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F1: when "the big one" happens.

Bryan Edwards

We have often made jokes at the expense of Roman Crashjean, as we dubbed him. Grosjean's career in F1 has been long for someone with so little success and so much carnage behind him. Having been told he was being replaced at HAAS F1 at the end of the season and there being no seat available for him in another team for 2021, it seemed as if he would go off into the sunset, another driver who was just kind of there.

But today he is written into the annals of F1 history, recollections embedded into the memories of everyone who was in front of their televisions, settled down for an afternoon's racing around the Sakhir circuit. For this was the day that no one wants to happen - and for which everyone in the sport has been preparing. Not just Grosjean, the Gross Un, the big one. And he walked away, battered, bruised, burned but fundamentally OK.

The world breathed out.

Sunday 29 November, 2020. The whole motor-racing world was in shock at the effects of Roman Grosjean having what, usually, would have simply been another of his regular collisions, offs and retirements. This time was the same but different. He drove across the nose of another car and his car, straight as a spear, dived partially through and under the ARMCO barrier. Deceleration, from about 300 km/h to zero was near instantaneous causing a g-force of 53G, according to some reports.

Within that instant, the car split in two behind the safety cell, fuel spilled and there was an eruption of flame engulfing both parts. The safety cell, with the driver strapped in, was under the barrier.

All motorsport is dangerous - it says so on the tickets so how much more so for the drivers, les pilots, as the French term them. But it's several decades since we saw a car so severely damaged and a driver in such a precarious position. It's more than a quarter of a century since Jos Verstappen's refuelling fire in 1994: that was the last big conflagration in the Formula. In the early days of rear-engined cars, it was not unknown for the rear to part company with the rest of the car if the angle of impact was just right - or perhaps that should be "wrong". Also, fuel fires were not exactly commonplace but not exactly unknown in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, we see the effects of the drive to safety - one of which did not originate in F1 - the HANS device which does as it says on the tin: Head and Neck Support device. This has to be credited with the fact that Grosjean remained not only conscious but alert. 53G x the weight of head and helmet - the risk of technical decapitation was very real and a broken neck, with all that entails, probably the best that could be hoped for in such an impact. Not that that would have mattered much because as the cockpit went under the barrier, it would have hit his head, with the range of effects being from decapitation down, but not far down. He is the latest to be saved by the "Halo" the imperative for which was when the ill-fated Jules Bianchi drove under the rear of a tractor pulling a stricken car off the course in 2014. The FIA insisted in the face of considerable resistance from some drivers and the Halo became compulsory. Grosjean is the latest in a line of beneficiaries.

But while HANS stops the whole head from flying forward, or backwards, it does nothing to stop the brain sloshing around in the skull. That's what knocks out boxers - it's not the broken jaw that puts them on the floor, it's bone hitting soft stuff. It's why Bianci and others have died or ended up in coma. It's why Michael Schumacher was so badly injured by a low-speed fall onto a rock while skiing - and wearing a helmet. And all the bits inside - the organs from the heart to the liver and kidneys, the stomach, all keep moving when the body stops.

The legacy of Professor Sid Watkins, reputed to be the only person that Berne Eccleston deferred to, was the next link in the chain.

Watkins' effect on F1 - and motorsport in general - cannot be overstated. The safety cell happened because of Senna's crash which accelerated Watkins' work with the Formula One Drivers' Association. Since then, only the Halo has been challenged by drivers or teams. They all just did as Watkins said: better crash testing, extraction tests, tests for how quickly a driver can get out of the car unaided, seat-as-stretcher, high-sided cockpits, thick protective foam, four layers of Nomex fireproof clothing... in fact, the only obvious safety measure that predated Watkins is the epaulette loops on overalls, so that rescue crews can lift a driver out of a car by his clothes. But there's more, there's the medical car that follows the pack for the first lap - it can't do two laps because the front runners would almost certainly catch up with it. In the car there's a doctor and a driver: they are trained, the doctor to run to the racer, the driver to assess what's needed and run to the scene with apt tools.

The thick protective foam provides some protection and energy absorption so the internal injuries are, at least to a degree, lessened.

The medical car, tanking along at its maximum speed, arrived several seconds after the crash, even though it was almost at the start of the first lap. The thing is that Grosjean's history shows that he could have had the same crash at any time during the race. While the passive safety equipment in the car - and his own quick action - saved Grosjean's life, it was the doctor who helped him out of the flames and the medical car driver who sprayed him with fire extinguishant which meant that his only burns were second degree to his hands - watch for changed in glove design - and milder burns to one foot which was missing a boot when he leapt off the top of the barrier and out of the flames, into the clutches of the doctor who pulled him clear. If he had had an identical crash on any subsequent lap, he would have had more serious burns because left the car on the track-side; the marshals and their firefighting kit were on the other side of the flames. Nikki Lauder's 1976 conflagration was on the second lap. Guy Edwards, one of four drivers who got Lauda out of his car after the crash as marshals failed to intervene, said that Lauda was sitting in fire for more than a minute. Smoke inhalation was more life-threatening than the external burns which were themselves extensive.

Grosjean was in the flames for approximately 18 seconds, emerging like all those film special effects seem to think they can replicate. No, the real thing, even on TV, is far more terrifying.

And that's why Grosjean will not be relegated to the long list of Formula One drivers who get forgotten.

Whether he gets back into F1 in the future remains to be seen - he's really not of the class of most of the field and he's had a lot of years when more talented drivers have been ousted. It's very unlikely, one would think, that he'll be racing in Abu Dhabi. So, in the adage of the entertainment industry, he was not going to be leaving with the audience shouting for more. But for sure, in twenty seconds from hitting the barrier to jumping off it, he's made himself memorable; and a monument to every single safety measure that F1 has implemented.

Hopefully, he will have a full recovery and no ill effects internally.


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