F1 driver survives 137mph crash

Romain Grosjean walked away from a high speed crash
08 December 2020

Interview with 

Tony Purnell


Formula 1 car


Science, technology, and medicine came together this week, even collided you might say, to save the life of a Formula 1 driver last Sunday, after he was caught in one of their worst accidents in years. Phil Sansom reports how Romain Grosjean able to walk away relatively uninjured from what should have been a lethal, catastrophic crash…

Phil - If you were watching the Bahrain Grand Prix the other day, you couldn't have missed the horrific accident that happened when Romain Grosjean's car careered off the track and smashed into a metal barrier. It pierced the car, cutting it in two, and creating a huge fireball. Everyone assumed the worst, which is why it's so incredible that Grosjean not only survived, but did so almost completely uninjured.

Tony - That was a surprise because the accident looked really, really bad.

Phil - That's Tony Purnell, formerly part of the FIA, the motor sport governing body. And before that head of the Jaguar formula one team.

Tony - It was kind of a huge surprise to see a car burst into a fireball.

Phil - Really, you were surprised that there was an accident that bad in the first place?

Tony - Oh, very much so. Especially the car catching fire.

Phil - It's not a lucky coincidence that Grosjean survived because formula one might be the most extensively safety engineered sport in the world. I mean, it probably needs to be.

Tony - You know, there's 750 kilograms of car going at between one and two hundred miles an hour.

Phil - The FIA has been constantly making improvements. And before they even start to look at the cars, they first work on the track. See, the most dangerous part for a driver is going around tight bends at high speeds, the centrifugal force, which of course isn't a real force, just the inertia of a car that doesn't really want to turn, can send it flying off to the side.

Tony - So in the old days there were barriers all the way around the circuits, but nowadays you'll notice that the outside of the corners, they have really substantial runoff areas with just tarmac. The tires grip so well that you're better off scrubbing off speed than thumping into a barrier that's designed to give a little bit.

Phil - Tough luck for Grosjean though, because that's not where he came off the track. He was actually coming in the inside after a bend.

Tony - So it was a very unusual accident.

Phil - But as soon as his car hit the barrier, he was protected by the strength of his car's chassis.

Tony - The cars are subject to a really severe crash impact test, literally bolted to a platform and a great slab of concrete on a pendulum swung into them.

Phil - Now he still could have hit his head on the barrier itself. After all formula one involves open top cars, and given that he was going at 137 miles an hour, that's not a nice impact, but the bar didn't hit his head. It glanced off a feature that's only existed in formula one cars since 2018 called the halo. It's quite simple, actually it's a titanium bar that curves around the back of the driver's head and attaches to the car in several places.

Tony - Which protects the driver primarily actually from front wheel breakages and other cars being lifted up into the driver's cockpit.

Phil - The next life-threatening condition that Grosjean had to avoid was whiplash. After all, the black box in his car recorded a reverse acceleration of 53 g. What saved him was the extensive padding around him, plus his helmet.

Tony - Which is a very strong composite material.

Phil - It comes with an attachment to his shoulders via something called the HANS device.

Tony - Which protects the driver's neck.

Phil - But Grosjean wasn't out of the clear just yet. There was after all a fireball, which engineers say is strange. The fuel tank is as extensively engineered as the rest of the car.

Tony - The bag is literally bulletproof and there are valving arrangements. So the fuel wouldn't spill out. It would cease flowing immediately.

Phil - So they're still not quite sure what happened, but thanks to the driver's flame resistant suit and to the medical team that got to him at lightning speed, he managed to get out of the wreckage before any damage was don,e.

Tony - I believe the suit's good up to about 370 degrees centigrade. His gloves nowadays also contain sensors that are basically biometric scanners. There's also, I believe, an oxygen sensor in the gloves

Phil - Christ, he's engineered up the wazoo.

Tony - Absolutely. I don't think his survival was fluke. I think it's a great tribute to a whole armory of small things, which add up to the best example of a safety infrastructure, there is in sport.

Phil - And the innovations that happen thanks to formula one often become the safety devices of future road cars, but don't go crashing into barriers at over a hundred miles an hour just yet. Let's leave that one to the professionals.


Add a comment