If you watch enough sports you’ll see some horrific injuries. I’ve seen David Busst’s leg explode, watched Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon severed by a skate blade and winced at dozens of ACL tears. Professional sports are played with such speed and violence that they also serve as terrible reminders of the sheer fragility of the human body. Bodies, even the most thoroughly trained, are wrecked easily.
Although I doubt anyone who isn’t a medical professional ever gets used to watching injuries, you can get used to that notion of fragility. It is really easy for people to get hurt doing nothing, let alone pushing the edges of human performance. It’s with that in mind that I think this crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix — which Romain Grosjean walked away from — ought to be understood:
My interest in Formula 1 is mostly to do with the engineering that goes into racing performance. If you’re into that sort of thing, the work teams do to tune their machines is absolutely fascinating. You don’t need engineering expertise to appreciate the evolution of racing cars over the years, but this is one of those frequent cases where the more you learn the more interesting it gets. The work that goes into, for instance, Drag Reduction Systems, which allow drivers to alter their cars’ aerodynamic profiles on the fly, is awe-inspiring, and this is only a small part of the whole. An F1 car is a miracle, and everything that goes into it is a miracle.
But what I’m not sure I’ve appreciated until now is the engineering work that goes into keeping the drivers safe. Romain Grosjean’s car was delivered into that barrier with enough force to cut it in half and then blow it up. I suspect luck played a significant part in him being able to walk away from the crash, but that he had any chance at all, given the circumstances of the collision, is a testament to the work that’s gone into safety systems in the sport.
I remember watching the video of the crash that led to Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001which spurred movement towards adopting safety systems across motorsports, including F1. The HANS device, which essentially prevents sudden acceleration of the head relative to the body, is designed to prevent injuries like the one that killed Earnhardt. Grosjean’s car was also equipped with a ‘Halo,’ a mandatory safety cage system which helps protect drivers’ heads from physical impacts.
Alan van der Merwe, the medical car driver at the race, also credited the intertwined safety systems with saving Grosjean’s life:
We’ve never seen that much fire. In 12 years, I’ve never seen that much fire at an impact like that … [Grosjean’s survival] just goes to show all the systems that we’ve developed, everything worked hand in hand: The Halo, the barriers, the seat belts, everything worked how it should. Without just one of those things, it could have been a very different outcome.
There’ll presumably be an inquiry as to the exact mechanics of Grosjean’s crash, what worked, and what didn’t. But the fact is that enough of these safety systems worked to give Grosjean a chance at surviving, which he did with only burns and suspected broken ribs. Considering human fragility, that’s an amazing accomplishment. Next time I watch a race I’ll have a new set of engineering achievements to admire.