The sun sets early in Bahrain in November.
By the time Romain Grosjean had driven into last place on the starting grid behind his old team-mate Kimi Raikkonen there was a full moon shining even brighter than the 5000 lights on the 495 light poles around the 5km circuit. The start is now five seconds away.
The Bahrain International Circuit is actually in the middle of the desert. It was built on an old camel farm at Sakhir. The surface is graywacke aggregate shipped 6400km from the Bayston Hill Quarry in Shropshire. It gives unbelievable grip, which is helpful on a high-speed, tight circuit where F1 cars can hit 320km/h on the straight and then have to lose 250km/h in a few seconds to make a right, then a left, then a right before powering up onto another straight. It’s also helpful if any desert sand blows on the track, which usually doesn’t happen because they glue the sand down.
Last Sunday night was a bittersweet time for the 34-year-old Swiss-born Frenchman. Grosjean has been racing for 20 years. Eight of those full-time in F1. He’s one of those drivers who has amazing talent but never had the money or luck to make that talent work at the highest level of the sport. But he’s got the most out of the Haas Ferrari clone he steers. That’s not much, because Ferrari is well off the pace even in their factory cars. But this is his third last race before Haas lets him go and replaces him with Mick Schumacher.
While the race is scheduled to go for 308km it’s the first few hundred metres to turn one that every driver thinks is critical. Usually the first one around the first corner is the first one across the line 90 minutes later. TV coverage doesn’t give you any idea of what it’s like for those first few corners. Think Jakarta peak hour but every car, bus, truck, Tuk Tuk and bike is doing 210km/h. When the lights go out the race is on. Hamilton is first away by a mile. The rest of the pack jostle for position, slamming into each other and, in that jostling, set the scene for the worst crash in recent history.
Suddenly cars are jamming up, slowing down and, as he goes around turn one, Grosjean is looking at the derrieres of at least 10 cars. Coming out of turn three he has four cars in a group a few metres ahead. He sees a chance to the right to go out wide and pass them. What he can’t see, because F1 mirrors give you a limited view back rather than to the side, is that Daniil Kvyat is beside him.
Grosjean puts his foot down and goes hard right across the track. He clips Kvyat’s front right wheel. From there he goes nearly straight into the steel crash barrier at 220km/h and a force of 56Gs. His car penetrates the barrier, cutting the Haas in half. One half is on one side of the barrier the other half 10m away on the other. The fuel cell in the middle of the car with 100kg of high-octane fuel explodes into fire.
“I see my visor turning all orange, I see the flames on the left side of the car. I thought about a lot of things — including Niki Lauda — and I thought that it wasn’t possible to end up like that, not now. I couldn’t finish my story in Formula 1 like that. For my children, I told myself that I had to get out. I put my hands in the fire, so I clearly felt it burning on the chassis. I stayed 28 seconds in the flames but it seemed much longer, as I tried to get out … three times. I was more afraid for my relatives, my children in the first place, but also my father and mother. I was not really afraid for myself. I saw death coming, I had no other option but to get out of there. To get out of the seat, I was able to remove my seat belt. The steering wheel was no longer there, probably flew off during the impact.”
A few things went wrong and a lot of things went right. His head wasn’t cut off because of the Halo, a 7kg piece of titanium that looks like a wishbone, going from the bonnet over the driver’s head to near the back of the seat. He was able to survive 28 seconds in a horrendous fire because of his fireproof racing suit that had to meet even higher specifications for the 2020 season. He was able to get out of the car after three attempts because every driver is required to practice it and prove they can do it quickly or they can’t race. The medical car, a Mercedes station wagon driven by South African racer Alan van der Merwe with doctor Ian Roberts riding shotgun were a few seconds behind. “I could see Romain trying to get up,” Roberts said. “We needed some way of getting to him. We’ve got the marshal there with an extinguisher and the extinguisher was just enough to push the flame away as Romain got high enough to then reach over and pull himself over the barrier. Ian helped him over the barrier while Alan spayed their suits with a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.
“I could see obviously he was very shaky and his visor was completely opaque and melted,” Roberts said. “It was a matter of getting his helmet off just to check that everything else was OK.”
Grosjean had burns to the back of his hands and lost a shoe. Lance Stroll copped a hit from Kvyat and his AlphaTauri flipped leaving Lance hanging upside down, his head and probably his life, saved by the Halo. Hamilton won (of course) and then got COVID-19. Grosjean wants to compete in F1’s final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Just another weekend on the track then.