Five talking points from a sobering Bahrain GP

30th November 2020
Damien Smith

“It’s what we’re here for,” said FIA medical car driver Alan van der Merwe. But no one was taking his actions, or those of FIA deputy medical delegate Dr Ian Roberts, for granted on Sunday night at Sakhir, after their rapid response to Haas driver Romain Grosjean’s horrifying fireball crash on the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix.


How the Frenchman survived, and sustained only relatively minor injuries, was frankly miraculous. But in the seconds that followed the impact and terrifying explosion, F1’s medical team showed unquestioning bravery as they faced a scene that represented a shocking throwback to Formula 1’s grim past – except with a much happier outcome.


Grosjean’s double escape

Grosjean triggered the accident by darting right under hard acceleration out of Turn 3, clipping the AlphaTauri of blameless Daniil Kvyat and sending the Haas on a direct collision course with a naked steel barrier protecting a circuit access point for recovery vehicles. The car tore through the middle of the barrier in an impact that could have ripped through Grosjean’s upper body and head, and it’s likely the so-called ‘halo’ cockpit safety bars saved him from grisly injuries. That was the first deliverance.

The second was his escape from the raging explosion and fire that was triggered by the impact, which was so extreme it ripped the whole rear of the car clean from the chassis and sent the front wheels from their Zylon tethers, designed to withstand a monumental tensile force of 70kN in any direction. Fire is so rare these days in F1 accidents thanks to the huge advances in fuel cell strength and it siting within the heart of the car – but in this instance the cell was exposed. Seconds passed as marshals, recovering from the initial shock of what had just happened and their own narrow escape, approached the scene with fire extinguishers. Then as Dr Roberts rushed from the medical car, the smouldering figure of Grosjean emerged from the blaze. It was pure dumb luck that the chassis had embedded sideways into the barrier, allowing him clear access from the cockpit. Missing a boot, he staggered from the scene into Dr Roberts arms as van der Merwe sprayed extinguishant at them both to douse any lingering flames. Grosjean escaped with burns to his hands.

The inquest now begins, and as always from every accident there will be lessons to be digested and acted upon. Expect the investigation to be both thorough and swift as the FIA responds to an alarming set of circumstances no one could have predicted. The cars are already many times more safe than they used to be, as are the circuits F1 races on. This is a relatively modern, state-of-the-art facility, well established as an annual venue for F1 – not one of the new or returning tracks used this season. But even here such a thing could happen. The use of unprotected steel barriers, even on sections of track not usually the scene of accidents, will now surely come under particular scrutiny.

But for Grosjean, who was already facing a likely conclusion to his F1 career at the end of 2020, all that matters right now is he can return safe and remarkably well to his wife and three children. Had this accident occurred even five years ago, before the halo was made mandatory in 2018, that probably wouldn’t be the case. “I wasn’t for the halo some years ago but I think it’s the greatest thing we’ve brought to F1 and without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you today,” he said from his hospital bed on Sunday night.


Hamilton’s “tough” win

Once the race was eventually restarted, Lewis Hamilton scored what looked like a comfortable 11th victory of this campaign, although tyre management made it “tougher than it looked”. As has so often been the case this year, Max Verstappen was his only real threat, but the Dutchman said he was confused why his Red Bull team had not been more aggressive on strategy with so little to lose. “It is what it is,” he shrugged in resignation.


(Sporting) pain for Perez and Racing Point

Behind him should have been Sergio Perez, the Racing Point driver looking set for a second consecutive podium after another accomplished performance – only for his Mercedes power unit to let him down with just three laps to go. It was a bitter pill for a driver yet to secure a seat on the grid for 2021, and for the team that had already lost Lance Stroll following the restart when Kvyat turned the Canadian’s Racing Point over with a lame lunge into Turn 8. The double blow had severe ramifications for the team in its battle with McLaren and Renault for third place in the constructors’ standings, although as Perez admitted, any sporting pain is put into sharp perspective by Grosjean’s lucky escape from something far more profound.


Albon lucks in, McLaren drivers star

How typical that Perez’s bad luck should benefit the man many believe he should replace for 2021. Alexander Albon inherited his second F1 podium, on a day when he once again fell far short of team-mate Verstappen’s standards at Red Bull. On the other hand, after he dropped his car and crashed heavily in practice on Friday, this result marked a decent recovery from Albon and a much-needed confidence boost ahead of the second race at Sakhir this coming weekend, to be held on the novel and much short outer circuit.

Behind him, Lando Norris and team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr shifted up to fourth and fifth to lift McLaren above Racing Point in the teams’ standings. From five points down on the pink team coming into the weekend, McLaren now has a handy 17-point cushion with just two races to go. Millions of dollars are at stake, making the Bahrain GP potentially an expensive one for Lawrence Stroll.


The other lucky escape

Of far greater concern was the marshal who ran across the track to Perez’s stricken car, to the alarm of Norris who was briefly heading right for him. Grosjean’s accident was a freak occurrence, but there’s no excuse for something like this still being allowed to happen in an F1 race in 2020. The post-race investigation must stretch beyond the headline crash and consider too the other major let-off at a sobering Bahrain GP.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • F1 2020

  • Formula 1

  • Bahrain

  • Romain Grosjean

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • Alex Albon

  • Max Verstappen

  • Carlos Sainz

  • Lando Norris

  • Sergio Perez

  • Lance Stroll

  • Haas

  • Mercedes

  • McLaren

  • Racing Point

  • Renault

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