I’ve been a Formula One fan for my entire life. Which means that I remember some pretty spectacular crashes.
One of the things which used to happen fairly regularly was fires. For example, in 1973 (the year I was born), a driver named Roger Williamson died in a fire at Zandvoort Circuit (a track which will be returning to the circuit next year for the first time in years). Piers Courage died in a fire in 1970. Formula One racing used to be really dangerous.
But in recent years, car fires simply haven’t happened.
Until, this being 2020, last week.
Romain Grosjean’s Escape
In the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Grosjean’s Hass Motorsports car appeared to suddenly start pulling to the right. It made contact with Daniil Kyvat and continued to pull right despite the driver’s efforts otherwise.
The car struck the crash barrier, went through it, and was cut in half, apparently compromising the fuel cell. It exploded.
For a long moment, spectators and team mates thought they had watched a man die.
Then, miraculously, Grosjean emerged from the flames, limping and almost falling into the arms of the marshalls fighting the fire. He was taken to the hospital and treated for minor burns on his hands and feet and broken ribs…remarkably minor injuries for such a spectacular crash.
And that says so many incredible things about how, well, not dangerous Formula One is now. But there’s also the fact that fires like this just don’t happen anymore.
The Survival Cell
Grosjean owes his survival to three specific elements of modern Formula One cars. The first of these is the monocoque or “survival cell.”
The first survival cells were introduced in 1981, but it took many years to get them right. Modern survival cells are made of 12 layers of carbon fiber so they can withstand horrifying crashes without being too heavy. They are tested to extreme degrees.
When Grosjean’s car hit the barrier and split, it split at the bulkhead between the survival cell and the engine. The survival cell remained intact, protecting the driver’s back, arms, and legs.
The crash is proof that the survival cells work. But it also proved two other things.
Despite the fact that fiery crashes like Grosjean’s haven’t happen in years, driver’s still wear a firesuit.
Firesuits only became common in 1976, after a fire involving Niki Lauda (who survived to push for the development of the new suits).
Modern firesuits are made of a fire retardant material, either Proban or Nomex-3, and this includes the driver’s boots, face mask, gloves…and underwear. Drivers wear one piece suits, which have a fire retardant outer layer, and an inner layer designed to wick sweat and help cooling. Oh, and that’s all over fireproof longjohns. They wear a fireproof balaclava under their helmet. Oh, and they actually have handles on their shoulders to help marshalls pull an injured driver and his seat out of the car.
All of this probably seems a little bit of overkill when catastrophic fires “just don’t happen anymore.” Until they do.
Thanks to the firesuit, Grosjean experienced only minor burns on his hands and feet, which would be the parts of his body that came into contact with hot wreckage. Also, the seal on his helmet held so well that no smoke was found inside his helmet.
And finally, the piece of controversial safety gear many drivers didn’t want.
In 2018, when the halo was introduced, Grosjean was one of the drivers to express concern. They didn’t like how it looked and were also worried it might impede peripheral vision. In fact, some drivers thought it might get them killed by preventing…them from exiting the car rapidly if it caught fire.
So, what is the halo? When you look at a modern F1 car, the halo is that curved bar that runs above the cockpit. It’s mounted to the chassis and it’s purpose is to take blows that would otherwise hit the driver’s head.
The exact design varies from team to team; there are specifications that it needs to meet, but the teams can adjust the shape and configuration of the halo to match the aerodynamics of the rest of the car.
When Grosjean’s car struck the barrier, the halo was part of what cut through it. Had it not been there, we would be holding a funeral; his head would have hit the barrier and he would have been killed instantly.
Guess he won’t be complaining about it anymore.
So, three safety developments came together to ensure a young man’s survival. Hopefully he will recover quickly from his injuries…and perhaps return to the cockpit next season.
However, Something Still Went Wrong
Despite this, though, Formula One is going to have to do some investigating, as are Team Hass.
First of all, there’s the question of why the car abruptly pulled to the right. The front wheels were turned all the way left! Clearly there was a technical failure with the car that Haas Motorsports will have to consider. Hopefully they are still able to work out what happened from what’s left of the car.
But technical malfunctions that cause cars to leave the track are not uncommon, and usually result in minor incidents. Half the time it’s just a compromised tire.
The real question here is why did Grosjean’s car pierce the barrier and catch fire. Bluntly, the crash barrier did not do its job. The fuel cell also structurally failed. I suspect that that was caused by the failure of the barrier.
Formula One needs to look into this, and there might be a clue in another racing series.
Was the ultimate cause of this accident the fact that Bahrain was still using steel barriers? Formula One still uses them because of the luxury of space.
But had that crash barrier been a SAFER barrier, this accident might have been another minor first lap wreck.
In other words, should F1 consider switching to SAFER barriers in certain parts of certain tracks?
It might be a thought.