Lewis Hamilton won his 11th race of the season at Bahrain behind the safety car but the race was overshadowed by Romain Grosjean’s horrific crash on lap 1 leaving him in hospital.
Formula 1 returned to Bahrain, the ever impressive twilight race, but only one thing mattered at the chequered flag: everyone was safe.
Qualifying was pretty ordinary with the two Mercedes on top and the Red Bulls on the second row. The Haas, Alfa Romeos and Williams brought up the rear.
The start of the race was seemingly clean. Hamilton got off to a great start but Bottas seemed a little bogged down and dropped a few places. An Alfa Romeo and Racing Point ran wide around turn 3 then a fireball was seen in the distance.
Grosjean in the Haas struck the barrier at 220 km/h and his car was torn in two by the 53G impact. It was an anxious wait before we saw him emerge from the blazing vehicle. A replay shows he was in the flames for about 18 seconds before being spotted by Dr Ian Roberts, and pulled to safety, missing a boot and his visor opaque and burned.
Many important safety factors ensured Grosjean’s survival in the accident and I’ll analyse them in this article.
Firstly, the medical car, driven by Alan van der Merwe, follows the cars around the first lap of the race. With the accident being at turn 3, the medical car was still close behind the last car so was rapid to respond. Alan immediately grabbed the fire extinguisher and started to tackle to blaze while Dr Ian Roberts, the FIA doctor, searched for the Haas driver. Neither hesitated to run towards the inferno. Ultimately Grosjean was pulled to safety within seconds, assessed and whisked off to hospital within minutes.
Secondly, the crash occurred right next to a marshals’ post. No marshals were hurt in the accident and they responded quickly with fire extinguishers, even those without protective gear. They were also very organised in clearing the debris and repairing the barrier.
The barrier that was impacted was made up of three horizontal strips of steel. The force of the collision bent the steel and the Halo device pierced a hole between two of the strips meaning Romain could escape. The FIA F1 race director, Michael Masi was quick to the scene making an executive decision to repair the barrier and we were able to race again only 80 minutes later.
Every driver has to practice escaping the car in case of an emergency situation. The time they have to beat in a simulation is 10 seconds. This practice gave Grosjean the instinct to get out and he did so in 18 seconds. Dr Ian Roberts stated later that they were lucky Romain was conscious throughout the incident, or else pulling him out of the trapped, burning car would have been exponentially more difficult.
The monocoque is the survival cell within the F1 car. It’s made up of layers of carbon fiber, a material twice as strong as steel but five time lighter, and an aluminium honeycomb structure. It is designed to break away from the rest of the car, staying intact, in the effort to save the driver from a high force collision. In this incident the back of the car snapped Joe McGowan off when it impacted the barrier but Romain was protected inside the monocoque, walking away from the 53G collision with no broken bones. He was also protected from the fuel tank which could have caught alight.
F1 drivers wear many layers of fireproof gear to protect almost every part of them. This gear protected Grosjean from worse injuries. The innerwear, socks, pants, shirt and balaclava, are made of Nomex. This is a material fire resistant at 800°C for 10 seconds while keeping the internal temperature below 41°C, just about body temperature. The outerwear, the race suit, is made of multiple layers of Nomex. The gloves and boots are thin to allow intricate driving but equally fire resistant. Having these layers protected the skin and face from harsh burns. He walked away with only second degree burns to the hands and feet, maybe from gaps between the race suit and gloves/boots or because he clambered over hot steel to escape.
The Halo device was made mandatory F1 in 2018 despite many oppositions, including from Grosjean himself. The device is a three-pronged titanium ring that surrounds the driver’s head. It was met with many disapprovals when first introduced to the sport even though simulations showed the system increased survival rate, theoretically, by 17%. The main concern was that it would slow the driver’s ability to escape due to its awkward positioning, along with its unappealing look. This concern was not the case in Grosjean’s crash, in fact just the opposite as it split the barrier and took the brunt of the impact. The two most recent incidents involving a car piercing the barrier, in 1973 and 1974, resulted in two fatal accidents. When the Haas was salvaged, the Halo was astonishingly still intact.
These seven factors, and others I’ve probably missed, meant Romain was able to walk away from that accident with minor injuries. He will miss next weekend’s race but I hope to see him at the season’s final race in Abu Dhabi. He is out of a seat for next year and it would be a shame it that was his last time driving an F1 car.
I hope he recovers quickly and my thoughts are with him and his family.