This Is How Romain Grosjean Survived
Romain Grosjean walked away from a horrific, fiery wreck at the Bahrain Grand Prix. Here’s what led to the crash, and what allowed Grosjean to escape it without serious injury.
Romain Grosjean started Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix from 19th on the grid. A poor start by second-placed Valtteri Bottas slowed the entire rest of the field, creating chaos and an opportunity for Grosjean to make up spots in a car that has struggled for outright pace for the past year. He was already making up positions heading into Turn 1, and light contact between a Ferrari and a McLaren on the exit of Turn 3 created even more opportunity. Grosjean saw the opportunity to take another position, maybe even a few, heading into Turn 4, so he dove to the inside line and prepared to out-brake the cars that had exited Turn 3 with far less momentum. This is when his right-rear corner struck the right-front corner of Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri entry, forcing Grosjean off track at a high speed.
On an ordinary Formula 1 track, Grosjean would have collided with a wall at a forgiving diagonal, spreading the impact out over the nose and sidepod of the car as it slid along the wall or guardrail. Bahrain’s Turn 3 exit, however, is a temporary guardrail, one that juts out into the paved off-track area meant to allow drivers to recover from exactly this sort of collision. Grosjean’s trajectory just so happened to put him nearly perpendicular to the wall. The nose of his car seemed to hit precisely at a seam in the three-layer guardrail, splitting the barrier open. Rather than absorbing the impact, the wall halted Grosjean’s car immediately.
This is when the car split in two.
The car bisected at the point where the driver’s protective carbon fiber “tub” connects to the powertrain and rear bodywork. The cockpit hit the guardrail with such force, Grosjean and the remainder of the car went clear through to the other side.
This is where the fireball erupted.
Formula 1 cars carry a full fuel load at the start of every race, a safety measure designed to eliminate in-race refueling that can lead to fires in the pit lane. While most of Grosjean’s fuel seemed not to ignite, the immediate and sustained fire implies that at least some fuel seeped out and caught flame. The fireball was enormous and explosive, engulfing only the cockpit area on the infield side of the barrier, the side Grosjean was sitting in.
Seconds later, Grosjean emerged from the flames on his own. A safety team began putting out the fire, and Grosjean leaped over what remained of the barrier and walked to the waiting medical team. He spent an overnight in a hospital in Bahrain, but preliminary scans show no broken bones. Aside from burns on the backs of his hands, Grosjean escaped the horrific crash without major injury.
Grosjean suffered the ultimate nightmare of any racing driver, a perfect storm of cascading catastrophes. Everything that could go wrong did, all at once, and each component of the crash was meant to be controlled by a specific safety measure. Grosjean not only lived, he walked away from one of the most harrowing racing crashes imaginable without a single broken bone.
This is how it happened.
To understand what went right, we also need to understand what went wrong. This starts with the collision itself, a simple result of on-track jockeying for position at the cramped center of a chaotic standing start that left a car careening off the line at a high-speed section of track. All of this is relatively routine, and would traditionally be countered by a flat wall or guardrail positioned to slow an out-of-control car with a glancing blow. Grosjean’s car would hit such a barrier at an angle and slide along its length, dissipating energy and shedding speed. Instead, this particular wall juts outward, covering an access road made from existing runoff area. This positioning created a nearly head-on collision, the first thing to go wrong.
Grosjean struck the wall at a reported 137 mph. A three-piece steel guardrail, colloquially known by the brand-name Armco, is designed to deform on impact, absorbing momentum and keeping the car from piercing through the barrier. The guardrail that Grosjean hit ended up splitting between the first and second bars, the forceful impact of the car’s nose seeming to break the bars in two. This led directly to the worst elements of the incident.
BBC Sport’s Andrew Benson reported that the 137-mph impact had a force of 53 g. That energy had to go somewhere. With the driver’s survival cell suddenly stopped, the impact force pounded through the car, splitting the chassis in half at the point where the cockpit connects to the drivetrain and rear of the car. This splitting off is by design—the car is built to protect the survival cell by dissipating the impact elsewhere, and a violent crash can cause the drivetrain to snap off. But Grosjean’s high-speed separation seems to have released fuel that was then ignited, creating a towering fireball—the third and most dramatic of the catastrophic failures that contributed to this crash.
DAN ISTITENE – FORMULA 1GETTY IMAGES
After the nose of the car pierced the guardrail, the next thing to hit would have been Grosjean’s helmet. This was the fourth catastrophic failure of the crash, and the point where we get to see up-close the life-saving power of recent safety changes.
On the other side of the guardrail, the force of the impact actually created a new point for the area above the nose to hit at full speed. In the past, this exposed area would be an open cockpit, and the next point of impact would have been the driver’s helmet. This was the fourth catastrophic failure.This content is imported from Twitter. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
It was just three years ago when Formula 1 mandated the introduction of the “halo” safety device that adds a secondary protective structure around the driver’s helmet. Grosjean’s halo made direct contact with the top portion of the barrier, a collision that should theoretically be impossible in the controlled conditions of a live race. It was not impossible, of course, and the halo ended up absorbing some portion of the impact.
Grosjean likely survived the impact thanks to the halo; without it, his helmet would have been directly in the line of the impact. It meant he could escape the fire on his own, in under 30 seconds, avoiding more serious injury—and disproving some early fears that the halo would impede a driver’s ability to get free of a burning wreck. Had he not been able to escape, Formula 1’s professional safety team was able to get to the car almost immediately.
Fire protection gear is only effective for so long, and Grosjean was able to get out of the car before coming close to those limitations. Series doctor Ian Roberts, who spoke with the Sky F1 broadcast team after the race, arrived at the crash so quickly, he was able to help Grosjean over the guardrail as crews were still putting the fire out. Formula 1’s professional rescue team, like the IndyCar team that saved James Hinchcliffe’s life in 2015, is a fully-dedicated group, led by Roberts since 2013, with extensive training in extracting, diagnosing and treating drivers immediately at the scene of a crash. The rescue team’s performance at Bahrain was a shining bright spot in this incident, with the safety car arriving mere seconds after Grosjean’s car came to a halt. Thankfully, their role was minimal, but had things gone differently—had Grosjean been knocked unconscious in the crash, or had his tub been trapped within the mangled guardrail instead of piercing through—the rescue team would have been tasked with a difficult extraction under urgent time pressure.
Make no mistake, this was not a proud day for Formula 1. Like so many harrowing wrecks, this incident was the result of a cascade of failures both catastrophic and banal. Racing safety is made up of two components: the car and the track. The Bahrain International Circuit is responsible for the design of the guardrail Grosjean hit as well as its positioning relative to the direction of travel. Formula 1 regulations dictate the height of the car’s nose, which seemed to allow the No. 8 Haas to split through the guardrail, as well as the design and positioning of the fuel system, which was clearly compromised in some way when the car split apart, turning a violent crash into a fiery one. And Formula 1 approved the track, and those walls—along with another, faster track layout for a race next weekend.
All of these individual decisions contributed to the scale of the crash. If the guardrail that angled toward the track had instead been designed as a reinforced barrier running away from the racing line, Grosjean might simply have had an unremarkable crash and retired from the race. If the guardrail was in its current position, but built from a more modern impact-absorbing structure—like the SAFER barriers used in the U.S. or the recently-updated TecPro barriers used in high impact points at multiple Formula 1 tracks—Grosjean might have suffered an unusually painful hit, but the car likely would not have split in two, and there would likely be no impact to the halo. If the car hadn’t broken in half, there likely would have been no fire. Thankfully, other safeguards were in place, and Grosjean was able to survive all four of these catastrophic unexpected problems.
There was also considerable luck involved. Had this crash happened further away from the pit lane, the recovery team would have taken longer to arrive. Had the car gotten tangled in the guardrail rather than piercing all the way through, Grosjean would have struggled to free himself from the wreck. Most importantly, had Grosjean lost consciousness, this could have been a tragedy. A number of things had to go right for everyone involved to get this lucky, but none of that would have mattered without the decades of safety improvements that allowed Grosjean to survive the impact in the first place.
There are failures here that need to be investigated, and changes that will need to be made quickly. The FIA will spend the next few months investigating Grosjean’s crash and will eventually share its findings. Hopefully, what’s learned will make Formula 1 even safer for future generations of drivers and participants. Until then, all we can do is be thankful that auto racing is at a point where so many of these safety features have been implemented already. These findings should lead to real safety improvements, ones that will mean a driver won’t need such improbable luck to survive so many things going wrong. Constant safety improvement has allowed Formula 1, and modern auto racing in general, to reach this point of safety. It can’t stop here simply because Grosjean walked away from what could have easily been a fatal crash. His survival is nothing short of miraculous, and it would have been impossible if Formula 1 ever gave up on getting safer.
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