Romain Grosjean’s accident: Reflections on the Bahrain GP
In my final diary of the season from Bahrain I reflect on a weekend that will ultimately be remembered for a miraculous escape from a frightening accident and the bravery of those who rushed to Romain Grosjean’s rescue.
Back home in the UK and the events of the Bahrain Grand Prix are slowly sinking in.
As I write this Romain Grosjean has just updated his social media with a photo of himself sitting by the window of his hospital room giving a thumbs up, with a smile on his face. I wonder if it has sunk in for him yet?
I was back in our production office for the start of the race and as Crofty spoke from the TV screen in front of me, Simon and Damon walked in having finished presenting the build-up in the paddock, still buzzing from the adrenaline that always flows in those final minutes before lights out, and then Karun arrived back from the SkyPad too.
As the lights went out, we all watched closely to see who had got away well and I scribbled some thoughts in my notepad.
And then it happened.
As the cars exited turn three, in the background we saw something happening, before the huge flash of flame filled the left-hand side of the screen…
The start of Bahrain GP week
My last race of the season began with the now very familiar Covid test at the site in Feltham. This time it was very quiet. With lockdown in full force and travel banned, it was just us F1 folk getting swabbed. I bumped into one of our cameramen and one of the F1 photographers and we were all looking forward to getting out to get some sun and away from the fast-approaching British winter.
I always add a few days holiday to the last race of the season but due to changes in the rules regarding bubbles for the last three races, my final race of 2020 was to be Bahrain 1 and the rules on taking a holiday abroad weren’t due to change until after I returned to the UK, so I knew I had to make the most of any sun I saw in Bahrain.
We travelled out on a British Airways charter from Heathrow, one of the very few flights leaving that day. The airport was like a ghost town and we had a pre-assigned check-in area to use with our own security and passport control to use to keep us away from any other travellers – although you would have struggled to find any!
On arrival in Bahrain we were ushered outside to a huge white tent. Inside were those ticket machines some shops use to organise queues. Before heading to Bahrain we had to download an app and register. Once our ticket number was called we had to go to a desk where they issued us a test number and some stickers for our swabs.
Then it was time for the test. It was all done very swiftly and then it was out to collect our bags and off to the hotel. You have to isolate after your test until your result comes through, which you find out by logging into the app. We arrived in the evening so we just ate and slept and by the time we woke up our results were in and we were free to go about our schedule. It was a very well organised system.
Once at the track on Thursday I had an interview with Max Verstappen to do where he told me that he wasn’t bothered about the possibility of beating Valtteri Bottas to second in the Drivers’ Championship, he was only here to win.
I tried to look at the positives with him and said that the update packages that keep coming must surely be a positive sign in terms of the continuing development and improvements setting them up well for 2021, potentially. He played their chances down again and said they had thought that in previous years and it hadn’t materialised. He cuts a frustrated figure right now and again had to watch Lewis take a title he has every belief of emulating if he just had the car to challenge him.
Lockdown on the road continues as it has all season, all our meals were in a separate room in our hotel away from any other guests. It is how we have spent all season and while it has been relentless and admittedly frustrating at times, we haven’t had a single positive test at a race and the measures have proved they work.
It does add pressure when you are at home as you don’t want to do anything to put the team in jeopardy and I have definitely restricted my mingling with others this year even within all the guidelines. You feel a responsibility not to be the one that takes it to a race. Even if you test 48 hours before you fly and that test is negative, that is still 48 hours where if you are not mindful you could pick it up and take it to a race with you.
On Saturday you finally got to see my pieces with Nerys Pearce. She was an army medic, as she put it, ‘teaching soldiers how to save their best mates’ life in the field’.
She is truly inspirational.
An incredibly competitive, active and fit person taking part in numerous extreme sports and challenges, her life changed one day while out on her motorbike picking up a prescription for her mother. As a result of the treatment for injuries sustained to her leg, she was left paralysed from the chest down and, as she admitted to me, tried to take her own life.
Thankfully for her, Blesma – a charity supporting limbless veterans in the UK – came into her life and took her skiing at a point in her life when she couldn’t even sit up in bed. That trip changed her life. She always was an indomitable force but for a period of her life every resolve was challenged. I was totally humbled by meeting her and am in awe of her. I want to say a big thank you to Nerys, her driver coach Abbie Eaton and all at Team Brit for their time and help.
On Sunday I was back on driver parade duty. The evening before I had noticed Lewis Hamilton had gone live on Instagram playing music on the piano. He did this a few weeks ago one evening when he played the music he was working on but this time he just played some familiar songs.
He seems incredibly relaxed right now and driving better than ever before which won’t be what his competitors want to hear I am sure. I chatted to him about it on the drivers’ parade and he seemed a bit shy suddenly. I always enjoy the drivers’ parade interviews although you never quite know what you are going to get.
Sometimes there is plenty to talk about and other times the two minutes per driver can feel an awful lot longer.
On this occasion everyone was in pretty good spirits and before I knew it, I was done and heading back into the paddock to interview Christian Horner on Red Bull’s chances before heading back to the office to watch the start…
The human stories from an horrific accident
I can’t remember what we all said exactly as we saw the first lap unfold but it was undoubtedly not suitable for on camera.
I remember my hand flying to my mouth in shock and then silence as we all tried to work out what we had seen. Then we started vocalising our thoughts of how bad it looked, and someone said they had never seen a car explode like that before.
Then the pictures changed. When the director of the Formula 1 world feed changes the picture to a generic shot and replays aren’t shown it fills you with utter dread. It means they are waiting to hear or see that the driver is ok. We have a team who work remotely in a gallery at Sky Studios in the UK and have done for several years now. Back there is the director of our output, the producer and various other staff working on the broadcast and they are connected to us in Bahrain via a camera and an audio link.
We also have someone there watching the drivers’ onboard cameras. They are usually the first to know what has happened and can also identify which driver is involved. As we sit terrified by what we have just seen and mentally trying to prepare for every scenario that may follow, a voice from our gallery in London says: “He’s out and he’s ok.”
The information is passed immediately to Crofty and Martin in commentary and they relay that to you. You can feel your body react to the news and the sheer relief that he is ok.
Then we see the pictures of Romain sitting in the medical car and talking and I catch my breath thinking about how his wife Marion will feel to see those pictures.
Marion used to be in the paddock like the rest of us as a TV reporter and presenter for France’s TF1 and I remember working alongside her in my first years in the sport. She was working at the races before having children but for many of the partners the paddock can be a fairly lonely place.
Unless you are at the track with friends, they can often find themselves sitting alone in the hospitality units and as a result we quite often end up sitting with them over a cup of tea between sessions. In fact, I have met up with some away from F1 as they become friends.
This year there have been less than ever at the track due to the various restrictions of the countries we visit and many of them having children now and choosing to stay away. As such it must be even more difficult to be so far away when anything happens.
I remember in Portugal last month during one of the support races where my two brothers were racing, only one of them came past me at turn one. I kept looking to see if the other was coming around too and he didn’t. Then the race was red flagged.
I had people watching online messaging me asking me what happened and where he was and I had no idea. Then someone said two cars had crashed and I sprinted back to the paddock to try and get information.
Luckily my brother’s car had just broken down and the panic and fear was short-lived so I cannot imagine what the family and partners of the F1 drivers go through. Crashes may look spectacular on TV, but behind that crash are a large number of people whose hearts stop until they see their loved one, friend, or colleague is ok.
During the red flag, the drivers were in the pitlane, some looking up at the big screens and some doing their best not to look. I cannot even begin to comprehend what is going on in their heads at that point.
I remember one driver in the pen told me he hadn’t looked, he’d walked off and deliberately not looked but then on the footage you can clearly see him watching a replay and I wonder if that’s his way of dealing with it.
How do you get in a car after seeing that happen? They may say they try to shut it off and just get on with the race but every now and then we get a reminder of just how dangerous this sport is. It says it on the pass we all wear around our necks: motorsport is dangerous. But when the crash is something the like of which we either haven’t seen before or haven’t seen for a very long time, your mind goes into overdrive.
You need to understand how it happened. How did the car break in two like that? How did it go through the barriers like that? How did it catch fire like that? And finally, how an earth did he get out relatively unscathed?
The drivers were all understandably shaken up after the race. Daniel Ricciardo came over and only wanted to talk about how angry he was that the replays were shown during the red-flag period. The replays are only shown on F1’s world feed if the driver and everyone is ok, with protocols in place. Daniel said he was angry because Romain’s family would be seeing it but also because the drivers were all there waiting to get back in the car and just seeing it replayed over and over again.
So many safety measures were put to the test on Sunday. The fireproof clothing under the drivers’ race suits, designed to protect from fire for around 20 seconds, the fireproof gloves, the halo, the crash structure to name but a few. The survival cell remained almost completely intact despite an impact of around 50G and the intense fire that followed.
I am, as I am sure you are, in absolute awe of Alan van der Merwe and Dr Ian Roberts who rushed to the scene to help him, of that marshal who fought back the flames to allow Romain space to get over the barrier, and to all those who unselfishly put themselves in danger to help others.
Let’s not forget all those who have worked so tirelessly in the past to get us to the point we were at on Sunday evening where a driver emerged from half a burning car trapped in the barriers. And finally to Jules (Bianchi), who lost his life following his accident in Japan 2014, and whose memory lives on through the safety advancements without which we may have lost Romain yesterday too.
Life is short, life is precious, make the best of this winter and let’s go again in March.