Roger Diez: Grosjean crash a reminder of racing’s dangers
Racing safety has made such great strides in recent decades that we’ve become almost immune to the inherent danger in the sport. Then something like Romain Grosjean’s Formula 1 crash last Sunday in Bahrain happens, and we are reminded that going racing is like owning a pet rattlesnake. You can feed it, give it a warm place to live, and try to keep it happy and contented, but if you are foolish enough to relax your guard for a moment, it’s still going to bite you.
The innovation of the halo over the cockpit was widely debated when it was mandated for the 2018 Formula 1 season. Many drivers were against it, as they were skeptical of the HANS device introduced some years earlier. Grosjean was vocal in his dislike of the halo, but in a video from his hospital bed, the Haas driver stated emphatically that was no longer the case. He’s alive today because of that device, which kept him from wearing another sort of halo, accompanied by wings and a harp. In the 28 seconds that elapsed between the crash and his emergence from the flames, Grosjean said that he thought of Niki Lauda’s 1976 Nurburgring crash, and of his children. “For my children, I told myself I had to get out,” he said. He was assisted from the car by FIA medic Dr. Ian Roberts who arrived on the scene with medical car driver Alan van der Merwe almost immediately. The idea of having that car follow the first lap of all F1 races is brilliant. Roberts helped Grosjean over the barrier while van der Merwe played a fire extinguisher over both of them. Marshals on the scene had already deployed extinguishers on the flames from the far side of the barrier.
As this incident made clear, there are still improvements to be made on racing safety, and this incident will have sanctioning bodies re-evaluating barriers, fuel containment systems, and other aspects of both car and track design. For instance, the SAFER barrier widely used on oval tracks in the U.S. should probably come under consideration for certain high-impact danger zones on road courses. The double-row Armco that Grosjean’s car penetrated is outdated in my opinion. I’m sure there will be serious safety discussions in the off-season, with possible new initiatives mandated for the 2021 season.
Given the burns to his hands, Grosjean will not race this weekend, replaced by Haas’ reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi. He made an emotional return to the track on Thursday, greeting his team members and his rescuers. Grosjean may also be out next weekend at Dubai, bringing what may be his final F1 season to a premature end. But he won’t be the only regular missing from Sunday’s grid. We received word that Lewis Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday and was exhibiting mild symptoms. So, he is definitely out this weekend and probably the season finale in Dubai. Mercedes received permission from Williams to use 22-year-old George Russell as Hamilton’s replacement this weekend and perhaps next if needed. Russell, Mercedes’ reserve driver in 2018, is lucky because this weekend’s use of Bahrain’s outer circuit is new to F1, so it’s a learning curve for everyone. With only 11 turns and a roughly oval configuration, the course is short at only 2.2 miles. Russell acquitted himself well both free practice sessions on Friday, setting fastest time in both at 54.546 seconds in FP1 and 54.713 in FP2 which ran after sundown. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was second in both sessions. Russell definitely has the potential to take a podium finish and even the win tomorrow. The race will air on ESPN2 at 9 a.m.