You may have read our interview with Romain Grosjean in last month’s issue as he reflected on approaching the last three races of his F1 career. If he but knew it, he had only three corners of one race left to go. His fireball accident on the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix was the most terrifying thing F1 has witnessed in the last four decades. In those milliseconds after the eruption in the opening moments of the race it was difficult for the brain to compute what the eyes were informing it of. Because this was a Hollywood props-department accident, done without the knowledge that F1 cars don’t explode on impact any more. That stuff was fixed many decades ago. Yet here it was happening. Live.
There is something deep in our psyche, some ancient DNA, that makes fire especially horrifying and – speaking only for myself but I’m sure it’s not a unique feeling – some part us was in there with him, willing him to get out. The replay made it quite clear that the car had gone through the metal barrier and we could see plainly what sort of impact speed it was. It seemed that
the chances of him being a) uninjured and b) conscious amid that ball of flame were slight. Even just witnessing it on screen, it was emotionally overwhelming. He was about to be consumed by the flames. He seemed to have been in there an age.
Remarkably, he was both uninjured and conscious. He was uninjured thanks to the crash-worthiness of the car’s survival cell, perhaps by the fact that the rear of the car broke away as the front pivoted around a metal post, so that the engine’s weight multiplied by the g loading didn’t reach the cockpit.
But most of all, because the halo had ripped through the metal barrier when it hit at 137mph. Otherwise it would have been Grosjean’s head.
“So I wasn’t in stress and obviously not aware at the time there is a fire”
Some of the fuel which ignited came from the ripped-apart monocoque, some from the burst-open hatch on the tank itself. Mercifully, most of it stayed in the tank, which sat harmlessly off to the side in the back half of the car, not in Grosjean’s part.
Though we didn’t know it, he’d survived the impact. But would he survive the fire? He could so easily have been trapped in there, between the barrier and the halo. It was good fortune that he wasn’t. For a while he believed he was. He’d undone his belts immediately; the steering column had broken on impact, so the wheel was down by his knees. No need to remove that. “Then I [try to] jump out and I feel like something is touching my head, so I sit back down in the car and my first thought was, ‘I’m going to wait. I’m upside down against the wall so I’m going to wait until someone comes and helps me.’
“So I wasn’t in stress and obviously not aware at the time there is fire. Then I look right and left and watching on the left I see fire. So I say, ‘Okay, I don’t really have the time to wait here.’ So next thing is that I tried to go up a bit more on the right. It doesn’t work. I go again on the left. It doesn’t work. I sit back down and then thought about Niki Lauda, his accident [at the Nürburgring in 1976], and thought it couldn’t end like this, it couldn’t be my last race, it couldn’t finish like this. No way.
“I try again and I’m stuck. So I go back and then there’s the less pleasant moment where my body started to relax. I’m at peace with myself and I’m going to die. All my muscles relax and I’m… not smiling, but at peace thinking, ‘I’m dead. I will die,’ and I thought, ‘Which part is going to burn first? Is it going to be painful?’ Death for me was here and I named it Burn One. Don’t ask me why.
“Maybe that reflection gave me new energy because I then thought, ‘No. I have to find another solution. My kids cannot lose their dad today. I don’t know why, but I decided to turn my helmet on the left-hand side and to go up trying to twist my shoulder. That sort of works, but then I realise my foot is stuck in the car. So I sit back down, I pull as hard as I can on my left leg and my foot comes out of the shoe. Then I do it again and then the shoulders are going through, and at the time the shoulders are through I know I’m going to jump out.
“I’ve got both hands in the fire at that time, on the halo. My gloves are red normally. I see that the left one is changing colour and starting melting and going full black, and I feel the pain. But also I feel the relief that I am out of the car.
“Then I jump out. I go on the barrier and then I feel Ian [Roberts, track medic] pulling on my overalls, so I know I’m not on my own any more and there’s someone with me.”
His stepping out of the flames was an instantly iconic scene and the world breathed a sigh of relief, though still with plenty of underlying worry about his well-being. His team-mate and friend Kevin Magnussen spent the race believing Romain couldn’t survive the forces of the impact, regardless of him walking away. As soon as the race finished, he went to the hospital, hoping to talk with him one last time. Fortunately his fears were misplaced. Just burns to the back of the hands, an ankle sprain – and probably some emotional damage.
The FIA has launched a full investigation, and there are several aspects of the scene which, in hindsight, could be improved. We won’t try to anticipate its findings. But let’s reiterate: this guy went through a metal barrier at 137mph, sat in a ball of flames for almost half a minute. And walked away.