This is not a race that will be remembered for Lewis Hamilton’s 95th grand prix victory. Seconds into the race, Romain Grosjean’s Haas hit a three-layer metal barrier at 137mph, prising apart the bottom two layers, creating a gap through which the car ploughed before exploding in a fireball. This could so easily have been a repeat of Francois Cevert, Peter Revson or Helmuth Koinigg. But Grosjean – eventually – walked away from a horror accident with just burns to the back of his hands.
The choreography to the two events, the accident and the race, were as follows.
It came on lap one on the exit of Turn Three just as the cars are accelerating up through sixth gear into seventh. There’d been a slight coming together between Carlos Sainz’s McLaren and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari up ahead. As they rubbed wheels and were slowed, so those behind were bunched-up but reluctant to surrender momentum. Kimi Räikkönen, directly behind the Ferrari in his Alfa, veered sharp left over the run-off but stayed flat. Kevin Magnussen, next in line, moved right. Grosjean, just behind Magnussen, had anticipated and moved right fractionally before KMag, who’d been partially unsighted by Raikkonen. So Grosjean swooped further right, not realising that Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri – which had almost stalled off the line and been swamped from its mid-grid slot – was partially alongside him. The Haas driver had just changed up to seventh as his right-rear interlocked with Kvyat’s left-front – flicking the Haas momentarily into the air before sending it on a trajectory towards the very close metal barriers. He got on the brakes but was still doing 137mph as he hit at an acute angle.
As the nose of the car pierced the barrier and the rest of the car began to follow, the halo – solid steel beneath the carbon sheath – ripped through that gap like a knife, creating a survival space. Otherwise that would have been Grosjean’s head. The car then pivoted around the embedded front, causing the rear to break off and separate, remaining on the track side of the barrier. It’s suspected that the fuel tank’s filler hatch was forced off under pressure of a full tank from the impact and some – but thankfully not all – of the fuel escaped and ignited into a fireball. A few seconds later the fire consumed the big ERS battery and thick black electrical fire smoke was added to the flames.
It was like some over-the-top Hollywood action stunt and it was difficult to believe what your eyes were seeing. That was surely the effect it had on the marshals on the scene too. There was a driver somewhere in the middle of that ball of flame, but he’d gone through the metal barrier. It was natural to fear the worst. The worst seemed the most likely outcome.
The medical car pulled up, and Dr Ian Roberts ran to the scene, followed on by the medical car driver Alan van der Merwe. Grosjean was in the flames for 26sec before emerging in between the small gap between the halo and what remained of the metal barrier. He was doing this just as Roberts was arriving on the scene and getting a marshal to train his extinguisher to a point that kept the flames back just enough to reach out to Grosjean and help him over the barrier. He was minus a shoe, which was presumably still in the cockpit of the burning Haas. His visor was melting. Van der Merwe squirted extinguishant at both Grosjean and Roberts.
Roberts removed the helmet. Grosjean was complaining of pain in his hands and ankle. In the car some gel was applied to the burns there. But essentially Grosjean was ok. The halo had saved him, but so had the impact resistance of the tub, the HANS device, the quality of the belts, the fire-resistance of his heavy multi-layer suit and many other features which are the cumulative result of the safety drive of the last few decades.
The drivers’ faces as the Grosjean accident was played and replayed on the big screens told of the obvious stress as they waited for over an hour while the barrier was replaced. But they all got back in and did it all over again.
Hamilton, for the second time, won the start and again it was Verstappen and Sergio Perez who filled the places behind. Bottas got a puncture and would soon pit. Kvyat was involved in another skirmish, his car this time used as a launching pad by Lance Stroll at Turn Eight, the Racing Point flipping upside down. Out came the safety car for seven laps.
That changed the race from a likely three-stop to a two. The left-rears are always under immense stress around Sakhir. Their thermal degradation defined the pattern of the race as Hamilton eked out just enough of a gap over Verstappen not to be under threat as the first pit stop window opened. They left the rest well behind in their private contest. Perez, in turn, kept his Racing Point just out of reach of Alex Albon’s Red Bull.
That’s how it stayed through the second stops (and Verstappen’s third, as he put on fresh tyres so as to set fastest lap) until three laps from the end – when Perez’s engine let go. As he pulled off with the rear of the car in flames, the safety car came out. And stayed out until the last few hundred metres of the race. Hamilton, Verstappen and Albon in the podium. The McLarens of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz were faster in the race than the Renaults which had out-qualified them and took fourth and fifth. Pierre Gasly starred by using two sets of hards to make a one-stop work (he’d used the medium before the red flag, so had complied with the requirement to run two compounds) in taking sixth place, Ricciardo’s assault on that position brought up short by both a drooping floor on the Renault and the final safety car.
The recovering Bottas, who’d suffered a second puncture, was able to deprive Esteban Ocon of eighth near the end and Ferrari’s anonymous race was summarised by Charles Leclerc’s 10th place.