Photograph of a sport that is more than just a game, but an unparalleled platform for development and research. And that could save our lives tomorrow as it saved, yesterday, that of Zhou Guanyu and in 2020 that of Romain Grosjean.
What is Formula 1 for ? And, conversely, what are MotoGP, Formula E and the other top motorsport series for? Yet another answer to that question, perhaps the most important one, came yesterday from the Silverstone circuit in England’s Northamptonshire.
Literally four seconds have passed since the start of the 2022 Formula 1 British Grand Prix when, from the back of the frame, an upside-down car speeds across the screen in a shower of sparks. It is immediately a red flag and, for a few seconds, it is even difficult to understand what has happened. Cameras search the chaos of the start, Ocon, Vettel, Russel, Bottas, Gasly, Albon: they’re all in it. Doing the count of who is missing, the one in the barriers down there has to be Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo.
The accident is the usual mishmash of unpredictability, bad luck, and a bit of someone’s miscalculation. By the usual singular celestial geometry, Vettel touches Albon, who hits Russell, who in turn with his wheel hits the Chinese man’s wheel: the car spins like the proverbial slice of buttered bread and continues -at that point without brakes- its race against the bottom of the track, and then performs one last, very dangerous, pirouette.
After a few very long minutes of silence, while the circuit waits with its heart on its sleeve, the first news came: the pilot is fine, conscious. At the end of the race we will see him conversing with his team in the pit lane. He is smiling. And does not have a single scratch on him.
Vive la France
November 29, 2020, Sakhir circuit, suburbs of Manama, former emirate of Bahrain. When, on the first lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Romain Grosjean’s Haas leaves the track at 250 mph and crashes into the guardrail exploding into a fireball, all the worst nightmares of the circus condense black and heavy on the Gulf State.
Thirty eternal seconds pass and the driver is there, stuck in the burning sheet metal, as the fire blazes around him. The FIA cuts off the live feed, help rushes to the scene of the accident, and then, the unbelievable: out of the cloud of smoke and flames emerges the silhouette of Grosjean, who jumps the glowing carcass and -still smoldering- runs away from the disaster. He is saved. The whole world breathes a sigh of relief and catches its breath after witnessing one of the worst accidents in the last decade of motorsport.
The next morning, the medical records arriving from Bahrain Hospital look like a sip of fresh water: the Swiss-born driver suffered burns on his wrists and ankles, but nothing broken. Not even a cracked rib. His smiling photo is the most beautiful gift on this Monday morning.
Of auras and other deities
When in late 2015 the FIA decided to make public its design for the Halo (the driver protection system, consisting of a three-post structure attached above the cockpit of the car) from much of the racing world came the inevitable rising of shields.
That the structure was unsightly, ruined the very spirit of racing and prevented drivers from seeing well ahead were just some of the arguments brought to the table by detractors –timeo danaos et dona ferentes- already forgetful of the terrible accident that cost the life of Jules Bianchi in July.
Criticism, for once, did not stop the FIA from moving forward with experimentation and making Halo mandatory from the beginning of 2018 for Formula 1, Formula E, Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula 4 (from 2021). After the initial flush, and as is always the case, even the harshest critics had to quiet down: the pilots actually could see just fine, and even the eye had become accustomed to that singular object mounted up there. I mean, let’s keep him.
The Halo is really just one of the latest safety-related introductions to come to Formula 1. The Circus -but not only- has pushed hard to make mandatory protective measures capable of witnessing scenes like yesterday’s without having to mourn the dead.
Those who cry miracle after the Silverstone and Bahrain accidents make the great mistake of not recognizing jurisprudence to the perfect synergy of safety cells, fireproof suits, HANS systems, carbon chassis, roll bars, Halo and so on.
It is an interesting and paradoxical-but also magical-combination because it is underpinned by a seemingly nonsensical question, “Can you run 22 cars at 280 mph on a nine-meter wide track in total safety?” The answer, much to the chagrin of those for whom we would still run with leather caps and no seatbelts, is that we have to try.
What we need it for
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, it is necessary to remember that the top motorsport series is the great icebreaker ship that marks the way for the entire automotive industry.
The introductions of Formula 1, MotoGP, Formula E, WRC and so on come “cascading” to everyday cars and motorcycles, making not only higher performance but safer mobility for everyone. Seat belts, monocoque chassis, autonomous suspension, traction controls, technical fabrics and safety devices are just a few of the hundreds of measures designed for the track and transferred to the road.
These are all “sweet” introductions that the industry transfers to production cars and motorcycles after having successfully tested them for years in the extreme conditions of racing and having now absorbed their research and development costs.
Very pragmatic matters, then, and which place-this is obviously the opinion of the writer-motorsport in a realm far removed and different from traditional sports. A realm that has very tangible and widely spread propagations, that dances in a constant ballet between entertainment, business and research, that skillfully mixes passion and foresight, and that-above all and despite impressions-always has man before machine at the center of its mission.
In short, that Zhou Guanyu and Romain Grosjean emerged unharmed and on their own legs from these incredible accidents is not only good news for Formula 1 fans, but for all of us. That’s what it’s for.
Photo: Clive Mason – Formula 1 | Formula 1 | Getty Images