars are designed ot do this in order to separate the driver from the fuel tank and battery in case of a serious crash. The part of the car that contains the driver’s seat is called the Survival Cell, with Grosjean’s Cell piercing and displacing the barrier before the cloud of flame and smoke erupted from the car. The exact cause of the fire is still unknown and with the Survival Cell remaining in tact throughout the crash, it meant that Grosjean was conscious throughout the entire accident.
As is standard procedure in F1, the FIA Medical Car – driven by former racer Alan van der Merwe – follows behind the grid for most of the opening lap so that it can provide immediate assistance to any early incidents as the race gets underway. Part of the reason that Grosjean survived was van der Merwe’s quick reactions to get to the incident immediately, with a local doctor alongside FIA Medical Delegate Dr. Ian Roberts in the passenger seat of the safety car, both of whom were able to assess Grosjean’s immediate injuries quickly. Another key group of people in ensuring Grosjean’s safety were the trackside marshals, who sprinted across the track with fire extinguishers, with one of them able to push the fire back just enough to allow Dr. Roberts to reach on and help Grosjean to safety.
The marshals and those in the Medical Car undoubtedly helped to save Grosjean but even they wouldn’t have been able to help if it wasn’t for the safety features that are mandated to be built into every car. One of these was the Halo Cockpit Protection device that shields the driver from major impacts and large debris, like tyres for example. The halo was quite unpopular when it was introduced back in 2018, as some claimed that the device was obscuring the drivers’ vision – Grosjean himself was one of those opposing its introduction – but in this case, as the car went into the barrier, it forces the steel away from Grosjean. If that device wasn’t there, then it would have been a direct impact with the drivers head, which would have almost certainly killed him. The halo was introduced after Jules Bianchi was killed in 2014 after his car hit a recovery tractor – had he had the same level of protection, then he likely would have survived. Another key safety feature was the HANS device that prevents any excessive head movement – this also allowed Grosjean to stay conscious and avoid a head injury.
The race suits that the drivers wear are able to protect them from direct fire for up to 20 seconds, which was roughly the amount of time that Grosjean spent in the wrecked car before escaping. However, the drivers’ gloves only protect the wearer from the flames for 10 seconds, hence the burns that Grosjean suffered on his hands.
This accident could have had a much more gruesome outcome and the entire F1 community knows it. If this would have happened before 2018, then it would have almost been guaranteed that such an impact would have resulted in a fatal head injury. Even if this had happened in last season’s championship, Grosjean would have likely suffered much more intense burns across his body, but with the improvement of racing suits ahead of this season, he miraculously escaped with minor injuries.
There is no doubt that Grosjean had a tremendous amount of luck on his side with this accident, with the driver claiming afterwards that his wife and children gave him the strength and determination to push himself out of the car and get to safety. With the scientific and engineering advancements giving him the best chance of survival alongside his own adrenaline-fuelled reactions, Grosjean is able to return to the F1 paddock as a spectator for the final two races of the season – while he may not be able to race, at least he’s alive to tell the tale.