F1 avoids disaster, but don’t call it luck

Romain Grosjean’s survival from his horror fireball smash in Bahrain is all down to motorsport’s pursuit of excellence.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

They were the longest 28 seconds of Romain Grosjean’s life.

The Bahrain Grand Prix had barely started when the Frenchman found himself hurtling towards a steel barrier at 220 kilometres per hour after a first-lap tangle with Daniil Kvyat.

Contact. The Haas ripped itself in two, the 53G impact shearing it clean down the middle. The front half, with Grosjean still strapped inside, ripped through the barrier and embedded itself sideways among the twisted metal.

Then it exploded.

A fuel leak set the scene alight, and the most important 28 seconds of Grosjean’s life began.

This blaze feasted on the mangled car. Grosjean’s overalls were licked by flames, and his visor melted in the heat, obscuring his escape.

He scrambled for his belts as fire engulfed the cockpit. Squeezing through the narrow gap between the chassis and the wrought fencing, he clambered out of wreckage and into the inferno itself.

On the scene already was Dr Ian Roberts, the permanent F1 medical chief, who directed the trackside marshals to train their extinguishers on part of the broken barrier. It was just enough to create a pathway for Grosjean to sight the fence, hoist himself over and escape to safety.

He astonishingly emerged with only minor burns to his hands.

But his survival was no accident. This was by design.

The only thing more impressive than the dogged pursuit of performance in F1 is the relentless development of safety. Sometimes incremental, other times revolutionary, the FIA has for decades worked on eliminating the risk of injury and death from motorsport.

Grosjean’s survival is like a jigsaw puzzle, with each safety piece connecting to work together to improve his chances of survival.

Some of those pieces culminated from minor improvements. The ‘survival cell’, the structure in which the driver sits, has been built over decades into its almost unimpeachable strength. And only just this year the sport introduced the latest technology fireproof overalls, buying Grosjean an estimated extra 20 seconds in the flames. Contrastingly, more intricate racing gloves are not yet up to the same standard, and resultantly he suffered minor burns to his hands. Fine margins.

But the hero of the day was unquestionably the ‘halo’, the titanium structure that sits in front of and above the driver’s head. Derided for its aesthetics when introduced in 2018—including by Grosjean himself—it cleaved a path for the car through the fence, protecting the cockpit. Without it Romain’s helmet would have made first contact with the fence at more than 200 kilometres per hour.

“I think it’s the greatest thing we brought to Formula One,” Grosjean said from his hospital bed.

But the safety equipment is only as good as the response, and on this count the FIA medical team deserves enormous praise, in particular Dr Roberts and medical car driver Alan van der Merwe. Their constant fine-tuning of procedure and relentless practice meant they wasted no time thinking they arrived on the barely believable scene just 10 seconds after impact. Their plans swung immediately into action.

And credit must go to the marshals, who leapt to the flames with their extinguishers despite not wearing full-face helmets. All track marshals are volunteers, but they hesitated not when called to duty.

The FIA has opened an inquest into the failed barrier, the fuel fire and the car itself. The lessons learnt from the reconstruction might be minor or might lead to the next leap forward in motorsport safety, but they will be learnt.

And just as lessons past came to Romain Grosjean’s rescue in Bahrain, insights gleaned from those long 28 seconds will surely save another life.