Formula One has seen some incredible tragedies over the years, with the most famous of recent years, the awful death of Ayrton Senna, having a deep impact on the sport’s safety standards. This legacy saved the life of Romain Grosjean today multiple times in the most phenomenal, terrifying and, to be frank, miraculous accident that I have ever seen unfold at an F1 race track.
On the first lap of the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, mid field runner Romain Grosjean steered sharply across the track at almost 150 miles per hour to avoid cars decelerating in front of him and clipped the Alpha Tauri driven by Daniil Kvyat. This set Grosjean’s car into the worst trajectory for any racing driver; the one straight into the nearest metal barrier.
Grosjean’s car was arrested at a peak deceleration of 53G, and this was the first moment that Grosjean’s life was saved, by the titanium safety cell, or “tub”, that the drivers sit within. Without the safety cell, introduced in 1981, the carbon fibre nose of Grosjean’s car would have given little protection before his legs and torso had become the main shock absorber to resist that huge impact. Such catastrophic injuries in Formula One races in the middle of the last century resulted in many deaths through blood loss and shock. But the safety cell did its job and Grosjean did not suffer any injuries to his legs, enabling him to jump out of his car all on his own. But we are a long way from there yet.
As the crash barrier began to envelop the safety cell and the deceleration ramped up, another life saving technology fired into action. The Head and Neck Support, or HANS, device is now almost 20 years old and has saved dozens of drivers in many different racing categories. The HANS device’s kevlar tethers anchor the driver’s helmet to the headrest, preventing whiplash. In Grosjean’s 53G impact his whiplash could easily have be fatal, as the hyperextension of the neck in such a rapid deceleration can result in a skull fracture and a broken neck.
Around one tenth of a second later, Grosjean’s life was saved for a third time. This time by a piece of technology that was only introduced in 2018, the titanium “halo” protective rail that runs across the front of the otherwise wide-open Formula One cockpits. In Grosjean’s accident, his collision with Kvyat turned his car into the barriers on a fast straight, resulting in his car hitting the barriers nose first with a lot of speed. This caused the barriers to split, with a large metal piece sliding over the top of the nose towards Grosjean’s head. The halo worked as designed and deflected this huge piece of metal up over the top of Grosjean’s helmet as he and his car continued to embed itself into the barrier. Less than one second later the worst part of the crash unfolded.
As the front half of Grosjean’s car embedded itself in the barrier and rapidly decelerated, the back end of the car was still trying to travel along the barriers at over 100 mph. This tug of war was won by the rear half of the car, which was ripped in two just behind the safety cell. Unfortunately the fuel tank is in the section that was ripped in half. A huge fireball lit up millions of television screens around the world and a timer began for Grosjean that would determine if he lived or not. That timer is better known as his Nomex race suit.
Nomex is the brand name of the heat and flame resistant materials that race suits have been made out of since 1975. Their ability to resist fire is based on chemical reactions, and of course race suits only contain a finite amount of Nomex. They can resist fire for around 30 seconds before they start to burn. Grosjean crashed about 50 metres from a marshall’s station, and with the crash taking place on the first lap, the medical car was also on the scene within just 11 seconds. But no-one could even see where Grosjean was within this huge inferno. No one was going to be able to get to him, undo his seat belts, and drag him from his car. He would need to get out himself, and within 30 seconds.
Grosjean had been forced right through two twisted sheets of the metal barrier and was inside a fireball. But thanks to his safety cell, his legs were not broken. Thanks to HANS his neck was not broken. Thanks to his halo he was not unconscious, or already dead. And sure enough to the shock, terror, amazement of the millions of spectators like myself, within 20 seconds of the impact we could see movement within the fireball. Arms, a torso, a helmet. Grosjean emerged from the flames 28 seconds after his car hit the barriers, and he was dragged across the top of the remains of the crash barrier by the first responder on the scene. He limped to an awaiting ambulance – missing one of his fire-retardant shoes. The TV cameras caught a glimpse of him sitting up on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, smiling. Shortly after he that he cried.
From what we know right now, about ten hours later, Grosjean has cracked ribs and burns to his hands and feet, but he has sent messages of thanks from his hospital bed. Ironically three years ago Grosjean was one of the drivers that was against the introduction of the halo. I’m sure that he and many other critics have a very different viewpoint today. Grosjean has three kids. They are going to have the most incredible Christmas with their dad. Thanks to titanium, kevlar, Nomex and the most important 28 seconds of Grosjean’s life.