The Halo: Romain’s Guardian Angel

The 2020 Bahrain GP was a sombre occasion following Romain Grosjean’s opening lap incident. The French driver tagged the wheel of Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri, hurtling him towards the barrier at 137mph.

Sky F1 analyst Karun Chandhok suggested Kvyat was in Grosjean’s blind spot, so Grosjean was not aware Kvyat was on his inside when he veered to the right. Once the car collided with the barrier, it erupted in flames. Luckily, Grosjean was conscious throughout the accident and was able to jump out of the fireball with the assistance of fire marshals and the medical team.

Whilst it was a miracle Grosjean walked away from this incident with only minor burns, it cannot go unnoticed the strict FIA health and safety procedures put in place that ensured Grosjean’s survival.

The halo device was introduced in the 2018 season, much to the dismay of fans and drivers claiming it was ‘ruining open wheel racing’. The halo is a 9kg piece of titanium running circular around the driver’s head, protecting them from incoming debris. There is also a bar in front of the drivers face that would push debris over the driver’s head. The titanium structure is built to be incredibly strong so that it can survive the biggest loads. Mercedes Technical Director James Allison states: “It can withstand a double decker bus on top of the device.”

Since its introduction, there has been several incidents where the halo has protected the driver. The 2018 Belgian GP started with an opening lap crash when Fernando Alonso’s McLaren skipped over Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. The FIA concluded that the front wing of the McLaren would have hit Leclerc’s helmet had it not been for the halo device.

Earlier in the Formula 2 season, Tadasuke Makino believed the halo saved his life following a crash with Nirei Fukuzumi. Following the crash, Makino said: “I don’t know what happened, but without the halo I think the tyre would have hit my helmet.”

In 2019’s Formula 3 season, Alex Peroni walked away from a huge crash after his car was launched over a kerb. His car spiralled in mid-air before landing upside down on a tyre barrier. The halo played a vital role in ensuring Peroni’s head did not take any damage.

The halo undoubtedly protected Grosjean from his crash. Grosjean pierced through the barrier at 137mph, and the front of the halo ensured that the metal barrier was pushed over Romain’s head. A Reddit user created a 3D render of the difference the halo made in the crash, clearly showing the protection it provided.

Grosjean was not a fan of the halo when it was introduced. In a message after the race, he said: “I wasn’t for the halo some years ago, but I think it’s the greatest thing in F1 and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today.” F1 Managing Director Ross Brawn said unequivocally: “There’s no doubt the halo saved Romain.”

The second successive feature protecting Grosjean was the carbon fibre structure that the driver sits in whilst racing, known as the survival cell. The cell encapsulates the driver’s legs, and the sides of the monocoque protect the driver’s upper body. Romain penetrated the barrier feet first, and as such, the survival cell took the impact.

The FIA regulations are very strict when it comes to the survival cell, with specific requirements to protect the driver. As well as the strong carbon fibre structure, there is a 5cm thick aluminium plate attached to the front of the monocoque. Pre-season, every team will have their survival cell crash tested to ensure it meets FIA requirements.  From pictures of the crash, you can clearly see that the monocoque is intact, and as a result, Grosjean received no broken bones or fractures.  

The sensational image that remained after the crash was of the Haas car broken in two. This is another amazing safety feature on the cars. The back of the car contains the heaviest elements, the engine and gearbox; by breaking away from the monocoque it allows some of the energy to dissipate, providing a lighter impact in the event of a crash. 

The Head and Neck Support (Hans) device is an important safety feature for drivers in crashes to protect them from whiplash. The support structure stops the head snapping forward under heavy g-force which happens naturally under heavy breaking. Whilst the driver’s body is strapped in by harnesses, their head if free to move around. During the crash, Grosjean experienced 53g’s and without the Hans device, the Frenchman would have endured heavy whiplash which has proved fatal in the sport before. 

All Formula 1 drivers must train their bodies to protect themselves during racing. F1 drivers are superior athletes, it is a necessity for them to build their body to endure continuous G forces during the race. One of the key training aspects is that of building the muscles in their neck in preparation of going round corners at high speeds, this helps support their heads in crashes as well. Grosjean’s excellent training allowed him to not only survive the crash but stay conscious throughout. Had he been knocked unconscious for even brief second, he would have been in the fire longer and his burns could have become more severe, if not fatal. 

Once Romain had collided with the barrier, a huge fireball erupted from the rear of his car. Ross Brawn was asked if he knew how the fire started, he said: “I honestly don’t know, I think we need to look at it. We had a fuel fire which we haven’t had in a very long time, the fuel cells are incredibly strong, I suspect that came from a ruptured connection.”

Drivers are mandated to wear fireproof clothing to protect themselves from fire. Karun Chandhok tweeted that last year’s race suits were lighter and could only withstand flames for 10 seconds, this year they have been made heavier to last flames of 20 seconds. This allowed Grosjean to be in the fireball for as long as he was without sustaining major burns to the body. Grosjean only received burns to his hands and ankles, due to the driver’s gloves and boots not mandated to be as fire-resistant.

The FIA has a strict ruling on how long it takes for a driver to be able to jump out of the car. FIA Regulation 12.5.1 states “The driver must be able to enter and get out of the cockpit without it being necessary to open a door or remove any part of the car other than the steering wheel. From his normal seating position, with all seat belts fastened and whilst wearing his usual driving equipment, the driver must be able to remove the steering wheel and get out of the car within 7 seconds and then replace the steering wheel in a total of 12 seconds.”

The FIA tests the driver’s ability to get out of the car throughout the season. It is remarkable that Grosjean had the wherewithal to be able to get out of the car so quickly after such a heavy collision. Following the incident, he said: “I was more afraid for my family and friends, obviously my children are my greatest source of pride and energy.”

The final safety procedure put in place that was vital for Grosjean was the rapid arrival of track marshals and the medic car. Marshals are dotted around the track at every mini sector, and as such, were quickly on hand to be able to begin calming the flames. On the opening lap of every race, the medical car will follow the grid around in the event of an incident. The marshals and the medic car arrived on the scene at the same time, whilst one marshal started to extinguish the flames, Dr Ian Roberts bravely stepped into the flames to be able to help pull Grosjean over the barrier.

“The extinguisher was just enough to push the flame away, as Romain got high enough to pull himself over the barrier,” said Dr Roberts.

The medical car driver, Alan van der Merwe, emphasised that this is something they prepare for, so when accidents do happen, they are extremely prepared. He said: “A lot of this is preparation, we do a lot of checklists, scene prep and talking about scenarios, but this was crazy.”

Following this incident, the FIA will investigate what went wrong and what can be improved to prevent accidents like this in the future. The main thing will be how there was a fuel fire when the fuel cell is made from bulletproof Kevlar and is rigorously tested. The main thing is that Grosjean walked away, and it is a testament to the innovative health and safety procedures F1 has put in place.

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