Over the years, multiple motorsports series have made improvements that have saved countless drivers from what could have been the worst possible outcome.
By Scottland Barcia
Bahrain Grand Prix night race is a well-known staple alongside the end of the season Abu Dhabi Grand Prix night race. On November 29, Bahrain saw its first red flag for what could have been a tragic day in Formula One. The red flag signals drivers to pull into the pit lane because there was a crash on track that requires recovery vehicles to arrive at the scene. This measure is in place to prevent the Formula Once cars from either impacting the recovery vehicle or striking a safety worker. This red flag in particular was not the typical crash into a tire barrier or a driver becoming stuck in the grave, a measure that prevents drivers from hitting the wall. Instead, at the Bahrain Grand Prix on lap one, existing turn three, there was a violation crash that shocked the motorsports world to its core.
Romain Grosjean’s Haas collided with the barrier at 137 miles per hour (53 g-forces) after making contact with Daniil Kvyat’s Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda. The car split in half and burst into flames. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) had designed the car so that at a high rate of impact the car splits into two to prevent the driver from facing a larger impact. Despite this added protection, Grosjean’s survival cell went through the barrier and, on the moment of impact, caught fire. The car also has an internal fire extinguisher, but due to the nature of the crash it did not activate. Twenty years ago, he would not have survived that crash. Today, with F1 improvements in safety, he was able to get out of the car in 20 seconds, with his only injuries being burns to his hand and ankles. This miracle was due to F1 adding the halo to the cars. If the halo was not in place, Romain Grosjean potentially could have been killed on impact and lost his life in the crash.
The halo wraps around the driver, shielding them from impact and large pieces of debris, and has saved multiple drivers from injuries after serious crashes. In 2018, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was hit from behind and sent over Charles Leclerc’s then Sauber. The car was sent over the halo, however, preventing the F1 car and its wheel from striking Leclerc’s helmet. In the Bahrain Grand Prix, the halo saved two drivers from serious injury: Grosjean, who was able to escape his Haas that was engulfed in flames, and Racing Points driver Lance Stroll, who, after making contact with Daniil Kvyat on lap three, flipped upside down. The halo prevented the car from landing on his helmet.
At one point, before the halo was in place, drivers were left with no protection, leading to some deaths in F1. For example, Jules Bianchi back in 2014 during the Japanese Grand Prix lost control of his Marussia in very wet conditions and collided with a recovery vehicle. The impact lead to Bianchi suffering a diffuse axonal injury. He underwent emergency surgery and was placed into a medically induced coma where he remained comatose till he died from his injuries in 2015. It was Bianchi’s accident that led to the creation of the halo.
Drivers who were originally opposed to the idea now praise the halo for saving multiple drivers from injuries that could have killed them or left them unable to race again. One driver in particular that changed their tuned about the halo is Max Verstappen.
“I think the halo saved his life,” Verstappen said. “When it came onto the cars I was quite critical about it and it looked ugly. But you can’t say anything about the safety because today it definitely saved Romain.”
Even Romain Grosjean himself was against the halo.
“I wasn’t for the halo some years ago,” Grosjean said. “But I think it’s the greatest thing and without it, I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today. Thanks to all the medical staff at the circuit and the hospital.”
Grosjean will miss the upcoming race weekend, and it’s unclear if he will attend the last race weekend of the season. For now, he is replaced by Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of F1 legend Emerson Fittipaldi. Grosjean is set to leave Haas at the end of the 2020 F1 season with his teammate Kevin Magnussen. Moving forward, Magnussen is reported to drive in the 2021 IMSA season with Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s unclear whether Romain Grosjean will continue to race after this incident and, while it’s most likely he will not race in F1, he has expressed interest in IndyCar.
IndyCar is now safer with the addition of the aero-screen to the cars which, unlike the halo, has a full windshield curved around a smaller halo to protect drivers from small debris after a crash. At Iowa Speedway in July, on a restart, Colton Herta’s Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Honda went airborne over Rinus Veekay’s Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Herta was not informed in time that the restart was called off for another pace lap and accelerated into Veekay’s IndyCar. Herta went over the top of Veekay’s aero-screen and into the space between the safety barrier and catch fence. Veekay’s aero-screen was damaged, but it protected Veekay. If the aero-screen was not in place, there would have been a different outcome.
“Yeah, I’m very happy, especially with the safety,” Veekay said. “I stepped out. I saw the whole row. So yeah, the screen was destroyed. Thank you to IndyCar for the great safety cell and let’s go for it tomorrow.”
“It happened so fast, I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but I’m happy to report, I’m fine,” Herta said. “No injuries. I feel perfectly fine and fit to drive (in Saturday’s race).”
The race was a two-day doubleheader, and both drivers finished the race the following day.
Another motorsport that made improvements which saved a driver is Nascar. On the last lap at the 2020 Daytona 500, Ryan Newman was sent into the safety barrier by Ryan Blaney, pushing Newman’s car to the lead but hitting a courter panel that spun him. Then, Newman was hit by an incoming Corey LaJoie that didn’t have time to avoid him. This sent Newman’s Roush-Fenway Ford airborne and ended with him landing on his roof after rolling a total of three times. Newman was unconscious at the time, but two days later walked out of the hospital with his two daughters. The only injury Newman had was a bruised brain. In any other era of Nascar before 2001, Newman would not have likely made it out of the crash. In 2001, Nascar lost legendary driver Dale Earnhardt which led to multiple safety improvements in Nascar that continue today, one being the requirement of the Hans Device. The device is a key factor in all motorsports, as the Hans Device goes around the driver’s neck and attaches to their helmet to act as an airbag and protect the driver from concussions. Haas, Grosjean’s Formula One team, also has a Nascar team, Stewart-Haas Racing. Co-owner Tony Stewart has been a key factor to safety improvements, as he is a former driver in both IndyCar and Nascar. Stewart has helped with two safety improvements in Nascar, with one being the way drivers signal they are safe to the safety crew, which is by lowering the window net. Lowering the window net helps the safety crew to determine if one driver needs medical attention since the driver can only radio to their pit crew and spotter.
All of the safety improvements across motorsports have saved countless drivers from what could have been life-stealing crashes. Still, there are improvements yet to be made and mistakes can still happen, as seen in the earlier discussed Grosjean incident. Given the events of the crash, the FIA confirmed that the fuel cell did not cause the fire, as the fire was too small for all the fuel to ignite. More importantly, according to the FIA, the car with all the measures to prevent a fire should not have caught fire and the barrier should not have split on impact.
“Undoubtedly we’ve got to do a very deep analysis of all the events that occurred because there are a number of things that shouldn’t have happened,” Formula One’s safety director Ross Brawn said. The FIA has launched the investigation on Monday, November 30, 2020.
Edited by Emma Moloney