At the start of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, Romain Grosjean veered sharply to the right-hand side of the track, pushing Lewis Hamilton onto the grass and triggering an accident that saw Grosjean’s Lotus launch over the back of Sergio Perez’s Sauber and very nearly connect with Fernando Alonso’s head. The stewards handed Grosjean a one-race ban and a hefty fine, which he accepted without argument.
From a spectator point of view, the incident was terrifying. It looked at first glance as though Alonso had taken a blow to the helmet, which would almost certainly have been fatal. Fortunately, that was not the case and everyone walked away from the crash apparently uninjured. But the crash highlighted the dangers involved in single-seater racing, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of irresponsible driving.
The greatest safety risk in open-cockpit racing is the driver’s head, as it is exposed and therefore vulnerable to direct impact. In 2009, Felipe Massa suffered a near-fatal accident in which a spring from another car hit his helmet. Massa was in critical condition for some time and spent the second half of the season recovering before returning to Formula One in 2010. Also in 2009, Henry Surtees was killed in a Formula Two race when a wheel from another crashed car hit him on the head.
Considering the dangers involved, a certain amount of caution is required from drivers. Races are not generally won and lost in the first corner (except perhaps at Monaco, as David Coulthard pointed out during his BBC commentary on Sunday), and so it is fairly obvious that surviving the start should be a priority to any driver.
Grosjean’s aggressive move across the track was anything but cautious. It was also unnecessary. A more gradual move across the track would have given Hamilton more time to react, and Grosjean could have made the corner in a good position. In Grosjean’s defense, it must be admitted that the drivers have limited peripheral vision, due to high cockpit sides that assist in driver head and neck protection. He claimed that he thought he was already completely past Hamilton. He was not, but perhaps he could not see that. In any event, if he thought he was that far ahead, then why the aggressive move?
Considering the potentially disastrous consequences of his on-track conduct, Grosjean’s one-race ban is certainly appropriate. There are also likely to be consequences within the team, as he caused an enormous amount of costly damage to the car and is now unable to race at the next round, which will affect his team’s efforts in the Constructors’ Championship.
Grosjean will now have some time on the sidelines to reflect on the incident. He has an opportunity to show his maturity by returning to the grid in Singapore more composed and controlled. In any event, he will certainly be sorry to be sitting out the next race at Monza. No racing driver likes to watch his car get raced by someone else.