The Formula 1 cars had barely made it a third of the way around the track before the red flag brought a temporary halt to this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix. The start of an F1 race is often chaotic, especially among the back half of the grid, and so it proved on Sunday when the Haas VF-20 driven by Romain Grosjean speared off track to the right after exiting turn three.
First-lap crashes aren’t that unusual in the sport, unlike what happened next. After hitting the guardrail at about 137mph (220km/h), Grosjean’s car ripped in half and then burst into flames—something that hasn’t happened for over 30 years. To make matters worse, the front half penetrated between the guardrails that lined this section of track. As crashes go, this one was more reminiscent of the bad-old days of F1, the kind that claimed the lives of drivers like Roger Williamson or Francois Cevert.
But Grosjean walked away—understandably gingerly—with little more injury than some burns to his hands. And that is a testament to the safety that’s designed into modern F1.
Was it supposed to do that?
While it is unusual to see a modern F1 car split in half after a collision, in this case, that was by design. Unlike the car you drive, which has an engine mounted inside a bay within the vehicle, in an F1 car, the engine is also a structural part that bolts to the carbon fiber monocoque chassis. And in extreme crashes—this one registered over 50Gs—those bolts will break and let the two halves go their separate ways to dissipate energy.
But other F1 drivers have had high-G impacts without their cars coming apart like this. The added factor in Sunday’s crash was the car penetrating the guardrail barrier. As the nose of the car punched through, the monocoque traveled most of the way through and then stopped. While the monocoque had nowhere else to go, the rear half of the car, containing the engine, gearbox, and battery—and therefore most of the mass—was still going. That’s why the bolts snapped and why the back half of the car can be seen, mostly intact, a few meters up the track.
No, the fuel cell did not rupture
What happened next was a shock—a bright gout of yellow flame soaring into the air before the director cut away. (Formula 1 only showed more footage of the crash after knowing Grosjean was safe.) The last time an F1 crash resulted in a fire was in 1989, which should give you an idea of how unusual this was.
That earlier crash resulted in new safety regulations that require F1 cars to use Kevlar fuel cells contained within the monocoque. And that’s where Grosjean’s remained, protected by a carbon-fiber bulkhead. However, fuel has to get from the fuel cell to the engine, and although these are supposed to use dry-break connectors, it’s obvious that some amount of gasoline—probably a few kilograms—was spilled and met something hot.
The sport’s technical director, Ross Brawn, has called out the penetration of the guardrail as something that definitely requires more analysis. That style of guardrail, also known as Armco, has been superseded by much more modern circuit protection like Tecpro (commonly seen in Formula E and at other F1 tracks) or the SAFER barrier, which is widely used in IndyCar and NASCAR here in the US.
Fireproof suits got more effective this year
At the start of each race, a medical car chases the pack of cars, specifically to be on site quickly in incidents such as this. And luckily, this crash happened just after turn three, before the much faster F1 cars had time to ditch the powerful station wagon. Within thirty seconds of the crash, a slightly smoky Grosjean was being helped over the guardrail by F1’s traveling medic, Dr Ian Roberts, with the medical car driver Alan van der Merwe spraying them both down with a fire extinguisher.
That’s longer than the time limit for F1’s mandatory cockpit evacuation test, which states that a driver has to be able to exit their car within 10 seconds. But those tests happen under ideal conditions, not when your car is on fire and wedged in a guardrail. It was fortunate, then, that at the beginning of the year, F1 adopted stricter requirements for the fireproof clothing that each driver must wear during a race.
As an F1 driver, Grosjean was wearing long fireproof underwear, socks, and a balaclava underneath three-layer fireproof overalls, fireproof gloves, and fireproof shoes, all made from an aramid fiber called Nomex that is very bad at conducting heat. And from the beginning of this year, all of those items had to conform to FIA 8856-2018, which requires each garment to protect the wearer for about 20-percent longer than the equivalent they wore in 2019.
The halo device saved a life
Perhaps the most important safety device in yesterday’s crash was the halo device, which was introduced to the sport in 2017 after a number of serious head injuries and fatal crashes among drivers in open-cockpit cars. It’s the thing that looks like the upper part of a flip-flop, sprouting up from just ahead of the cockpit opening and wrapping around the sides to meet up with the airbox behind the driver’s head.
Made from titanium and weighing about 20lbs (9kg), the halo has to survive an impact of 125kN without failing. It was widely panned by fans and even drivers—particularly Grosjean—when it was introduced in 2017, mostly because of the way it looked. But Grosjean’s life was almost certainly saved by the halo, which prevented the top bar of the guardrail from making contact with his helmet, something that would almost certainly have been fatal.
Indeed, Grosjean himself is now a convert. In a video posted to social media from a Bahraini hospital bed on Sunday night, he told followers that “I wasn’t for the Halo some years ago but I think it’s the greatest thing that we’ve brought to Formula 1 and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today.” The French driver, who is in his last season for the Haas team, will sit out next week’s race—also to be held at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit—but may be back in action for the season finale in Abu Dhabi two weeks from now.
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