The F1 world has been buzzing following the crash suffered by HAAS driver Frenchman Romain Grosjean, whose race car burst into flames and broke in two.
Having experienced a similar fiery crash myself I felt that our readers could be interested in just what it was like to be caught in a race car which was on fire. Read on.
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Having been bumped into a slide by another competitor, I skidded sideways towards the metal fencing, I thought to myself “I could lose a headlight here.” In the following incident, I lost far more than a headlight! I even lost my eyebrows.
My saga began with an enormous explosion. I opened my eyes and found that I was facing in the reverse direction on the track and there was black smoke everywhere. Still trying to fathom what was happening, the next thing I knew was that as the smoke cleared there were orange waving trails in front of me and I then deduced I was on fire. And it was getting hot.
I tried to move, but I had forgotten I was strapped in by a six point racing harness, consisting of two shoulder straps, two pelvic straps and two crutch straps. Calming myself down, I undid the belts and tried to open the driver’s door. Unfortunately the car was so twisted, the door was jammed. The flames became higher and I watched the rear vision mirror start to melt like a Salvador Dali painting. The upholstery was by now on fire and the smoke was worse. The car was engulfed. I knew enough medically by that stage that the smoke was toxic. Getting out became the number one priority.
I turned sideways in the seat and began kicking the door, which after several blows broke the latch and the door sprang slightly open. Not fully open, because the leading edge of the door was under the trailing edge of the mudguard. It was as if there was somebody holding the door closed as I tried to open it. I resorted to kicking the door again. It was difficult not to begin to scream.
The door eventually opened enough for me to be able to get through the gap and another frightening situation became evident. As far as I could see, I was sitting in an ocean of flames. I was either smoked, gassed and roasted in the wreck or roasted beside the wreck. I chose the latter.
Turning myself into a ball I rolled out of the wrecked race car and kept on rolling till I was no longer in the flames but lying at the foot of the metal guard rail which encircles the circuit and I heard my pit manager shouting “He’s here! He’s here!”. He was there and had escaped.
After convincing the course doctor that I was a doctor too and all I had were second degree burns and blisters on my back, we worked out what had happened. As I had slid towards the metal fence another car, out of control and traveling at 160 kph went straight into the rear of my car, traveling through the boot, splitting the fuel tank, going over the rear axle and through the back seat.
The fire crew estimated that I was in the inferno for around 40 seconds, and since the fire suit gives you around 40 seconds to get out, I was in luck that day.
The driver of another car offered me the use of his spare car for the race the next day. I took it, and raced again.