What would you name death? Benedict, Beatrice, or Benoit? Well, the latter is what Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean chose to call it. Stuck inside a race car dramatically split in two with a fireball rapidly engulfing him, it seems surprising that the Frenchman had time to even begin to rationalise the situation, let alone produce a moment quite so profound prior to making his dramatic escape.
It was another so-called ‘racing incident’, as Grosjean briefly tangled with another driver, that put him on course with the wall. The high-speed impact was huge, the metal crash barrier split open simultaneously tearing the car in half. Fuel sprayed out and in an instant, it had ignited into an inferno. Grosjean later recounted finding himself stuck in the car, steering wheel gone, alone and surrounded by the roaring blaze.
The world waited. Cameras cut away out of respect until, finally, after minutes of agonizing television, the Frenchman, surrounded by marshalls, was revealed scrambling out of the car escaping the accident with minor burns to his hands and ankles. TV viewers cried, ‘how on earth is that man alive?’
With the sheer scale of the fire and state of the car, it’s understandable why many called it a miracle. However, F1 has been working on improving safety for years and Grosjean benefitted from some of those changes.
The most recent death in Formula 1 was back in 2014 after a similar freak accident left young French driver, and friend of Romain, Jules Bianchi, with severe head injuries that he later died from.
Those staging the sport knew change was necessary and introduced the aptly named ‘Halo’ – a super-strong structure around the top of the car designed to protect the driver’s head.
Initially, it was a controversial introduction. Many drivers, including Grosjean, criticised it for everything from it’s unsightly appearance to claiming it blocked their view. Since then, it has been proven invaluable. Grosjean later made a poignant comment thanking his late friend, Jules, for saving his life.
It was more than just the ‘Halo’ that saved his life though. Safety upgrade are constantly being developed. Most significantly for Romain, changes in the suit made a real difference. According to industry insiders, the fireproof suits worn by drivers were altered this year. Now heavier, they protect the driver from intense fire for up to twenty seconds; previously, they could only withstand up to ten. With Grosjean escaping his accident with mainly burns to the back of hands this is notable – his gloves were made out of the old material.
Thanks to television coverage of the race, we are awarded front row seats to see how drivers psychologically process a serious incident. One went to Grosjean’s garage to understand what happened, a couple paused for a moment of reflection and others stood and watched the accident as it was replayed over and over as the media analysed every move. Some had feared that Grosjean was dead.
Then, while the smell of burning still lingered in the air, they got back in their cars and went racing again to complete the 57 laps of the track. Not only does it take real physical training to be an elite driver, mental resilience is just as essential.
And then there’s Romain. Most would know death better as ‘the Grim Reaper’ or something they’d rather not talk about. Yet, the Frenchman candidly recounts his close encounter with ‘Benoit’.
That perspective alone tells you a lot about him. I don’t think anyone would criticse him for hanging up his smoldering boots and never stepping near a race car again. With no contract for next season, he has the perfect excuse for a quiet retirement. Well, it’s unlikely. The Frenchman quickly indicated his desire to race in Abu Dhabi, and whilst his injuries will prevent that, he’s still keen to be back in a racing seat soon.
The adrenaline we get from watching the sport is amplified ten-fold for those who are competing. That buzz entices them back race after race. They’re addicted to the thrill and know how to entertain. And for this, we thank them. They put on a show and in return, F1 works hard to keep them safe. That’s why it’s so important that the sport continues to learn from these incidents to ensure that no driver need encounter Benoit ever again.