The fireball is huge, Formula 1 is in shock: The race in Bahrain was a few seconds old when Romain Grosjean hit the guardrail and experienced and above all survived the most violent accident in many years in the motorsport premier class. It borders on a miracle that the Frenchman from the Haas racing team escapes the flames and his completely destroyed car.
Thanks to the modern safety devices in Formula 1 – that’s what RTL / ntv expert Felix Görner is committed to: “The Halo cockpit protection saved his life.” The halo has only been in use since the 2018 season, it surrounds the driver’s head and is connected to the chassis at three points. There had been criticism of the mandatory innovation, and not all pilots were convinced. It is supposed to protect the driver’s head – at Grosjean it is now evident that it is the life-saving measure.
What happened? In the starting phase, Grosjean, who only started from the penultimate 19th place, tries to make up a few places. So he wants to overtake Daniil Kvyat in the Alpha Tauri – but gets stuck on his front wheel. “At 200 kilometers per hour, the car is then uncontrollable,” explains RTL / ntv expert Felix Görner. “It hit the guardrail at an angle of almost 90 degrees – really bad.”
Pictures show the completely destroyed car. It was torn in two, according to Görner the logical consequence given the speed and the low weight of the bolide of only 850 kilograms, after all, Grosjean shot like an arrow into the guardrail. “Then the monocoque breaks.” Nevertheless, Grosjean manages to climb out of the car and use the guardrail to save himself from the fireball. “He then sat in the front part of the monocoque, the rear part was torn off,” explains Görner. “The halo, it has to be said very clearly, ensured that he was not beheaded. Otherwise the upper part of the guardrail would have been his undoing.” But as it is, the cockpit protection split the guardrail and saved Grosjeans head.
27 seconds in the fire
It took the 34-year-old 27 seconds to save himself from the burning car. He was faster than the rushing helpers, including the medical car. The quick release buckles on the straps are crucial. “The drivers actually practice getting in and out quickly,” says Görner. Also relevant to the survival of the French: the pilots wear fireproof clothing. Even the underwear and socks are made of special material that can withstand fire for at least 35 seconds. Fortunately, because Grosjean lost his left shoe while rescuing himself from the fire, but the sock still protected him. “That’s why there were no severe burns,” says Görner. The first diagnosis reported is that Grosjean suffered minor burns to his hands and ankles.
But fire is also dangerous for the internal organs, especially the lungs. Memories are awakened of Niki Lauda’s dramatic accident in 1976 at the Nürburgring. The Austrian hits a rock face, his car goes up in flames, 200 liters of petrol ignite. Because Lauda passes out, he cannot save himself immediately.
At that time, the technology in Formula 1 was not nearly as developed, he stayed in the car for more than half a minute – with dire consequences. Lauda’s lungs burned in the fire, the Austrian, who died in May 2019, survived seriously injured and miraculously. But because, among other things, his helmet flew away, he suffered serious injuries, some of which affected the rest of his life.
According to the initial diagnosis before the detailed examination at the military hospital in Bahrain, Grosjean would be spared. Shortly after the devastating crash, he was sitting in the track doctor’s car. Although he then had to be supported, he could still walk to the ambulance himself. The judgment of Haas team boss Günther Steiner is clear: “That was luck in misfortune.”