Flat Spot On: 10 Items Not Yet Reported in Grosjean Crash

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 3 2020

Romain Grosjean walked away from a horrific, fiery wreck during Sunday’s Formula On1 race. (Photo by Jim Hunter)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

I wrote the book about F1’s safety revolution. It’s called “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt” and here are 10 reasons why it’s worth a read in the aftermath of Romain Grosjean’s ability, thankfully, to get out of a car torn in half and engulfed by flames in Bahrain.

1. Grosjean is one of thousands of lives saved by the FIA’s commitment to safety.

How so?

The safety cell that remained intact, despite an impact of more than 50G, was strengthened by an FIA mandate in 2001. OK, not so unusual. Well, under Max Mosley, the FIA was also actively introducing its European New Car Assessment Program for highway cars. After strengthening the rigidity of F1 cars by a factor of three and adding a new intrusion test, the FIA tied F1 to highway safety by using the sport’s engineering expertise to evaluate highway cars.

 In the aftermath of criticism that Ayrton Senna’s death demonstrated F1 had no moral value, the FIA created the New Car Assessment Program. It forced car manufacturers to upgrade the structural integrity of their highway cars by giving every new car a grade of one star (dangerous) up to five stars (highest safety standard). While not legally binding, the public attention forced manufacturers, which had successfully lobbied the European Union against such changes on the basis of cost, to improve their cars. Renault was the first company to endorse the NCAP. To say it has saved thousands of lives and critical injuries in highway crashes is probably an understatement.

2 Had Grosjean been wearing a Nomex fire suit that met only the FIA’s standard for flame retardation, he might have perished. He escaped from his car in 28 seconds. The minimum standard for a fire suit at the FIA? Twelve seconds.

3. Most have acknowledged the HANS Device was an important element for Grosjean being conscious (or not dead from a basal skull fracture) after hitting the metal barriers at more than 50Gs and 150 mph. But without the intervention of Mercedes, a HANS capable of fitting a driver in a reclining seat – and thus virtually all other race cars—would not have happened.

After Mika Hakkinen was almost killed and nearly paralyzed by a basal skull fracture in his 1995 accident during the Australian Grand Prix on board a McLaren-Mercedes, the German car company spent $20,000 a day on sled testing in Stuttgart to help HANS Performance Products and Dr. Robert Hubbard create the downsized device capable of fitting into a reclining seat that was eventually mandated by the FIA. 

4. The last driver to die due to a fire in an F1 car was Elio DeAngelis. He died in a testing accident at Paul Ricard on board a Brabham BT55 in 1986. A small fire erupted. Trapped in his car, the Italian eventually died of smoke inhalation. Where was the safety crew? There wasn’t one. A far cry from the FIA’s chase car with a doctor on board following the field at the start of the race in Bahrain, a standard procedure.

5. When Max Mosley sold the marketing rights for F1 to his longtime associate Bernie Ecclestone in 2001 for $360 million, it eventually led to the halo – which also was instrumental in saving Grosjean.

The money from the sale of marketing rights to Ecclestone was used to create the FIA Institute. The establishment of the Institute, whose first president was Dr. Sid Watkins, created the resources and commitment needed for new safety developments. Over a decade later, one of the Institute’s many initiatives became manifest in the form of the halo—following the fatal head injury to Julian Bianchi resulting from a crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014.

6. Bianchi’s head injury claimed his life in the following year, 2015. If Grosjean had perished, he would have been the first to die in an F1 car on live television since Senna in 1994 at Imola. That produced enough outcry to launch the safety revolution leading to Sunday’s thankful and safe outcome. Among the many disapproving accusers after Senna’s death – L’Osservatore Romano, published by the Vatican.

7. Bernie Ecclestone, who owned the Brabham team when De Angelis was killed, was a strong safety advocate for F1, although he gets little credit. Ecclestone hired Dr. Sid Watkins as the first Medical Officer in 1978 and eventually paid for the construction of hospital-quality trauma units at each track visited by F1. Watkins was responsible for the chase vehicle that was first on the scene after Grosjean’s crash, driven by Dr. Alan van der Merwe with Dr. Ian Roberts on board. It is one of many significant improvements pioneered by Watkins.

8. CART was also instrumental in the development of the HANS, mandating the device in 2001—two years before it became mandatory in F1. It was the use of the HANS by CART drivers, who each had a custom-made device, that enabled HANS Performance Products to produce a universal fit. Due to fit issues, F1 teams and drivers resisted using it for two seasons until the CART-developed universal device, created by Jerry Lambert at HPP, became available.

9. General Motors offered to make a custom-built HANS Device available to Dale Earnhardt, which he declined to use, prior to the Daytona 500 in 2001, where he suffered a basal skull fracture on the last lap. That downsized HANS would not have been available without the efforts of Mercedes and the FIA in conjunction with HANS Performance Products. Would a HANS have saved Earnhardt? Yes. Although unconfirmed by the sanctioning body in its official crash investigation, NASCAR’s own investigator privately acknowledged to his colleagues the HANS would have saved Earnhardt.

10. Both the halo and the HANS were met by resistance from the majority of F1 drivers—because they find it difficult to accept changes to their cockpits. In this respect, they are like most high-performing athletes who are wedded to routines they know work under conditions of great stress. These athletes need outside assistance when it comes to change. To call them out after the fact—including Earnhardt—for resistance to safety is a disservice to them and the sport.

(Editor’s note: “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt—How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is one of eight books on racing written by Jonathan Ingram, including two on Dale Earnhardt. His next book, a motivational memoir, is co-written with NASCAR and IMSA driver Bill Lester and will be released in February.) 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 3 2020
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