Romain Grosjean was one of the most vocal opponents to the HALO device but just two years on from its introduction into Formula One it has proved a key factor to saving his life.
If the Bahrain Grand Prix taught us anything it is that even with the Frenchman’s miraculous escape from a near 140mph crash that left him in a ball of flames, F1 will never be 100 per cent safe.
Yet his survival in Sakhir on Sunday does shows that the safety standards in many aspects in F1 have improved dramatically since the championship’s inception in the 1950s. Here are the crucial safety measures that saved the 34-year-old’s life.
Medics and doctors help Romain Grosjean walk away from his Bahrain Grand Prix crash
Grosjean climbed over a barrier to escape his horrifying 140mph crash at the Bahrain GP
We are so thankful that Romain Grosjean was able to walk away from this. We did not need a reminder of the bravery and brilliance of our drivers, marshals, and medical teams, nor of the advances in safety in our sport, but we truly got one today#BahrainGP ���� #F1 pic.twitter.com/z8OeTU5Nem
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 29, 2020
Controversial on its introduction in 2018, many believed the HALO would ruin the essence of F1 by being too intrusive of the cockpit area, while raising as many safety issues as it sought to solve.
Before 2018, F1 cars ran with the driver’s head exposed to everything. Wheels from airborne cars and debris deflected into the driver though had raised concerns that more needed to be done to protect the driver’s head.
Therefore the HALO was introduced and it is a bar of titanium weighing around nine kilograms, circles above the drivers head with another thin bar connecting it to the top of the car in front of the driver’s eyeline.
It of course also offered more protection in a crash but critics claimed it would also hinder a driver’s exit should they need to quickly escape the car.
The HALO device above and in front of the driver’s head was introduced into F1 in 2018
This could have been an issue on another day in a crash like Grosjean’s but he would not even have had a chance to get out of the car were it not for the HALO device in the first place.
With the front of the car piercing the barrier open and going underneath, the HALO stayed in tact and prevented the French driver from suffering a horrific crush to his head on impact. A similar incident sadly caused the death of F1 drivers in the past including Sir Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell team-mate Francois Cevert in 1973.
Grosjean had been one of the device’s critics before the motorsport governing body the FIA made it mandatory but admitted it had save his life.
He said in hospital following his crash: ‘I wasn’t for the HALO some years ago but I think it’s the greatest thing that we brought to Formula One and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today,’
Grosjean fortunately escaped his fireball crash at the Sakhir circuit with just minor burns
RACING SUIT/PROTECTIVE WEAR
Thought a driver’s racing suit was just to make him look good when next to his matching car livery while also acting as a walking billboard? Well, you are partly correct but it is also an absolute essential for a driver in terms of safety, especially in a fire.
The actual suits go through rigours testing to provide protection against a flame and this includes even the most smallest of details including the zips and cuffs.
But everything is considered for a driver from the balaclava protecting his face down to the footwear. The racing suit though was crucial to saving Grosjean.
As well as a crash helmet, drivers are protected from fire by their race suits and even footwear
It is commonly made of a synthetic fibre known as Nomex and it buys drivers a crucial amount of time should they get caught in a fireball.
Nomex doesn’t melt and when it reaches temperatures of 370 degrees Celsius changes to form carbon which is an effective heat insulator. This means that although the outside of it is exposed to flames and heat, the other side (the driver’s side) in a racing suit takes a lot longer to reach the same temperatures.
Typically this buys drivers around 30 seconds extra time in a fire to escape and is why Grosjean, who exited his vehicle in just over 20 seconds, only escaped with minor second degree burns to his hands, which he could have suffered after climbing over what would have been a scalding barrier in the backdrop of the fire.
Introduced in 2003 this is another piece of modern F1 technology which given the nature of Grosjean’s accident would have been crucial to keeping him alive.
The HANS device (head and neck support) sits on the drivers shoulder and is designed to prevent injuries to the head and neck. It is made of carbon fibre and has tethers behind the head that attach it to the crash helmet.
It’s soul purpose is to prevent a driver’s head being whipped in a crash. Without the device a seatbelt can keep a driver’s body in place but the head and neck are able to violently move freely – with sometimes fatal consequences as it can result in skull fractures. This type of incident led to the death of Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying for the the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 at Imola after he collided at an angle to a wall at high speed.
The HANS device rests on the shoulders and is attached to the crash helmet from behind
By restricting the movement of the neck the HANS device is effective at many angles of impact including the shallow one of Grosjean’s, which also saw his car violently whip around the pivot of the barrier.
The nature of the crash put the Frenchman into a spin, with his car colliding into the metal Armco barrier at a speed of at least 137mph. To put that into perspective that is six mph faster than the crash that killed Ayrton Senna a day after Ratzenberger at Imola.
The front of Grosjean’s car effectively jammed into the barrier and such were the forces involved, the weight of the rear of the car caused it to break away as it pivoted around the cockpit.
THE DRIVER CELL
The strongest part of the car and it is designed to protect the driver at extreme impact and reduce as much as possible the chances of the car crumpling and crushing the driver in an accident.
It starts from where the driver’s feet rest on the pedals just in line with the back of the front tyres and ends immediately around half-a-metre or so behind the driver.
It weighs around 35 kilograms and is strongest surrounding the area of a driver’s knees.
The driver cell is the strongest part of an F1 car and prevents a driver being crushed. Despite Grosjean’s car being flame damaged, its area around the cockpit is largely intact
Most of an F1 car is made of the ultra strong yet ultra light carbon fibre material but the driver cell must have a layer of kevlar to protect a driver from the potential of penetrating forces.
In Grosjean’s case this survival cell ensured he could escape in two ways. Firstly his cockpit wasn’t crumpled (at least not enough) to enable him to freely climb out of his car.
The second is in regard to the penetrating forces. His impact with the barrier, which broke and deformed on impact, could have let to a shard of metal piercing into his car and breaking his legs.
This sort of incident prevented Michael Schumacher from being able to climb out his Ferrari at the British Grand Prix in 1999 after a crash saw a part of his car’s suspension penetrate into his cockpit area and break his leg.
Even by the 1960s drivers were seeing the benefits of wearing a crash helmet while driving cars at 170mph, but the technology behind them has come on in leaps and bounds in recent decades.
It wasn’t necessary the strength aspects of the F1 helmet that helped Grosjean survive the crash but its fire protection.
The F1 crash helmet has advanced over the years to also be flame and smoke resistant
Today’s F1 crash helmets are designed principally to protect impacts to the head but the work done to improve their safety in a fire has been remarkable.
For instance to pass the FIA standard, a helmet must self extinguish after being exposed to a 790 degree Celsius flame. But as well as burning, Grosjean would have been in danger of lack of oxygen as flames engulfed around him.
Although his visor had melted, it too had proven effective as an investigation of his crash helmet after the incident showed no smoke had got inside to compromise the 34-year-old’s breathing.