Yesterday we all witnessed a very serious crash when Romain Grosjean, after touching Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri, crashed into the barrier at an angle and at high speed.
The car was split in two and caught fire with Grosjean still trapped inside. Luckily he managed to squeeze himself out of the wreck into safety with only minor burns on his hands.
Of course, high-speed crashes are not unusual in F1. But this made everyone wonder why one with such violent consequences could take place.
Below are the key questions from the crash – some we can answer now and some that need crucial details to be discovered.
How could this crash happen?
Now that we know Romain is mostly OK we can see, without feeling too guilty, that it started with driver error. Grosjean moved across on Kvyat and the pair made contact, which pitched Grosjean off-track to the right very suddenly.
That’s what sparked such an unusual accident, as we never normally see a crash there. It’s one of the reasons that barrier is just an exposed guardrail.
Grosjean was a passenger from there on, though at least able to get on the brakes and slow the car to around 221kph at the point of impact.
The speed and angle of Grosjean’s connection with the barrier appears to have found a weak point and pierced through, digging the front in and (because of the strength of the survival cell and the halo device) embedding the monocoque inside the railing. Meanwhile the rear rotated round and was torn clean off, such were the forces at play.
In an instant, the car erupted into flames. Fortunately, Romain remained conscious throughout and, probably charged by adrenaline, able to extract himself from an impossibly difficult position inside the cockpit given the monocoque was pinned inside the barrier.
To be able to lift himself from the car and emerge from the flames was utterly crucial to his survival.
Why did it catch fire?
Exactly what prompted the massive fireball that engulfed the Haas will be determined by the FIA’s in-depth investigation. But it is a huge priority because these scenes are better left as part of F1 history.
The safety advancements around an F1 car’s fuel cell have been monumental. There’s a reason we haven’t seen a fire like this since Gerhard Berger’s at Imola more than 30 years ago.
At present the leading theory is that it came from a ruptured connection and fuel escaped that caught fire. When you see the extent of the damage it’s quite easy to see how that could have happened rather than the ultra-strong fuel cell breaking.
As for what exactly caught fire, it fortunately wasn’t a tank’s worth. Because 100kg of fuel would have resulted in an even bigger inferno.
Did the rescue go as it was supposed to?
F1 medical delegate Ian Roberts and medical car driver Alan van der Merwe have received enormous praise for how quickly they were on the scene, helping try to calm the flames and, in Roberts’ case, getting as close to the fire as possible to help Grosjean as he scrambled over the damaged barrier to safety.
They were excellent in how they handled it. However, serious questions must be asked about the rest of the rescue.
Images of the accident show one fire marshal activating their extinguisher absolutely nowhere near the fire, and then proceeding to remain and quite some distance – barely dousing the flames.
We can only be thankful that Grosjean was able to remain conscious in the crash and had protective racewear that saved him from serious burns and/or inhaling fatal fumes, so he could extract himself from the car.
Had he not been able to do that, those flames were not going to be put out quickly enough to be confident he would survive.
What else must be learned?
Apart from that, the FIA and F1 will seek to learn as much as possible from this accident from the performance of the barrier to why the car caught fire, how the trackside workers responded, how the racewear stood up to flames and plenty more.
The first priority will be the barrier. An enormous amount of energy was placed upon it in the crash, so it would seem unrealistic to expect it to retain complete integrity.
But such guardrails are design to crumple in a safer way than that. A car should not be able to pierce through and leave the cockpit embedded between sheets of metal. That accident, three years ago, would have killed Grosjean.
The specifics of the crash – the speed, angle of approach and, potentially, the nose being slightly raised as the car skipped up – maybe have contributed to a never-before-seen combination that sliced through the barrier like a knife. That is what the FIA’s investigation will seek to ascertain.
Something must have gone wrong, or at least gone in a way the barrier was not designed to handle. That could also mean a fundamental barrier flaw but it is too early to state that as a fact.
Another element that will be exhaustively looked into is how the car broke apart. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff suggested that the engine should not have remain attached the way it did. Perhaps this contributed to the fire, exposing fuel lines that should have otherwise remained protected.
It’s reassuring in a way to know that F1 cars are so safe now that this horrific accident can occur and Grosjean, through a mix of excellent development work and good luck, was able to walk away with (literally) with minor injuries, let alone survive.However, F1 is not this safe because it takes such things for granted. An in-depth investigation will take place to work out even the tiniest ways the devices at play can be improved in the future.