As It Happens·Q&A

How a controversial safety device saved Romain Grosjean's life in brutal F1 crash

Alice Powell wasn't a fan of the halo safety system when it was first installed in professional race cars in 2018. But after watching Romain Grosjean climb out the flaming wreckage of his halved car during a Formula One race on Sunday, she doesn't have any doubts it's what kept him alive. 

British driver Alice Powell says there's no doubt the halo protected Grosjean from a much worse fate

Formula One driver Romain Grosjean, right, walked away without serious injury after his car crashed and burst into flames during Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix. (Twitter/@F1)

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Alice Powell wasn't a fan of the halo safety system when it was first installed in professional race cars in 2018.

But since then, she's seen it save lives time and again. And after watching Romain Grosjean climb out the flaming wreckage of his halved car during a Formula One race on Sunday, she doesn't have any doubts it's what kept him alive. 

Grosjean, a 34-year-old French driver, sped off the tracks at 200 kilometres an hour, and ran straight into a barrier during the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix, causing his car to split in two pieces and burst into flames

He suffered burns to the back of his hands and won't be able to finish the rest of the season, but is otherwise expected to make a full recovery. He and others say the halo, a curved bar shaped like a wishbone and positioned to protect the driver's head, saved his life. 

Powell, a British race car driver who watched the grisly crash live, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Monday. Here is part of their conversation.

Alice, this crash on the weekend was spectacular to see. Have you ever seen anything like that?

Out of all the years I've been watching racing — and I'm 27 years old, I've watched racing pretty much most of my life — I've never seen anything as shocking as this incident that we saw over the weekend. You know, Romain Grosjean spearing off into the barrier, his car being engulfed in flames. And he was so lucky to get out of that car with only minor burns. It was absolutely incredible, and such a shocking incident.

Massive crash at Bahrain F1 race splits car in half

Sports

2 months agoVideo
2:59
France's Romain Grosjean crashed heavily into barrier splitting the car in half at the Bahrain F1 race. Grosjean walked away from the crash with minor injuries. 2:59

Can you tell us about this halo safety device that is credited with actually saving his life?

The Halo is, you could say, like a piece of metal that goes at the top of the car. So as you look at Formula One car … where the driver is sat, it's sort of above the head. It looks like a top of a flip-flop, where it goes in between your big toe … and that wraps around and meets in the middle of the car, so directly in the driver's eyeline.

When he went into the barrier, the barrier pierced, but the pierced part of the barrier didn't actually go into, you know, his head. As horrific as that sounds, it could have easily happened.

The halo safety device is a metal bar that protects drivers from impact. (Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters)

I understand that a number of drivers did not want to have the halo installed. They were against it, including Romain Grosjean himself. So what persuaded you and other drivers to actually take on the halo?

I just thought it was a bit ugly. And I just thought the single seaters — a Formula One car is a single seater where … your head is exposed — shouldn't really look like that. They should not have anything on it. It's never had anything like that, so why now?

But [then] I learned about it and realized that it can save lives. And it definitely saved not just Charles Leclerc, he had an incident ... a couple of years ago where a car came across and made contact with the halo, which would have ended up being potentially his head, and now, obviously, this incident with Romain Grosjean as well, you know, it saved their lives. 

He was in those flames for, you say, 20 seconds before he emerged and got out of the car and got to those who could help him. So how is that possible? What was the safety gear that he had in that regard?

Every driver that races in race cars has to wear fireproofs. So you have fireproof socks. You have fireproof, you could say pyjamas, very tight pyjamas that go underneath your race suit. Fireproof boots, helmet, gloves, balaclava — everything that you wear is fireproof.

The suit can usually withstand up to … 20 seconds of fire resistance, and the gloves around about 10. Obviously, Romain was in there for a good 18 to 20 seconds. So he somehow — and I have no idea how, with the visor down that would have been engulfed in flames — managed to feel his way out.

So he did an incredible job to get out. He had assistance slightly from one of the medical team, as well and the marshals trying to put out the fire.

So, yeah, everyone … including Romain himself, did a fantastic job to try and get out. And, you know, the heroes really were the medical team and the marshals there to try and assist him.

Britain's Alice Powell says Formula One racing will never be completely safe, but the industry has made incredible strides in recent years. (Piroschka Van De Wouw/Reuters)

And so now a number of people have said that this shows that the F1 racing is far safer than it used to be. Would you concur with that?

I would 100 per cent agree with that.

There's still things to improve. It's never going to be a safe sport. It's a dangerous sport. It doesn't matter how safe the car is, travelling at high speeds, you know, that Formula One cars travel, it's never going to be 100 per cent safe.

The [F1 governing body] FIA have done a great job in making these safety improvements. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Tomas Urbina. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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