I still can’t get my head around it. Every time I see the wreckage of the front half of the Haas sitting in the barrier, I just can’t compute the fact that Romain Grosjean got out alive.
And I mean, literally got out alive. He didn’t need dragging out, or physically helping at all to get away. He undid his seatbelts, took off the steering wheel, removed the headrest, and pulled himself free before jumping through flames and over the mangled barrier to the safety of the track and the arms of FIA deputy medical delegate Dr. Ian Roberts.
It’s just ridiculously hard to believe. I’m sure like many of you watching, the moment of impact sent a chill through my body. That explosion was just so unusual, and it was initially unclear who was involved. You instantly feared the worst.
I’m lucky enough to be in the paddock this weekend working with the broadcaster MBC Action, and our F1 producer was stood next to me watching the world feed and quickly said the driver was out and OK, before confirming it was Grosjean. The second part I could work out from the timing screen, but despite being told the television director had images of Grosjean safely out of the car, I still couldn’t believe it.
I couldn’t bring myself to relay that information for fear it might be wrong. Surely it had to be wrong given what had happened. Your mind starts thinking of the human body being in such a severe fire, and the likelihood that the claim he was out didn’t necessarily mean he was OK.
So when the images of a largely unscathed Grosjean were shown to the world I imagine huge relief was the first emotion for many. But I’ll admit I also couldn’t get my head around how to feel, and still can’t.
There are too many questions. How did such a big fire break out? How did the car split in two in the way it did, and even more worryingly, how did the barrier fail so that Grosjean and the survival cell actually went through it?
And I don’t get the impression that I’m the only person who is still confused about how to feel. F1’s Ross Brawn immediately stated there will need to be a deep analysis to answer the above questions, and says it was only the safety of the car itself that saved Grosjean. That’s partly true – the Halo undoubtedly saved his life – but the fire caused by the chassis failing threatened to harm him even after the Halo had kept the barrier away from his head.
The Medical Car team were also brilliant in arriving so quickly (as they always do, but thankfully we rarely notice them doing the opening lap behind the field), but the two fire marshals on the scene were brave but not particularly effective when Grosjean was still in the car. I can’t imagine their fear seeing that incident and it was impressive they reacted quickly, but it took Dr. Ian Roberts to pull the pin out and get the extinguisher working for the marshal by the barrier.
And the barrier itself was yet another worry. The Halo doesn’t restrict a driver getting out in event of a fire, but a barrier over the top of him would. And when FIA race director Michael Masi says it’s not a worry that it split, that to me is an even bigger concern. Surely it is immensely worrying, because the split and instant stop of the car will have contributed to the chassis failure and then fire. It would have been a big hit but if the car bounces off, the energy is dissipated in a very different way.
It is all these factors that make me understand why the word “miracle” was used so freely yesterday. One moment I agree with those saying it’s science and hard work that ensured Grosjean could get out, but the next I think there were so many things that went wrong that the combination could have easily led to a worse outcome.
As Medical Car driver Alan van der Merwe put it afterwards during one of his many media interviews, the incident looked “unsurvivable” when he and Dr. Roberts initially pulled up.
The more I outline the emotions it leaves me wrestling with, the more sympathy I have for Daniel Ricciardo’s anger at the replays being played over and over again. I personally felt the broadcast was well handled, only showing Grosjean and the scene once he was safely out and no other injuries were reported trackside, and then showing replays after warnings could be given and he was known to not be in a serious condition.
It was always an incident that would receive global coverage, and the horror of it, combined with the ultimately positive ending, is a stark example of the safety protocols that did work – the Halo, the survival cell, the extraction time, the Nomex race suit, the Medical Car presence on the opening lap…
On top of that, it also served to highlight the immense dangers that the drivers are subjecting themselves to and what is still possible if something goes wrong. That alone only increases the respect that anyone watching has for those behind the wheel, even those who they regularly criticize.
But Ricciardo was one of the drivers who had to get in a car and go racing again, one of the stars of the sport that we watch, knowing that they also know the risks. If he feels it was too much, then he should be listened to.
Just like Sebastian Vettel should be listened to when he lists his concerns about what happened.
“Obviously the guardrail is not supposed to fail like that,” Vettel said. “It is good that the cars are safer than they used to be in the past, but the guardrail should not fail. And the cars should not catch fire in that fashion. There are a lot of precautions [to ensure] that it does not catch fire. So I don’t know what happened there, it is difficult to say at this stage, but the main thing is that he got out.”
Of course the main thing is Grosjean escaped, but now the next steps have to be learning from it so that a driver will escape the same situation as many times as possible.
It’s racing, moments like that will never be avoided altogether. But continuously pushing to improve things – and not basking in the glory of the final outcome this time – is the only way there will be more chances to talk about miracles in the future.
Last night was a miracle produced by a combination of technological advancement and luck, and I can’t work out in which parts. Maybe that’s why it’s still so tough to comprehend.