While the outcome of Romain Grosjean’s fireball crash on Sunday was positive – the Haas driver incredibly walked away from his burning wreck after a 224kph / 53g crash into steel barriers – such is the relentless pace of safety research that plans for a full investigation into the consequences of the incident are already underway at the FIA’s technical centre in Geneva.
In the process a number of factors will be microscopically investigated, not with a view to establishing culpability but rather to learn lessons from all aspects of the incident with a view to further improving motorsport’s solid safety record. Motorsport can never, of course, be totally safe, but the FIA’s overriding target is zero fatalities.
As part of the process the team of investigators, likely to be led by the governing body’s hugely experienced head of safety Adam Baker, face a number of searching questions. Not least, why the barrier Grosjean hit sheared and whether the halo’s cleaver-like slicing between the steel girders was an unforeseen consequence, albeit in this instance a seemingly positive one.
Would repeat barrier ‘failures’ be desirable in all high-speed impacts, or could repeats have serious consequences in other accidents, whether they be similar to Grosjean’s angled trajectory or head-on? According to sources, a new barrier of the same type as the original one was installed on Monday ahead of this weekend’s second race at the track, so the FIA seems comfortable with the situation. These are just some of factors the FIA team needs to establish.
Similarly, the team will investigate the effect of the car splitting in two behind the driver’s survival cell, as though a giant guillotine had spliced it. While shots of the car’s rear end sitting alongside the barrier while the front-end blazed away made for dramatic pictures (a separate conversation), the question is: was such a fracture planned or simply a one-off consequence?
An experienced race car engineer spoken to by RaceFans suggested the mere fact that the rear end containing the power unit and fuel cell (estimated at weighing over 350kg in total) did not follow the front half through the barriers had helped save Grosjean, for it reduced the overall impact by almost 50%.
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Equally, the same source added, the fracture had left the fuel cell exposed. Horrific though the fire was, the consequences of nearly 110kg of fuel flowing about the crash area while the front end blazed away are too ghastly to contemplate. As Ross Brawn indicated in the immediate aftermath, it appears leaked fuel from collector tank, situated beneath the cockpit, caused the blaze, likely ignited by severed high voltage cabling and friction sparks.
The tank and plumbing contain around 10 litres. Imagine the ferocity of a blaze potentially 10 times that intensity.
Could the safety team have coped with such a blaze? All of this throws fresh perspective on the heroism of the marshals who attended to Grosjean and the actions of FIA Medical Car team Dr Ian Roberts and Alan van der Merwe, as any fear of further ignition did not deter their rescue of Grosjean for a moment. Still, could the collector tank be made safer?
Another potential danger lurked in the crash. Hybrid systems in current F1 cars run at around 1,000 volts in order to reduce the draw of current, which generates undesirable heat – and a fractured (25kg) battery box could have spelt disaster. Yes, there are ‘safe’ systems, but these could have been damaged by impact, potentially spelling disaster for both driver and rescue workers.
In 2013, shortly before F1 introduced its ‘full’ hybrids – as opposed to the ‘mild’ hybrids of 2009 – I discussed electrical safety with an engineer, who was firm in his belief that F1 was absolutely tops when it came to energy management. “Whether chemical [fuel], electrical or kinetic energy management, we’re the best in the world on an overall basis,” he said.
It seemed a bold claim at the time, but Sunday seemed to vindicate that confidence. But the possibility for further improvement in this area will surely form another part of the investigation.
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While the safety systems all appeared to function as intended – so much so that Grosjean is even contemplating a return to action in just 10 days’ time – the endless replays prompted some concerns over whether every available fire extinguisher was trained on the Haas as quickly as it could have been. Perhaps further research needs to be undertaken into lighter fire appliances, faster extinguishants, and better training of marshals for such fires, mercifully rare though they are.
All of which raises another point: In addition to this, we had marshals on-track during the un-lapping phase at Imola, the crane incident during Q2 in Turkey plus a further incident in Bahrain where a marshal sprinted across the track in the face of oncoming cars, the area of marshal safety is an area which requires swift attention.
Furthermore, where marshals could previously hop from country to country to fill gaps and lend experience – usually covering their own costs due to their love for the sport – Covid-19 restrictions mean many borders are much tighter and permitted travel arrangements both complex and highly controlled. Have marshalling standards slipped – however slightly – as a result?
Four near-misses in three consecutive events suggest this is another of the many areas Formula 1 must probe in the wake of Sunday’s crash.