Romain Grosjean somehow escaped from the most horrifying Formula 1 accident for six years with burns to the back of his hands – and the sport is still reeling from the shock of the incident and the amazement that it was not so much worse.
The crash had the appearance of something from a bygone age, as the car broke in two, caught fire and split the barrier, before coming to rest embedded between two twisted sheets of metal on its side.
Grosjean hit the barrier at 137mph and the impact measured a force of 53G.
He was in the inferno for nearly 30 seconds before extracting himself and then being helped over the barrier by FIA doctor Ian Roberts, who had just arrived in the medical car, run towards the flames, and helped a marshal set off a fire extinguisher before going to the driver’s aid.
The last time an F1 car split in two was at Monaco in 1991. The last time one caught fire in a crash was at Imola in 1989.
And you have to go back to the 1970s to find accidents in which cars pierced barriers in such a way.
On both occasions, at Watkins Glen in the USA in 1973 and 1974, the drivers, Francois Cevert and Helmut Koinigg, were killed.
There were a series of extremely concerning aspects to the accident, but perhaps the most striking lesson was the effectiveness of the steps F1 has made in recent years on safety.
In particular, it seems certain the halo head-protection device, introduced amid significant controversy in 2018, saved Grosjean’s life.
The wishbone-shaped titanium structure that wraps around the driver’s head from the front of the cockpit looks to have taken the impact of the metal barriers.
“It was such a shocking image to see,” world champion Lewis Hamilton said after winning the race.
“His car, the cockpit, I don’t know what Gs he pulled, but I’m just so grateful that the halo worked. I’m grateful the barrier didn’t slice his head off. It could have been so much worse.”
After the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, F1 started a safety crusade that has never let up since.
A number of improvements introduced as a result helped Grosjean – stronger cars with better crash absorption, better helmets, the Hans neck-protection device, improved fireproof overalls and so on – but perhaps the halo is the single biggest one.
The FIA was already working on a cockpit head-protection device when Frenchman Jules Bianchi suffered fatal head injuries when he hit a recovery vehicle during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
But when the late FIA F1 director Charlie Whiting was trying to push through the halo, with support from the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association chairman Alexander Wurz, many opposed it, including then-F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.
They said it was against the spirit of the sport, that it undermined the DNA of F1 as an open-cockpit formula, that it was ugly; even that it was not necessary.
Hamilton was initially of this view, too, until he had his mind changed by a presentation given by Whiting at the 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix which demonstrated what the halo could do.
This pressure even led to a year’s delay in the halo’s introduction, but when it was finally fitted to the cars in 2018, it quickly proved its worth.
At the Belgian Grand Prix that year, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was launched into the air at the start and flew over Charles Leclerc’s Sauber, hitting the halo on its way.
That ensured any remaining noise about the halo died down, and Grosjean’s accident has ended the debate for ever.
Even with the halo, the pictures of the remains of Grosjean’s car embedded in the barrier leave you open-mouthed with wonder at how he survived.
And a series of F1 figures, from Hamilton and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, through team bosses Toto Wolff and Christian Horner – both of whom were originally opposed to it – to F1 managing director Ross Brawn agreed the halo had saved his life. – BBC