The collective heart rate is returning to normal after Romain Grosjean's accident on the opening lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday. After the terrifying flash of fire when Grosjean's Haas VF-20 collided with the barrier and television's long delay of returning to the scene or showing a replay, we held our breath before catching a glimpse of the Frenchman sitting in the medical car, fully conscious and communicating with the medics on the scene.
Only moments later did we fully realize what the 34-year-old, veteran of 179 grand prix starts had experienced.
The impact with the barrier tore the car in two, leaving Grosjean in the cockpit but on the other side of the barrier, as the front portion had split the Armco. In the twisted web of metal, while engulfed in flames, Grosjean spent nearly half a minute racing to save himself, undoing his belt and putting his hands into the searing heat, before finally emerging from the inferno and being helped to the medical car.
Once the fire was extinguished, the full picture of the accident was clear, and we were all left wondering how Grosjean survived, let alone only having burns on his hands and ankles and no eyebrows.
At any other point in Formula One history that accident would have resulted in a fatality. The halo device is credited with protecting Grosjean's head and likely saving his life. Armco barrier failures were notorious for the fatal accidents that took the lives of François Cevert and Helmut Koinigg. Without the halo, Grosjean would have likely died instantly and the fire would not have mattered.
Spending five days thinking about the incident, watching the replays, listening to Grosjean share his experience, it is remarkable he survived and how in such a horrific scene we can point to many things that went right, from the halo to the cockpit structure to the response of the medical car and marshals at that location and so on.
We have wondered how much worse it would have been had Grosjean lost consciousness at any point, but after seeing the claustrophobic situation he found himself in, one has to wonder if Grosjean had been a tad larger if he would have been unable to make it out.
We have been describing this as a miracle and this miracle required every factor, Grosjean's height and weight included, to be just right for it to occur.
After every large accident, we have this discussion over how it is covered. There is always a pushback against showing a big accident. There has been a generally accepted protocol not to show a replay until it is confirmed all drivers involved are ok. With the Grosjean accident, all replays were delayed until well after it was confirmed Grosjean was alive and conscious. The broadcast showed him sitting and of sound mind and then we got to fully dissect what had happened.
During an 80-minute delay, the replay was shown multiple times, but it came with outstanding analysis from Karun Chandhok, Martin Brundle and Paul di Resta. These replays were the start of crash analysis, looking not only at how Grosjean survived, but how the Armco barrier had split the car, at how the safety team on the scene responded to the accident, despite a very difficult situation. When the medical car stopped at the site of the accident, Dr. Ian Roberts and Alan van der Merwe emerged without any clear sight of where Grosjean was located in the fire. They had one chance to make a first step battling the flames and save Grosjean. It was also a chance to note where improvements could be made in the future.
All motorsports have to face a difficult balance when it comes to accidents. We cannot act like they do not exist and never show them. We have to acknowledge they occur. Painting a picture otherwise would be a lie and wrong. After Grosjean's accident, Daniel Ricciardo spoke out in disgust about the number of replays that were shown. Formula One and even Haas team principal Guenther Steiner defended the coverage of the accident with Steiner stating showing the replays would help people understand what happened.
When it comes to the broadcast, people are always coming and going. A broadcast is not a plane, where you have to be there at a certain time and once you are there you are there for the duration. This race started at 9:10 a.m. ET. If a person turned it on at 10:10 a.m. ET and saw cars stationary in the pit lane, under a red flag because of an accident, those people should see the reason why the race is not going on. Hence, a replay must be shown again even if those who had been there for the full hour have already seen it five or six times.
I know we live in a world of social media and there is an expectation that if someone wants to see the reason why then they can look it up on his or her own accord but passing the buck to the viewer is not responsible broadcasting. In fact, it is the last thing a broadcast would want to do. A broadcast does not want to send eyeballs elsewhere. A broadcast wants the attention and people are going to stick around for the replay.
It was also an 80-minute delay. You cannot just show static images of the track or crew members talking or drivers sitting on folding chairs drinking water for the entire time. Yes, what happened is difficult to watch, it is shocking, but it would be irresponsible to ignore it.
This accident will remain in our psyches for a long time. We haven't had an accident that looked like this for a long time. It will be a watershed accident, one that will be used to highlight the safety advancements made but also the work that has to be done to prevent such an accident from happening again.
We cannot stress enough how many advancements have been made and the fact is Grosjean likely would not have walked away from that accident three years ago. It is a reminder motorsports are dangerous and as much as we do to limit these kinds of accidents, they will happen. There will be fire. There will be destruction. There will be the rush to aid a driver in a precarious situation. That will never be completely eliminated from motorsports. Fortunately, such things have become uncommon. We do not have the yearly devastating accident. We do not have a handful of fatal accidents a season. We have come a long way, but we will never be completely safe.
Despite that, the experts will continue to work and improve on car design and safety innovations. They will study Grosjean's accident and improvements will be made. This problem is in good hands and we can rest easy. That next big accident will occur, and those improvements will be tested. The last 25 years gives us encouragement that the outcome will be in the favor of the driver no matter how bad the scene of the accident looks. Though, we should be encouraged, we should always remember another horrific accident will occur. There is no preventing it.