La Source crash reminds F1 not to be complacent

Jenson Button took an extraordinarily dominant win at Spa Francorchamps yesterday in the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix to reignite his championship challenge. But the most spectacular action – and the incident grabbing the Youtube hits this morning – was the first corner accident involving Romain Grosjean, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, among others.

The blame for the crash seems to lie unequivocally with the Frenchman. He swept suddenly across the bows of Hamilton, who was pushed wide onto the green strip used with alacrity by GP2 drivers but not habitually by top level drivers. Grosjean was then seemingly unaware of the width of his machine and the space required by Hamilton to his right, who was by then level with the Lotus sidepod, and kept moving across.

At this point Hamilton’s left front wheel made contact with the right rear of Grosjean, and Hamilton was launched up over the back. The force of the McLaren hitting it made the Lotus impossible to stop, and it duly cannoned into Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari amidships as it turned in, collecting Sergio Perez’s Sauber in the interim. Kamui Kobayashi was also implicated.

Aside from looking shocking on the main TV feed, the incident was most terrifying viewed from the in-car cameras. Hamilton’s footage is most damning for Grosjean, as it is very hard to see what the Englishman could have done to avoid the crash. Alonso’s view, however, was deeply frightening. He was braking as usual and had just begun to turn in when an airborne Lotus cartwheeled across in front of his nose.

Cue winces from commentators and jumps behind the sofa from spectators. But then, with the grim predictability of righteous indignation, come the comments on safety. At least one ex-driver on Sky’s coverage, not to mention the thousands on Twitter, strike up the refrain. We must give thanks for the advances in safety that have enabled the drivers all to walk away from such a dangerous event. Oh dear.

Although the developments in cockpit sides and helmet strength have undoubtedly made the driver’s environment less immediately hazardous, the fact is that with open cockpits, the biggest danger to a driver comes from something hitting his head. As with the late Dan Wheldon’s accident, so too with this. The reality is that Fernando Alonso, and for that matter Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi, were inches away from an F1 car landing on their heads.

This does obviously not bear thinking about. And so, what can we learn? The only lesson that could be taken is that cockpits need to be covered. If the authorities and the fans are not prepared to let that happen, they must accept that sooner or later there will be another serious accident in F1 involving a driver’s head. The pros and cons of canopies have been discussed and will continue to be. But until then F1 has no reason to be complacent.