F1 is the pinnacle of Motorsport. Every racer dreams of being in the sport and winning races and championships, but only a few make it to the zenith. The drivers in F1 get the fastest machines on the planet, race in multiple locations across the globe getting the love of scores of fans. Life in the sport, as thrilling as it may be, comes with its fair share of dangers.
Fatalities in F1 were a common occurrence up until the 1990s, and the sport lost many talented racers in their prime. Sir Jackie Stewart was a crusader for safety during the 60s and the 70s. Ayrton Senna's untimely death at Imola in 1994 was a big wakeup call. The Triple World Champion had been an advocate of improving the safety standards, and the onus was on the FIA and the FOM to deliver, and step up they did; with Professor Sid Watkins, Charlie Whiting, Herbie Blash and many others taking drastic steps in this regard.
F1, the pioneer in innovation and technology, was setting new benchmarks with each passing year, but disaster struck the sport in 2014. Jules Bianchi, a Ferrari protegee, lost his life due to the injuries sustained from a heart-wrenching accident with a tractor crane at the Japanese GP.
The governing bodies had done so much and yet come up short. The steps taken to mitigate such incidents began with the introduction of Virtual Safety Car periods ( in double yellow flag conditions ) and the HALO System. HALO is a slingshot shape piece, made of titanium, that sits over a driver's cockpit to protect the driver from flying debris. It was capable of bearing a load of 12 tonnes, which was the equivalent weight of a London Double Decker Bus. Prototypes got tested, and the drivers raised the issues of visibility and ease of ingress and egress from the car.
Nevertheless, the HALO got formally introduced in F1 in the 2018 season, making its way to the feeder series and other open-cockpit series across the world. It's effectiveness came to the fore at the 2018 Belgian GP. Charles Leclerc, the Sauber F1 driver, was part of a first turn pile-up and narrowly escaped injury when Alonso's McLaren went over his cockpit, the HALO acting as the barrier. The system grabbed headlines again when Hulkenberg's car got flipped by Grosjean on the opening lap of the 2018 Abu Dhabi GP. His Renault caught fire, but the marshalls were quick to put the flames out and get Hulkenberg safely extricated. The absence of the HALO could have complicated matters.
The technological advances, combined with several complex electronic systems onboard ( an F1 car ), pose an unprecedented challenge with regards to safety. The FIA are relentless in their efforts to make racing as safe as it can be by running through several ( possible and sometimes unthinkable ) scenarios to ensure the aversion of a tragedy. Man and machine get put through the rigours throughout the season. Everything is under constant review, from marshalling procedures, barriers, run-off areas, track & tarmac quality to the testing of the fire suits, gloves, boots that a driver would wear. Compliance with the safety standards of the FIA is mandatory, and there can be no compromise.
However, there comes a day when the systems in place get tested to the hilt in real-world conditions. 29th November 2020 was once such day.
The Bahrain Grand Prix got underway, and the FIA Medical Car was following the twenty racers to complete a lap as per Standard Operating Procedure. Alan van der Merwe and Dr Ian Roberts were on board, and as they made their way through the first couple of turns, they discovered a car in the barriers, split in half, with flames billowing into the night sky. Mr Merwe and Dr Roberts immediately swung into action, along with the marshalls who were fighting the fire with extinguishers, drawing near to the car to extricate the driver stuck inside.
Dr Ian Roberts saw Grosjean emerge from the inferno and immediately pulled the Frenchman away from danger. Alan van der Merwe didn't waste a moment to douse the flame on Grosjean's race suit with the extinguisher he had. The Medical Delegates carried an injured Grosjean away to administer first aid, then stretchered him to the medical centre, before airlifting him to the military hospital in Manama. Their action and response was nothing short of heroic, but also the result of a mentality of saving another man's life in the face of overwhelming circumstances. They admitted that they had never been in such a situation before, but they emerged unscathed.
Grosjean had smashed into the guardrails at high speed, a 52G crash, and the car had split into half from the impact. The Survival Cell in which the driver is seated was intact, while the HALO had taken the brunt of the guardrails when they got bent. One can only imagine the complications in the absence of the HALO. Grosjean's suit was capable of resisting the flames for 20 seconds, and the time was enough for him to unstrap himself and clamber out to safety. The HANS Device, the seatbelts, the HALO, the Survival Cell had served their purpose. The driver survived!
Kudos to the fitness of Grosjean, both mental and physical, to be conscious after a high G accident and have the presence of mind to react quickly in the face of adversity. The human instinct for survival took over.
Kudos to the marshalls who rushed to the scene, equipped with extinguishers, directing the flames away as the driver climbed out of the cockpit. Finally, kudos to the men at the helm, people like Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Michael Masi, and so many others who have taken steps to make the racing as safe as it can be.
We, as fans, tend to forget the risks that a racing car driver takes whenever he or she takes the wheel. Yes, they know its dangerous, yes, they love doing it, yes, it's their job. They have made unbelievable sacrifices along the way, and that is what sets them apart. They love what they do and are willing to give their all for it.
Racers deserve respect, irrespective of where a fan's loyalties or allegiances lie. If there were no racers, there wouldn't be an F1 ( or any other series ), and fans would never exist!
Thankfully, Grosjean lived to drive another day and is recovering well in the hospital ( as per the latest update received ) from his bruises and burns, and fortunately, no internal injury!
The list is long, but today we are thankful for the efforts put into safety since the inception of the sport by those who purposed to keep our heroes safe while they gave us myriad reasons to smile and celebrate and become the icons they are.
Today we salute those Heroes and are indebted to those who are the flagbearers of Safety in the Sport!
Thank you to the pioneers of safety in F1 - Sir Jackie Stewart, Professor Sid Watkins, Ayrton Senna, Charlie Whiting, Herbie Blash, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Michael Masi, Bernd Maylander, Alan van der Merwe, Dr Ian Roberts, the FIA, The FOM, the medical teams, the marshalls and to so many others!