Formula 1 was relieved to see Romain Grosjean escape his horrifying crash in Bahrain. As ever in such incidents, questions arise about how and why the situation came to be, but these can lead to further improvements in the safety structures that saved him
The images of Romain Grosjean leaping from his burning VF-20 shocked Formula 1 and the watching world. The pictures, which show the devastation of the incident, made the front pages of national newspapers in the UK.
The overwhelming feeling following such an incident is relief. But, at the same time, the championship and the FIA, as its regulator, now need to answer many questions about how it occurred.
This isn’t a blame game. It’s of course slightly inappropriate to reference a film with such a title in these circumstances, but a line from 1990’s Die Hard 2 stands out here: “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one”. Because that’s what happened last weekend – the advancement in motorsport safety allowed a driver to escape an incident that they may not have done previously and that should be rightly applauded.
Yet at the same time, all things can be improved, and progress made. So, here are some key questions that the FIA and F1 will be considering when it comes to learning the lessons of Grosjean’s escape.
What happens next?
Over the years, the FIA has developed its analysis and reporting procedures on major accidents across motorsport to understand precisely what happened on each occasion and register the vital lessons from each. It formed the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety in 2004, which was later replaced by the Global Institute for Motorsport Safety. Since the end of 2018, all safety research projects are completed by the FIA’s Safety Department.
This group will lead the investigation into Grosjean’s crash, working with Haas, the track and the FIA’s circuits commission.
“All of the various parts of the FIA group as a whole, all the respective subject matter experts, will review their particular area, and see what can be learned,” explained F1 race director Michael Masi. “[They will ask] what can be improved – be it small, large, in-between?”
Autosport understands that, at the time of writing, the plan for this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix at the same venue is to leave the concrete blocks that were installed to allow the rest of the Bahrain GP to run in place at the incident scene.
What happened to the barrier?
Arguably the most shocking aspect of Grosjean’s shunt, once he had escaped the flames, was what happened to his car as it stuck the barrier to the inside of the Bahrain track’s Turn 3 kink. The barrier was pierced in the incident that occurred at 137mph, with Grosjean’s cockpit going through the metal, while the halo structure undoubtedly protected him from a serious and potentially fatal impact.
But the front of the chassis became tangled in the barrier and instantly went up in flames – its awful to consider what might’ve happened had Grosjean become trapped. Thankfully he wasn’t, but there is a question about how the barrier performed in the incident. Sebastian Vettel, Grosjean’s fellow director at the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, said: “The guard rail shouldn’t fail and the car shouldn’t catch fire in that fashion.”
There are other alternatives to exposed guard rails – such as tyre barriers and Tecpro walls. But such devices can be expensive to install and in any case they themselves are not 100% protective – recall Heikki Kovalainen’s crash into the tyres at Barcelona in 2008 and Carlos Sainz Jr’s accident in Russia in 2015, where the Tecpro bounced and rose up to his cockpit as the metal barrier behind buckled.
There is also the angle of the barrier to consider – it was not quite parallel to allow for an access point opening – and at the same time we must understand the serious potential harm that can occur if a barrier does not allow for the tremendous energy loads to be safely dissipated.
“So much energy suddenly has to go somewhere,” Masi told Sky Sports F1. “You look at the car, the survival cell did exactly what it is there to do and kept the driver safe and intact. The halo did what it did, from an initial observation.”
How did Grosjean’s car deform and did it do so as intended?
Another alarming element of the incident was how the car broke apart – effectively severed in two pieces in the impact.
We know that in a perverse way, the more parts breaking away in an accident will help a driver – as this is energy being lost relatively safely, so long as the pieces don’t cause further harm when they land – alongside the survival cell remaining as tough and protective as possible.
But it appears as if the powertrain parts of Grosjean’s car became detached from their mountings in the crash, and the investigators will want to understand what role this played in the incident and its outcome.
Why did the wreckage catch fire?
Considering the speeds and technology F1 cars reach and deploy, fire is a constant risk. Thankfully, the development in fuel cell technology is such that major fires are relatively rare in the modern championship.
The sudden inferno around Grosjean’s car was immediately alarming and while there have been various theories put out about what may have happened, it’s vital that the correct cause is identified and explained.
How did the safety structures on the car perform?
The halo undoubtedly did an outstanding job last Sunday – protecting Grosjean’s head in the impact and keeping him conscious throughout, which allowed him to climb out of the fire and into the waiting, heroic, arms of Dr Ian Roberts and Alan van der Merwe.
But assessing precisely how it performed in the incident and how it reacted to striking the barrier will surely lead to further understanding that may well benefit future engineering designs and safety standards.
The halo is the headline, but the other safety structures played their part too – the HANS device, the crash structures and panels built around the survival cell, and the fireproof clothing Grosjean was wearing were all vital elements of the protection that surrounded him. If nothing else, understanding how each element reacted in the incident will reinforce why they are necessary. And if any improvements can be detected, all the better.
Is there anything to learn about the way the marshals acted?
Again, this isn’t about blame or repercussions. But there were at least two incidents of marshals crossing the track last Sunday.
In the Grosjean incident, one official arrives next to the fire and appears to be helped by Roberts to get an extinguisher going, while another douses the flames from the in-field side of the fence. Roberts credits this intervention with reducing the flames enough for Grosjean to climb out and there is no doubting the commitment and bravery of the individuals involved.
But as Masi explained afterwards, particularly in relation to the marshal running out in front of Lando Norris’s car to help put out the fire on Sergio Perez’s retired car, instinctive reactions shouldn’t be unduly punished. It’s just worth reinforcing how everyone can stay safe in future events, which the FIA did after the race on Sunday and will do so again ahead of the next race this weekend.
Was it correct to continually show replays of the crash to the pitlane?
A minor point in the grand scheme of things last Sunday, but a worthy one nevertheless, with Daniel Riccardo expressing his disgust at “the way the incident of Grosjean was broadcast over and over, the replays over and over”.
He added: “It was completely disrespectful and inconsiderate for his family, for all of our families watching.”
Perhaps the best consideration for this question is that there are at least two ways of looking at it. After the dread of a lack of images confirming Grosjean had escaped the crash had passed when it was confirmed he was in the medical car, the full scale of the incident was revealed in a series of replays broadcast on F1’s world feed. This included playing it to the watching team personnel gathered by the cars in the pitlane during the near 90-minute red flag period.
Perhaps once it was clear he was OK, the successive replays didn’t need to be broadcast to the F1 personnel working on site, but at the same time many watching viewers would’ve wanted to understand what had gone wrong. It must be stressed that F1’s TV producers operated correctly in not showing the crash again until it was clear he had escaped.
What is the next step in safety development?
Surely, the trivial side of the debate about the halo’s place in single seaters has been ended by this incident. Although it’s still worth acknowledging that questioning anything on reasonable grounds should be allowed. But it demonstrates, again, just how far F1 has come on safety.
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So, what is next? This is a vital prospect in the never-ceasing project to make motorsport safer, even if risk can never be entirely removed. Only this season, the FIA has mandated the use of new fireproof suits built to a new safety standard that must resist a direct flame for a minimum of 12 seconds (underwear and balaclava must withstand five seconds, shoes and gloves 11 seconds – although the minimum on the palm comes down to eight seconds for the latter) – per its AUTO publication.
Lewis Hamilton said after winning the Bahrain race that he was “a little bit blasé” about this development, explaining “in the sense that I thought our suits were good enough”.
But he added: “This year they’ve made them bigger, bulkier and they’re heavier kit. We’re already so hot in the car but I think today they had the foresight perhaps and I think that was a good move.”
Because this is the best thing to consider about the horrifying crash last Sunday – apart from knowing Grosjean is alive. That the quest for improving safety in motorsport isn’t stopping and that such valuable work will filter down and further enhance the championships that entertain us.
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