But while F1 cars have never been safer, especially following the addition in 2018 of halos, to protect drivers’ heads, danger is inherent. This was made abundantly clear in the 2020 season at the Bahrain Grand Prix, when Frenchman Romain Grosjean collided almost head-on with trackside barriers at 119mph; his Haas team car was ripped in two, leaving the front end on one side of the barrier and the back, containing the driver strapped in his seat and ‘safety cell’ engulfed in fire, on the other.
Grosjean was trapped in the fireball for 27 seconds as he fought to break the protective headrest restraint with his helmet and wrestle his trapped foot from the chassis, wrenching it out of his racing boot to do so. The shots of him leaping over the mangled barrier, to the safety of race stewards, are harrowing and incredible in equal measure.
“I was horrified,” Tombazis says, recalling the incident unfold before him. “It was shocking to see this massive ball of fire.” The FIA’s immediate priority, once it was established Grosjean was, miraculously, OK (he suffered burns to his hands but was otherwise largely unharmed), was to quickly ascertain why the crash and subsequent fireball happened.
The Geneva-based body carried out interviews, inspected physical evidence, reviewed video analysis, and examined data from the car’s internal accident data recorder. They also had data from Grosjean’s radio communications earpieces which also houses accelerometers (introduced in 2014, these measure the forces drivers are subjected to). Its analysis was then peer-reviewed by its Serious Accident Study Group before results were published in March 2021 and changes to fuel cells introduced.
The investigations also revealed that the car’s halo had suffered significant impact damage from the barrier that would otherwise have been inflicted on Grosjean’s helmet, concluding it almost certainly saved his life.
For many, including viewers of Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive – the hugely popular behind-the-scenes series, which devoted much of an episode to the crash – seeing a car split in half was as shocking as the fireball.
But not for Tombazis. “Sometimes cars should split,” he says matter-of-factly. “What shouldn’t happen, and what we took steps to avoid afterwards, is that when they do, when the engine flies off, it shouldn’t rip apart the chassis in a way that exposes the fuel tank. That caused the fire. So now teams must demonstrate that when engines do get detached, the chassis remains intact.”
Collaboration is integral to F1’s ability to react and change at pace. The sport has myriad stakeholders, most with competing priorities and rivalries: the FIA, commercial rights holder Liberty Media, teams, drivers, sponsors, manufacturers, broadcasters and, of course, fans.
The FIA organises and chairs regular meetings throughout the year with team bosses, to discuss regulations and other sporting matters, as well as hosting specialist committees on technology and finance, as it seeks to establish a broad consensus.