It is perhaps far too often taken for granted that Formula 1 drivers walk away from crashes relatively unscathed. However, last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix was a disturbing reminder of the how dangerous the sport can be.
Spectators were left horrified after Romain Grosjean collied with the barriers at turn 3 on the opening lap. His Haas pierced through the guard rail at 137 mph and burst into flames, leaving the Frenchman wedged in. It was a heart stopping moment. An F1 car has neither split in half, pierced a barrier, or set alight in such a way in over 20 years.
Fortunately, Grosjean was able to free himself and escape with only burns on the top of his hands and a broken rib. As little as two years ago, such a crash would have been fatal. So, what safety protocols have the FIA implemented over the past 20 years that stop terrifying crashes like this causing fatalities?
The Halo Device:
The most notable recent development in F1 safety, and probably one of the most important in ensuring Grosjean’s survival, is the halo device. The halo is a titanium frame which is designed to protect a driver’s head during a collision with another car, a barrier, or any airborne debris. Despite its obvious benefits, its introduction in 2018 initially divided the paddock. Yet over the past two years, the halo device has slowly converted sceptics to its side.
The Japanese Grand Prix of 2014 was a sad day that has left its mark on the paddock and the way in which Formula 1 has conducted itself since. Promising French driver Jules Bianchi, collided with a tow truck. The injuries he sustained led to his sad death. Had Halo’s been around then Bianchi would have survived, but it was this tragedy that the idea first came from.
Charles Leclerc walked away unscathed after Fernando Alonso’s airborne McLaren hit his halo at the first corner of the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix. Without the device, Leclerc’s head would have taken the impact.
Thankfully, the halo worked similarly for Grosjean. When his Haas hit the barriers at an incredible 56G, the device withstood the impact. With no halo, piercing through the barrier in the way he did would have decapitated him.
Some prominent members of the paddock had previously argued that the device could make it very difficult for drivers to get out of their cars quickly, but Grosjean was able to remove the halo and make his own way out of the fire.
It is now more accepted than ever that the device is an invaluable piece of safety equipment. Even Grosjean himself, a previous halo sceptic, has since praised it for saving his life. It can only be hoped that last weekend’s incident has ended the debate for good.
The HANS Device:
A little more on the technical side, but equally as crucial, is the head and neck support device. The HANS system is a piece of technology that stops a driver’s head from whipping abnormally during a crash, without restricting neck movement during the race. Without it, a high G impact like Grosjean’s would most likely cause fatal basal skull fractures. In case there was any doubt as to just how fast F1 cars go, basal skull injuries are most commonly seen in aircraft crash victims.
The U-shaped device sounds a little complicated but is actually quite simple. It is attached around the back of a driver’s neck and secured by their body. This means that during a crash, energy is transferred from the fragile neck to the stronger chest and torso.
The FIA mandated the device in 2003 and has not looked back. Felipe Massa, the first driver to test the HANS system in a 2002, was also one of the first to benefit from it. The Brazilian was luckily able to walk away after a 150-mph head-on collision with the barriers at the 2004 Canadian Grand Prix.
It seems that the HANS system has probably been one of the most important developments in F1 safety. Since its introduction, the sport has seen significantly less fatalities. While it is difficult to know exactly how many lives the system has saved, its necessity is widely recognised across the paddock.
Fireproof overalls for both the drivers and their pit crews are an often overlooked, but crucial piece of kit. Grosjean was stuck in the fire for just under half a minute so to be able to walk away with only minor burns is impressive.
Worryingly, this would not have been the case had Grosjean’s incident taken place even last year. At the start of the 2020 season, the FIA upgraded drivers’ overalls to suits made out of Nomex– a fibre which is also used in aircraft and military suits. These Nomex suits are heavier and chunkier but can withstand fire for up to 35 seconds.
It was a minor change which received little media attention, yet one that has proven to be lifesaving. With cars rarely setting ablaze in such a way anymore and the halo debate dominating much of the conversation around safety, it is extremely fortunate that the FIA took this decision. Grosjean’s crash acts as a timely reminder that any potential enhancement to driver safety should always be acted on.
It is important to use these moments to positively reflect on how far safety protocols have come and to thank the FIA for their tireless commitment to improving them. But now is not a time to become complacent, and the FIA knows that.
Grosjean’s crash clearly raised a number of serious issues. It is really worrying that the guard rail failed in the way it did. Not only is this dangerous for the drivers, but also the marshals and other track officials who risk their safety every weekend.
Bahrain has shown us that while the sport continues to head in the right direction regarding driver safety, there is always room for scrutiny and improvement.
By Daniela Loffreda