Driver Romain Grosjean was involved in one of the scariest motorsport crashes in recent memory over the weekend when the F1 driver lost control of his car following turn three in the Bahrain Grand Prix and hurtled into the barrier. Grosjean’s car split in two, and burst into flames — but the driver was still able to walk away, relatively unharmed.
Surviving a crash like this, and its fiery aftermath seems impossible, but it’s a testament to the wide array of safety measures in modern Formula One cars. Grosjean sustained second degree burns to his hands and feet, but otherwise was completely unharmed. The driver will remain in hospital Monday for monitoring, but is expected to be released Tuesday.
Grosjean credited “the halo” in his cockpit as being the defining factor in his survival. A safety measure he was against when it was made mandatory by F1 in 2018.
The halo is a t-shaped titanium bar that extends from the center of the cockpit and curves around the driver, connecting to the vehicle frame. Some drivers and fans were against the addition when it was initially announced, saying it took away from the aesthetics of the car, essentially moving the sport away from its open cockpit roots. Some were also concerned that adding a physical obstacle could obscure driver vision, and perhaps even impede a driver’s ability to escape the cockpit in the case of a fiery crash. Despite the criticism, F1 continued the implementation of the halo, saying that internal testing showed a 17 percent increase in driver survival rate in potentially fatal crashes when the halo was used.
It took one major wreck to make Grosjean a believer in the system.
Aside from the halo, the Bahrain GP crash was a testament to numerous other safety measures that have been added to Formula One cars in recent years. In each of the last 10 years at least one change has been made to car design to make it safer for drivers. The result is that the fundamental structure of the modern car puts as much protection between the driver and the engine as possible. The initial implementation of the survival cell, or “monocoque” began in 1981, but has undergone significant design improvements and scientific leaps over the years. Now the modern monocoque is like something out a video game — in all the right ways.
Constructed out of 12 layers of carbon fiber, the shell itself is designed to withstand the most horrific crash tests imaginable. From there a driver’s legs are protected by layers of Kevlar, sandwiched with Nomex, a flame resistant material, and a fire safety system is built into the cockpit, which can spray extinguishing foam in the result of a crash. An extensive bulkhead protects the monocoque from the engine itself, which appears to be where the car split in two in the Grosjean crash. How the car split shows just how strong the modern monocoque is, and the fact that Grosjean only suffered minor burns despite being engulfed in a fireball shows that everything worked.
An aside, that will mostly get lost in discussing the crash, but is equally ludicrous, is that no signs of smoke were found inside Grosjean’s helmet. This means the breathing system and the helmet seal itself prevented any possibility of smoke inhalation.
There is no question that leaps in F1 safety is the reason we’re talking about this accident today as a success story, and not a colossal sporting tragedy. It also represents a sea change for a man who once thought a piece of safety equipment was unnecessary, until it saved his life. Preliminary investigations indicate that without the halo there was a good chance Grosjean’s head would have struck the barrier in the impact — likely killing him.
Sports becoming safer isn’t about moving away from tradition, but ensuring that tradition continues.