Dicing with death on the Grand Prix circuit

Out of the flames: Roman Grosjean (above) was travelling at 137mph when he crashed.

Are Formula One drivers the gladiators of our day? Roman Grosjean’s great escape has been hailed as a triumph for safety technology. But horrific accidents may also be a crowd-puller.

The crowd in the Colosseum gasped as the Dacian gladiator brought his sword down in a shield-shattering blow. His opponent, staggering backwards, almost recovered his balance, only to slip on the bloodstained sand. The Dacian moved in for the kill; all that remained was for the emperor to pronounce the death sentence with a turn of his thumb.

In the modern world, fighting to the death as a form of entertainment is considered barbaric. But arguably the thrill felt by people watching the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday was of a similar nature.

The race had barely started when Romain Grosjean’s Haas car veered suddenly across the track and collided with Daniil Kvyat's Alpha Tauri. The crash sent Grosjean hurtling towards the metal safety barrier beside the track.

Spearing the gap between two layers of the barrier, the car twisted with so much force that it split in half. With petrol spilling freely, it burst into flames.

As Grosjean struggled to free himself, a marshal rushed towards him with a fire extinguisher, while a medical car screeched to a halt a short distance away. The doctor inside helped Grosjean over the barrier to safety. Incredibly, after 30 seconds in the inferno, the only injuries the driver had sustained were burns to the back of his hands. He was helicoptered to hospital, and later sent a cheerful Twitter message to his fans.

The overwhelming feeling in the motor-racing community was one of relief. “The car has gone through the barrier; he has survived that impact,” said the head of the rival Red Bull team, Christian Horner. “The car, the safety cell, the halo, the fireproof overalls, the belts, the Hans system, the extraction, the FIA crew being there within seconds… Of course you're always going to learn, but I would say that's the biggest result of the day.”

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton, who won the race, pointed out the accident could have been worse. “It was such a shocking image to see,” he said, “I'm grateful the barrier didn't slice his head off.”

Grosjean’s survival is attributed above all to the halo – a wishbone-shaped bar inserted above the cockpit to protect the driver’s head. Made of carbon fibre, it is designed to withstand the weight of a double-decker bus.

Ironically, Grosjean was one of many who opposed the halo when it was first suggested. They argued that it made the drivers look overprotected. The episode epitomised the long debate in Formula One about balancing safety with excitement.

In the words of one former driver: “Shunts, fire, all that sort of thing is what creates the spectacle, and that's what [people] want.” Another told The Guardian: “I feel a driver should be challenged and should be punished for mistakes. It's what makes people follow the sport, in quite a gruesome way—it's the danger. Racing drivers should be heroes.”

Are Formula One drivers modern-day gladiators?

Tyred argument

Some say, yes: motor-racing is a highly dangerous sport that appeals to our worst instincts. Just watching cars go round a track is not very satisfying: it is impossible to get a real sense of their power and speed unless you are there in person, but if you are, you only glimpse them for a few seconds at a time. The true drama of a race lies in the possibility of a fatal accident.

Others argue that there is no real comparison with gladiators. As Grosjean’s survival shows, Formula One organisers go to huge lengths to ensure the drivers’ safety. Serious injuries are very rare, and designers are constantly coming up with ideas which can be implemented in ordinary cars for the benefit of everyone. By providing excitement in a responsible way, the sport sets a great example.

You Decide

  1. Is it right for major sporting events to be held in countries such as Bahrain which have shameful human-rights records?
  2. The Romans are credited with creating one of the world’s greatest civilisations, yet they enjoyed seeing people killed. Can they really be described as civilised?

Activities

  1. Paint a portrait of either Romain Grosjean or Lewis Hamilton as a gladiator.
  2. Imagine that you are the doctor who went to Grosjean’s assistance. Write a diary entry for Sunday.

Some People Say...

“A lot of people criticise Formula One as an unnecessary risk. But what would life be like if we only did what is necessary?”

Niki Lauda (1949 - 2019), Austrian racing driver

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the death of Ayrton Senna led to some of the most far-reaching improvements in Formula One safety. The Brazilian world champion, who was considered to be one of the greatest drivers of all time, was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, as was the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger. As a result, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was re-formed to press for safer cars, and the most dangerous racing circuits were either abandoned or made less challenging.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around which of Formula One’s innovations has been the most beneficial for the world. One candidate is the anti-lock braking system, which helps to prevent dangerous skids. Sensors worn by the drivers to monitor their physical condition have been adapted for use in hospitals. The carbon-fibre shell which protects drivers has inspired medical transport cots for babies. Other F1 spin-offs include non-slip boots and better boiler filters to reduce energy consumption.

Word Watch

Colosseum
A huge amphitheatre in Rome, most of which still stands. It held up to 47,000 people, and could be flooded so that they could watch mock naval battles.
Dacian
Dacia was a kingdom covering present-day Romania and Moldova. It was conquered by the Romans in 106AD.
Thumb
The emperor is generally imagined as turning his thumb up to spare a gladiator’s life and down to end it, but historians now believe that it could have been the other way round.
Bahrain
A Middle Eastern country made up of islands in the Persian Gulf. Its government has been widely criticised for suppressing opposition since the Arab Spring in 2011.
Safety cell
The strongest part of the car, in which the driver sits. Other parts of it, such as the nose, are designed to break off if the car crashes so that the energy of the impact is dissipated.
Hans system
The Head and Neck Safety device sits on a driver’s shoulders and attaches to his helmet. It reduces the risk of injury by limiting head movement in the event of a crash.
FIA
Short for Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, the body which governs motorsport.
Shunts
Slang for car crashes. It comes from the verb “to shunt”, originally used to mean one train pushing another.

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