Romain Grosjean, Haas, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020

Why Grosjean’s crash escape wasn’t just a matter of ‘luck’


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Insert ‘Romain Grosjean’ and ‘lucky’ into search engines of your choice and endless lists of stories are offered. On Sunday evening in Bahrain these were arguably the most uttered terms, and these will no doubt be used in tandem for years to come whenever his astonishing escape from the crash is discussed.

However, suggestions that his survival from that dramatic fireball is entirely down to luck does a massive disservice to all those engineers who dedicate their careers to making all of motorsport safer. While Grosjean was in some aspects fortunate, there was absolutely no ‘luck’ involved in the design of the many safety systems that contributed to his survival.

The HANS device which connects helmet to body to minimise whiplash did not miraculously appear from nowhere. Despite its name, the Halo was not added to his car by a guardian angel. His flameproof gear was not a matter of sartorial choice but due to the FIA’s new Protective Clothing Standard 8856-2018 mandated for this year. Nor was the fuel cell, which safely contained 100 litres of high octane brew, won in a lottery.

Speed is sexy; safety is expensive and thus a hard sell. Remember the widespread opposition to HANS two decades ago. Recall the outcries over Halo prior to its introduction just two years ago. Many drivers – Grosjean included – rebelled vociferously against a giant titanium wishbone which they feared would impede emergency egress, besides looking ghastly. Some fans threatened to switch off and thousands signed petitions against it.

Romain Grosjean crash, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020
Grosjean’s car exploded into flames after its 53G hit
Yet after his Haas slammed into a wall of steel at 53G Grosjean was not only able to extract himself but, crucially, did so alone and unaided. Dazed, sure, but fully compos mentis and physically capable of stepping out of a blazing wreck and hopping over a metre-high barrier. Fortunate, maybe, but certainly not ‘lucky’.

Luck – both good and bad – are the very elements that safety engineers aim to eliminate from the equation via scientific means. Should luck be credited for survival then it logically follows that bad luck should be blamed for fatalities, in which case there would be no need for investigations in either instance. The cause would, after all, be utterly clear – ‘luck’ in either of its two forms.

Can it be purely coincidental – simply down to luck – that fatality rates plummeted since the mid-seventies, when motorsport safety research started, albeit rudimentarily so? Sir Jackie Stewart, who spearheaded early safety efforts, regularly makes a point of relating that he and wife Helen stopped counting when the number of friends and acquaintances they had lost to the sport ‘reached 50’.

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The Scot cut his F1 teeth during F1’s 1.5-litre engine era in the early sixties when, tellingly, safety was optional. Consider some excerpts from prevailing regulations: “Protection against fire: The car shall be equipped with a general circuit-breaker either operating automatically or under the control of the driver”, and “A fastening system for a safety belt shall be provided, the belt itself being optional”. Not a word about onboard fire extinguishers.

Modern drivers benefited from Stewart’s lobbying on safety
As the deaths mounted so the 1969, 1971 and 1973 world champion vowed to make racing safer. The areas for improvement were obvious: ‘Safety barriers’ at some venues comprised straw bales, trees lined the circuits, crowd control was zero, and seldom were ambulances on standby. Medical facilities and the closest hospitals were often an hour away by road or more.

Yet Stewart was widely ridiculed for his efforts, most infamously Motor Sport magazine’s well-respected continental correspondent Denis Jenkinson, who launched into an astonishing attack on his safety drive:

“His pious whinings have brain-washed and undermined the natural instincts of some young and inexperienced newcomers to grand prix racing and removed the Belgian Grand Prix from Spa-Francorchamps,” wrote Jenks, ending with, “Can you really ask me in all honesty to admire, or even tolerate, our current reigning world champion driver?”

Stewart’s reply, submitted by letter, was classy: “All Mr Jenkinson seems to do is lament the past and the drivers who have served their time in it. Few of them, however, are alive to read his writings.

“There is nothing more tragically sad than mourning a man who has died under circumstances which could have been avoided had someone done something beforehand.”

One of the 50 who perished during those “bad days” – as Jackie dubs them – was his good friend Piers Courage, whose part-magnesium chassis De Tomaso caught fire after slamming into a barrier when a suspension part sheared. According to reports the Courage accident was not dissimilar to that on Sunday – save that, of course, the most recent was the outcome of contact between two cars – yet the outcome was tragically different.

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Grosjean’s Haas split the barrier in the crash
The designer of that car was a young Giampaolo Dallara. He is still active in the company bearing his name in Varano de’ Melegari near Parma in Italy. Dallara SRL is the world’s largest race car manufacturer, employing a workforce of up to 800 to produce up to 200 cars per year.

Between the Monza and Mugello grands prix this year I met the now-84-year-old aerospace engineer in his office in order to better understand his race car design philosophies. He made clear his commitment to safety, citing the famous example of American safety crusader Ralph Nader, who exposed the dangers of Chevrolet’s Corvair in a 1965 book.

“Ralph Nader wrote a book ‘Unsafe at any Speed’ and we thought ‘Why, why?’ But now we know he was right. Now in every technical committee, the Automobile Club of Italy and also is the single seater group of the [FIA], every time there is someone suggesting a solution in the direction of safety, no one is saying ‘No’.”

I gently broached the subject of the Courage accident, and 50 years on the pain was clear to see as Dallara’s eyes clouded over momentarily before he six times repeated the word “Yes”. Then a quiet, “It is so. You can spare cost everywhere, but not in safety.”

“You can spare cost everywhere, but not in safety” – Dallara
It is clear the tragedy had – and continues to have – a profound effect on his approach to race car design. Should engineers spend more time, money and effort on safety than on the performance aspects of a race car, I ask?

The answer is an emphatic “Yes”. But Dallara believes the impetus needs to be driven by the sport’s authorities to prevent a proprietary constructor from grabbing any unfair performance advantages. “I believe that if you make a car that is a little safer, but it costs a lot more than your competitors, maybe you will not [sell] it. “[But] safety is the priority, no question.”

Dallara engineers designed and engineered the monocoque chassis and survival cell that withstood Grosjean’s 220kph crash and, its while construction is obviously to FIA safety standards, it is clear that Dallara’s safety first philosophy played a crucial role in the driver’s survival.

Much was dramatically made of the fact that car was ripped in two, with the rear-end facing forlornly in the direction from whence it came while the cockpit blazed away beyond the barrier. That, though, overlooks the enormous forces at play as the car speared through Armco at an estimated 20-degree angle, with the power unit and fuel cell effectively acting as a 350kg dumbbell then detaching as the front pierced the steel barriers.

Dallara make 200 racing cars a year
If anything, this separation absorbed potentially lethal energy that would otherwise have been transmitted to the survival cell. Was that ‘luck’? Let headline writers spin the term ad nauseam, but the reality is that Dallara engineers incorporated all FIA safety provisions – including the integrity of halo mounting points – and pre-calculated all shear points on the car. That is down to diligent professionalism by Dallara, not luck.

Since the seventies there have been various serious incidents that influenced motorsport’s approach to safety, but arguably none more than the very public tragedies that befell Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. There are no doubts, though, that if the learning curve during the 25 years prior to those 1994 tragedies was steep, it has been exponentially so during the subsequent quarter century.

In the wake of that May weekend in Imola something needed to be done urgently at all levels – in all motor sporting categories – to ensure the survival of competitors, officials and spectators and, crucially, motorsport itself. Thus, the FIA’s immediate focus turned to safety, initially via research and study group, then with a dedicated department created to apply science and data analysis to safety.

The first visible adoption was HANS, followed by a number of initiatives such as wheel tethers, helmet visor panels and, more recently, the Halo. But current cars and circuits incorporate a number of low-key or unseen innovations that raised standards to levels undreamed of in Stewart’s day. By its nature, motorsport will never be 100% safe, but a zero fatality rate remains the ultimate objective.

Such studies are not cheap. They were initially funded by the FIA Foundation and FIA Institute by proceeds from the sale of F1’s commercial rights at the turn of the century. At the end of 2017 the governing body launched the FIA Innovation Fund (FIF), funded by income from the recent NASDAQ listing of F1 by current rights holder Liberty Media.

Starting with a grant of €45 million, the FIF now holds €63m in reserve and since its inception has funded 25 initiatives worth over €20m, with motorsport safety and allied activities accounting for a quarter (by value) of approved projects to date. Such contributions complement the ongoing funding from the Foundation and the governing body itself.

The FIA’s Safety Department is led by automotive engineer Adam Baker – formerly head of track and test at BMW Motorsport – as safety director. Adam reports directly to Peter Bayer, FIA secretary-general for sport. Tim Malyon, an ex-Sauber and Red Bull engineer who previously worked in Formula E and DTM, was recently appointed as head of safety research.

Their combined CVs highlight the FIA’s commitment to safety. In addition to this in-house expertise, the Safety Department accesses various industry working groups, accident specialists and drivers worldwide in order to monitor and analyse all fatal and serious accidents in global motorsport via the FIA’s World Accident Data Base.

Jean Todt, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020
Todt visited Grosjean following his crash
They also liaise via the FIA’s Industry Working Group, which reports to the Safety Commission and includes representatives from the helmet and racing apparel sectors, circuit safety specialists, fuel system and electronics suppliers, applied technology companies, motor and allied manufacturers and Cranfield Impact Centre, an off-shoot of the university of the same name.

Projects are initiated by the FIA, then presented to stakeholders to enable them to participate in their fields of interest. They also have access to research results and regulatory implementation. FIA protocols also demand that National Sporting Authorities (ASNs) report all serious accidents in their respective regions.

These are reviewed by the FIA Serious Accident Study Group – chaired by FIA President Jean Todt – on a regular basis, with all findings and corrective measures subsequently incorporated in the relevant regulations. Whatever is learned from the Grosjean accident will ultimately follow the same path.

“The aim of this group is eventually to reduce the risk of accidents,” says FIA Medical Commission president and SASG deputy president Gerard Saillant, “and when an accident does occur, to reduce the physical consequences for the people concerned.”

Thu THUMS virtual human body model as used in WEC
Thu THUMS virtual human body model as used in WEC
The SASG works in conjunction with the FIA Research Working Group, which evaluates safety measures to complement the work of the Safety Commission – led by former Williams technical director Sir Patrick Head – which tables recommendations to the World Motor Sport Council, the FIA’s apex regulatory body.

A vital simulation tool used by Baker and team is the Total Human Model for Safety (THUMS), developed by Toyota in its R&D laboratory. Unlike dummy models – simplified representation of humans – THUMS represents bodies in detail. The model includes their outer shape and bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and internal organs.

“For the purpose of crash simulation, the most significant recent change has been our efforts to build true in-house capability within the FIA Safety Department using the THUMS, both to investigate accidents and complement physical testing to conduct research,” Baker told RaceFans in May.

Combined with various other (extremely) costly simulation tools this expertise enables the FIA safety department to initiate virtual studies and undertake rapid evaluations of proposed new solutions and devices, with many of the results exemplified during Sunday’s accident.

How Grosjean’s helmet helped keep him alive in Bahrain fireball crash
Clearly there is zero room for complacency where safety is concerned, and no doubt there could be improvements – that is the essence of research – and it will fall upon the investigators to highlight such areas. That said, there are elements that could be incorporate as soon as next year with minimal delay regardless of recommendations. Should, for example, F1 have more than one Medical Car following the field on the opening lap?

Equally, given the difficulty the marshals experienced in experienced in extinguishing the blaze, should F1 not consider a high-speed fire tender manned by an experienced fire crew to follow the medical car? A high-speed sporting-brake vehicle seating four and capable of dispensing 1,500 litres of extinguishant would surely not go amiss.

The FIA’s relentless quest for zero fatalities in what is by definition an extremely dangerous activity is to be widely applauded. Stewart once said drivers should be penalised for their mistakes, not die for them. That is an ideal the FIA has clearly taken to heart, as Romain Grosjean can attest.

The golfer Gary Player once retorted, “the more I practice, the luckier I get” after being heckled by a spectator who suggested the South African had sunk a lucky putt. Clearly the more the FIA practices safety, the ‘luckier’ drivers get.

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28 comments on “Why Grosjean’s crash escape wasn’t just a matter of ‘luck’”

  1. Jose Lopes da Silva
    3rd December 2020, 12:12

    Great and insightful read. Thanks.

  2. Insightful article. Top stuff.

  3. Great article and for sure I can imagine fire and barrier safety being the next huge step in safety. Personally despite peoples criticism of the first marshal on the scene, there is only so much a person can do with a little extinguisher having just being showered in pieces of Haas. I think a second medical car full of 4 people with high performance extinguishers and multiple fire vehicles around circuits could have helped.

    1. I thought it wasn’t so much that the “first marshal on the scene” was being criticised, and much more about his pathetic fire extinguisher. It looked practically useless! Why was it so bad compared to what the marshals in the medical car had?

  4. Luck – both good and bad – are the very elements that safety engineers aim to eliminate from the equation via scientific means

    Indeed. And I am really glad the work done in the last decades helped prevent serious injury and will no doubt prevent even more in the future.

    Thanks for this write up about how important all of this relentless effort is.

  5. So glad he is ok. He gave his family quite the scare there. I hope he throws the towel. His way of driving is just too accident prone. Quit while you’re still around Grosjean. Enjoy your family.

  6. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    3rd December 2020, 13:44

    I agree – they need better ways to put out fires, if necessary. That should be mandatory. I don’t know if a high speed truck is the answer or multiple trucks spread around the course. The issue is that they need to mobilize quickly since time is of the essence. Perhaps, the car can have a fire extinguishing version of the airbag that explodes and covers the driver if fire and an accident are detected and the driver is trapped. Perhaps they have a few around the engine.

  7. Thank you for this great article.

    With the luxury of hindsight, even the current very high level of safety could and should be improved. One must never stop improving. Isn’t that what F1 is about?

  8. To be honest I would still count this mostly down to luck.

    -He was nearly wedged in the barrier, lucky the car was fully through and the barrier not blocking the exit
    -In a burning sea of flames, nothing prevented that.
    -nobody could have extinguished or helped him out

    The only luck was that he was contious after a 50+g impact.

    Yes, great Halo, yes good Hans, yes good safety structure but still from a stance of safety engineering not accounted for all eventualities and hoping to be lucky as above.

    I am an engineer working on brake safety related systems, mostly sensors. The FIA is not doing all they can do. It is not a good safety culture if things are not assessed or done based on “it’s costly”.

    1. @maxv It was al the hard work over 50 years mentioned in the article that made it possible to only need so little luck.

      Without that, la LOT more luck would have been needed. (As mentioned in the beginning)

    2. @maxv I have to agree with this. A lot has been done, but already this year with seen a repeat of the Bianchi ‘crane on track when wet’, marshalls almost being hit in Imola because of a ridiculous ‘unlap’ rule, and now the angled wall made of steel plates where a driver is lucky not be wedged. Then there’s the pitiful fire extinguishers and no fire truck anywhere. Just having a couple of marshalls with proper extinguishers and fireproofs sitting in the back of the medical car would be such an easy measure, but no.

      1. @balue and the halo doesn’t protect from debris like a the indycar aeroscreen. Guess they are just waiting for another Massa like incident. I would rate that alone not as the absence of unreasonable risk, it already happened before.

        1. @maxv Do you think the screen would have done the job now? Or to do so, would it be too thick as not to be usable?

          1. @balue the indycar aeroscreen is a halo with an aeroscreen over it. I think it could have a shielded a bit from flames, but if the fuel gets inside it can be worse. At least it would give debris protection.

            Corrected for wrong section reply

  9. @marcusaurelius yes you are right it can’t be overlooked the 50 years of efforts.

    In the field of Functional Safety for cars and vehicles they recognized this could not be left up to luck. Especially focused on electronics, hardware and its software they developped a standard that is now mandatory. The overall mindset is to work to create: the absence of unreasonable risk due to hazards caused by malfunctioning behavior of a system. This is behind many safety systems in your car. E.g, brakes, suspension, self driving. This is one aspect of why cars are safer now. The major breakthrough / necessity though was this standardized approach. Metrics being applied are for instance less than one failure per billion operating hours and diagnostics that cover if a fault occurs.

    Applying this kind of mindset to F1 will lead to a clear risk and development plan on what is still lacking. I would say a sport like F1 should be more than capable to also use these advanced kind of engineering tools to assess it safety case on circuit. Mankind can do a lot, just need to be pushed a bit more.

  10. I consider this to be one of the best articles ever presented to fans of racing at all levels. Thank God for Jackie Stewart whose image forever reminds us of what was said drivers should be penalized for their mistakes not die from them. How his path to promote safety was often met with ridicule yet the message was scoffed at and dismissed. The dead 50 message from Stewart was and remains a big deal 60 years on.
    Formula One could have gone away without this emphasis of change that must happen. Today this article reminds us of a time when driving a race car at speed might be the very final thing you ever do.
    I doubt Roman ever had those thoughts in his 20 plus seconds during his trial of flames.
    By looking back we can benefit from the suffering of others, just as Roman will be looked at as he so impressively got the hell out of the Haas, for decades to come.
    Thanks for the timeline, thanks for the very well written story
    Get well Roman as your bravery or fear from the extreme moment you faced is your ticket for being remembered long after his race car driver ends.

    1. Recall when hay bales were the barriers and, then, soaked in gasoline post-crash? Impossible to extinguish. Or when the driver’s feet were the first on the accident scene .. think “Schumacher”. Or Zanardi (OK, IndyCar .. but … )

  11. Very informative article, thanks Dieter.

  12. The truck would barely be round by the time they circulated again. Its in f1’s DNA to write another rule everytime there is an incident but at the same time totally ignore other areas that just happen to not have had an incident.

    We will wait until we have a qually crash with a fast moving car into an almost stationary one before we address that.

    The FIA Massi et al are proactive but in the most part the rule changes are reactive.

    1. I was suggesting a Mercedes AMG estate with fire extinguishant in a tank in the rear., not a truck: “Should F1 not consider a high-speed fire tender manned by an experienced fire crew to follow the medical car? A high-speed sporting-brake vehicle seating four and capable of dispensing 1,500 litres of extinguishant would surely not go amiss.

  13. Thank you for this informative and insightful article @dieterrencken

  14. I would say luck plays a part in almost everything – not as a quantifiable measure, like pure maths and science, but definitely in the way different things interact and intersect.

    Just like how Masi has been awfully lucky a number of his questionable calls have not resulted in an accident…

  15. In the 1960’s I was a fan of racing including Formula 1, being a kid back in the day. Since then watching races, victories, losses, many accidents, and deaths. A poster of Jim Clark hung on my wall then and I still miss him. 

F1, Indy Cars (different series), and other racing are interesting and thrilling in competition. But, horrible wrecks and deaths stopping me watching at times.

    Jackie Stewart and others fought for safety for drivers into cars, tracks, equipment, teams, fans and all involved.

The wreck Romain Grosjean went through and he survived and thankful for safety through these days. Commented that day – The driver’s survival cell and cockpit plus halo saved Grosjean’s life in the half of his car after it crashed. I can’t believe he climbed out of the fire. These are lifesavers.

    Looking at the back half of his car sitting there, no driver. He was in the ball of flames, then climbing out after about 30 seconds. What gave him the safety in the seat, belts, wearable gear/clothing, helmet, HANS, surrounding survival cell, halo and more.

    The front half of the car, parts still there, burned up. Something has to been to fix more safety into fuel stopping burning. Partly fixed before, do more now.

    Amazed that Romain Grosjean is still with us. More could be done.

    Thank you for the article.

  16. @balue the indycar aeroscreen is a halo with an aeroscreen over it. I think it could have a shielded a bit from flames, but if the fuel gets inside it can be worse. At least it would give debris protection.

  17. great piece. thanks

  18. I have to say that I really appreciate your various articles Dieter, as an old fogey ex driver I must admit that I was a critic of Stewart in his early safety campaign days….. however time has proved me wrong. Dieter, your insight and articles are among the very best in motor sport journalism. From the bottom of my heart a big thank you and a Merry Christmas.

  19. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
    4th December 2020, 4:09

    Excellent piece!
    In one of my recent comments, I did address the surprising absence of a fire truck with an extraction crew in the aftermath of the crash which has been addressed here. While designing and implementing a high speed fire vehicle may take a while, the least Masi et al. can do from this (or next) weekend onwards is provide marshalling staff with extinguishers similar to the ones in the medical car. The one used by the marshal this past sunday appeared to do absolutely nothing to douse the flame! If Masi is worried about costs, he might as well ask them to return the unused ones after each race; but at least give them proper equipment. Better to act than react.

  20. Thank you for a well researched article; it was a timely reminder that racing will always have risks. The objective all involved should be to make sure that safety is paramount. To this end, as the drivers are the ones most exposed to danger, I suggest they unionize, and any dubious practices compromising safety would result in the cars not leaving the garage. A good starting point might be a drivers’ critical tour of the circuit prior to the commencement of racing. I believe the GPDA dis at one time do something along these lines.

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