When Romain Grosjean’s car exploded into flames during the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, everyone feared the worst. It was easily one of the most horrific scenes in recent Formula One history. The fact that Grosjean was able to walk away with only minor injuries is a modern day miracle — owing mostly to decades of safety improvements, but also a little bit of old fashioned good luck.
According to data from the car, Grosjean was travelling about 137 mph when his car careened off the track and struck a barrier. The data also logged a 53G impact, although that number has been disputed by some as unrealistic. Regardless, the crash quickly worsened as flames engulfed Grosjean’s car. Live onlookers and TV viewers waited an anxious 28 seconds before Grosjean was able to free himself from the cockpit and walk away.
What Saved Him
Formula One has always been a sport on the edge. Yes, the cars are as safe as they can be. But how safe can anyone be driving around at 200+ mph in an open-wheel, open-air race car? The simple fact is that these drivers risk their lives every time they climb inside these vehicles. It’s a dangerous sport — always has been, and always will be.
However, you can also make the argument that F1 is the safest it’s ever been. As new technology emerges, teams are quick to use it to their advantage. In some cases, that means getting faster lap times. In other cases, it means keeping their drivers from getting killed. For Grosjean, it was a combination of things. His fireproof overalls saved much of his body from suffering burns. (His wrists and feet were lightly burned, but it could have been much worse.) A quick response from medical teams also helped, as help arrived within 10 seconds.
Most of all, though, was the once-controversial Halo device. For those not familiar with the Halo, it’s a titanium structure that sits above the driver’s head. It’s incredibly strong and capable of resisting force equal to 12 tonnes of weight. It was initially developed to deflect debris. However, it had many detractors — including Grosjean himself. Critics claimed it was against “the DNA” of open-cockpit racing. In real simple terms: it was too much like a roof.
Halo to the Rescue
Unfortunately for Grosjean, the FIA refused to bow down on the Halo. It’s been mandatory since 2018, and easily saved a life on the weekend. Grosjean’s car struck the barrier with such force that the barrier split. The Halo protected his head from the upper part of the barrier, in what could have been a catastrophic tragedy. Even Grosjean acknoledged that a safety device he once criticized was the difference between life and potential death.
“I wasn’t for the Halo some years ago but I think it’s the greatest thing we brought it to Formula One and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today,” he said in an Instagram post from the hospital. “Thanks to all the medical staff at the circuit, at the hospital, and hopefully I can soon write you quite some messages and tell you how it’s going.”
Why Barriers Matter
Although the Halo is receiving much praise this week, one important question remains: how could other dangerous aspects of this crash been avoided? For one, the barrier splitting created a much more dangerous situation than if it has remained intact. Secondly, the fire erupted quickly and violently — another huge cause for concern for every F1 team.
“We have to do a very deep analysis of what happened because lots of things were worrying,” F1’s motorsport director Ross Brawn said. “The fire was worrying and the split of the barrier was worrying — the safety of the car is what got us through today.”
In particular, the position of the barrier is being questioned. They are typically placed in precise spots in an effort to align with a car’s natural trajectory. They are supposed to absorb some of the impact without the car effectively hitting an immovable object. This barrier failed in that task, as Grosjean’s car split the barrier in two and went partially through it. Yes, it was a freak accident. In 16 years of racing in Bahrain, that particular section of barriers have never been involved in a crash. Nevertheless, tragedy almost happened when that barrier was put to the test.
“I think it was a freak accident,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said. “The angle at which he crashed into the barrier — I don’t think that the car was flat, I think it was slightly sideways — the angle must have been so precise like a knife going through the barrier.
“I didn’t think modern barriers could split like this, so we need to analyse how this could happen and how we can optimise these barriers in the future.”
What About The Fire?
Formula One have made extensive upgrades to their cars to avoid fires. The fuel cell is designed specifically to prevent fires in the event of a crash. Obviously those safety systems didn’t work for Grosjean on Sunday. Here’s a excellent excerpt from ESPN’s article on the crash:
An investigation will follow, but the feeling among several engineers in the paddock was that the fuel cell itself did not rupture. At the start of the race, the car is carrying just over 100kg of fuel and Brawn was among the engineers who believed that amount of fuel would have resulted in much bigger inferno.
That has led to suggestions that the sheer force of the impact may have compressed the fuel cell and spat petrol out of the refueling hatch, resulting in the fire. It’s also possible that one of the fuel lines leaked fuel, although they are also designed to withstand massive impacts.
To get definitive answers, the FIA will forensically analyze the remains of the car to see what can be learned and what can be changed on future designs. A lot of the safety features that helped save Grosjean’s life on Sunday night were a result of research conducted following other serious accidents and that same scientific approach will be used to further advance the safety of the sport in the future.
Other F1 officials, including champion driver Lewis Hamilton, also expressed their concern for the fire, wondering how it could have happened.
An Important Reality Check
The Grosjean crash was a grim reminder about the deadly seriousness of F1 racing. Some fans merely write it off as entertainment — and it is an entertainment product, to be fair. However, the very real dangers of motorsports are often taken for granted.
“For the drivers to get back into the car needs a lot of courage, and this is what these guys do” Wolff said. “Too often we forget that this is a dangerous sport and that these guys race around tracks at more than 350km/h (217mph).
“Today’s modern camera technology and wide angles don’t really show that speed, but you can see what happens. It has always been dangerous and even with today’s safety structures it is still a very dangerous sport and we need to optimize from there.”