The Boundaries of Disaster

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The heavily damaged Haas F1 Team VF-20 of Romain Grosjean (FRA) Haas F1 Team after crashed at the start of the race and exploded into flames, destroying the armco barrier. 29.11.2020. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 15, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day. – www.xpbimages.com, EMail: [email protected] © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Alex Campbell, Editor-

“To achieve anything in this game, you must dabble in the boundary of disaster.”-Sir Stirling Moss (1929-2020)

The Bahrain grand prix started off like any other: Teams arrived, cars were built behind barriers to prevent spying from other teams, and on Friday and Saturday, the practice and qualifying sessions went as normal. 

The leading edge of the 20-car entry list was one often seen; Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes was on pole position, the first car to cross the start line for the “Battle in the desert.” The first two corners of the race went as planned, but on the exit of turn three, things took a turn for the worse. Romain Grosjean’s HAAS-Ferrari had touched the Alpha Tauri of Daniil Kvyat, turning Grosjean’s car towards the barrier at over 160 miles per hour. The ensuing impact measured 53 G’s of deceleration, the car was ripped in half, the fuel tank was ruptured, and the survival cell that the Frenchman was sitting in was pinned under a steel barrier while on fire. It took less than five seconds for a medical and firefighting team to arrive on scene. It took less than ten seconds for the race to be stopped and the call for drivers to slow down and return to the pit lane was issued. It took Grosjean 26 seconds to evacuate the car and walk away from the still-burning wreckage. The only injuries he sustained in the accident were minor burns on his hands, and was replaced by Pietro Fittipaldi for the remainder of the season.

Accidents like these provide an incredibly sobering and stark reminder of what could happen when racing with such minimal margins, and several safety devices worked without failure. If just one of these failed, it is incredibly likely that motorsport would be in mourning currently.  

Foremost on the list of safety devices was the halo. It was first proposed in 2015, after the death of driver Jules Bianchi due to an impact with a trackside recovery vehicle. It was then made compulsory in 2018 as a method of head protection in accidents where a piece of debris or other material could strike the head of a driver, and is designed to withstand extreme forces. In this accident, the halo deflected the barrier up and over the head of Grosjean, saving his life. Following the race, race director Michael Masi and the FIA have announced an investigation being started on what the organization can do to limit chances of an accident in this nature.

To go back and analyze another crash similar to Grosjean’s incident, we need to go back to the 1970’s, during a time when Formula One was just entering a new era of safety changes in both race track, vehicle, and equipment design. In 1973 and 1974, drivers Helmuth Koinigg and Francois Cevert were killed due to a barrier failure at the watkins-glen circuit, which necessitated changes to barrier structure and run-off areas at tracks worldwide. In 1976, Austrian Niki Lauda had attempted to boycott the German Grand Prix on the 13-mile long Nurburgring-Nordschleife due to the track configuration as well as the lack of safety features. On the second lap, his car struck the barrier and was hit by another competitor, which engulfed Lauda’s Ferrari in flames. He was pulled from the wreckage by Arturo Merzario, but it was too late. The subsequent fumes from the magnesium vehicle and heat from the burning fuel lead to extensive lung damage as well as massive burns. He was read his last rites on the side of the track, and missed only two rounds in the world championship, making a return to Formula one in Italy. After that race, Formula One has never since raced on that configuration of the legendary circuit, although it is still in use today for endurance racing and vehicle testing.

Similar crashes have happened over the years and have similarly provided reminders of the dangers inherent in racing. One such example was the 2020 Monte Carlo rally, where Estonian driver Ott Tanak and co-driver Martin Jarveoja were sent off the road at over 100 miles per hour, hitting a berm and launching into the air, destroying the Hyundai rally car in the process. Both crew members walked away from the accident and were given the all-clear to continue driving at the next event. No investigation was needed following the incident.

These crashes aren’t limited to Formula One and Rally, either. In the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, two of the Mercedes-AMG CLR prototypes were entered and two became airborne and left the track at the fastest point in the lap, one piloted by Australian Mark Webber and the other piloted by Scotsman Peter Dumbreck. The crash stemmed from an aerodynamic and suspension instability when cresting hills, causing excessive air to get underneath the front overhang of the car and create lift, with catastrophic results. Both drivers walked away, but following the incidents, Mercedes ended the CLR program and withdrew from sportscar racing as a whole. Following that accident, changes to the track as well as regulations for that racing category being introduced to prevent accidental flight.

To return to the point regarding the halo, we need to realize that the adoption of the halo, much like other safety devices, such as seat belts, head restraints, track design changes, and fireproof clothing, was not initially supported by both fans and drivers alike. It drew special criticism from fans regarding the look of the car, as well as criticism from drivers regarding the potential obstruction in the case of a serious accident or a rollover scenario. Grosjean himself had criticized the halo design in 2018, expressing concern over the ability of drivers to evacuate a car effectively, but following his accident on sunday, he said “I wasn’t for the halo some years ago, but I think it’s the greatest thing we’ve brought to F1. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to speak with you today.”

Grosjean’s incident in Bahrain marks the third time in open-wheel racing that a halo device has saved a life. The first incident was in 2018 at the Belgian Grand Prix, where Fernando Alonso’s McLaren landed on top of Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. After-accident reports revealed damage to both halo structures, and concluded that the halo on Leclerc’s car likely saved his life. The second incident was in the Italian Grand Prix, during a Formula 3 race. In that incident, Alex Peroni’s car was launched into the air and landed upside-down on a barrier, with the halo being the only separation between Peroni’s head and the barrier. 

When we look at these incidents through the years as safety improves, we cannot let the notion take over that all of these survival stories in racing are products of luck alone. The safety procedures and devices that saved Grosjean’s, Leclerc’s, and Peroni’s lives are products of countless hours of engineering and innovation to ensure the sport is as safe as possible. These types of devices tend to invite criticism from those following motorsport as well as those inside the business, but as long as these devices save a single life, we can unequivocally say that these devices are vital to the preservation of safety in this sport, and as these cars get faster, we must not stop the current evolution of safety standards.