Romain Grosjean has described in harrowing detail his crash at Formula 1’s Bahrain Grand Prix in which he felt “at peace” with the notion that he may not escape.
Grosjean suffered a violent accident at the start of Sunday’s race in which his VF-20 pierced the barrier, split in two, and burst into flames.
Grosjean extricated himself from the burning wreckage, having been inside for 28 seconds, and spent three nights in hospital with minor burns to the back of his hands.
Speaking to international media for the first time since the accident Grosjean went through the details in remarkable clarity, how his three young children motivated him to escape, his guilt for the trauma he put his family through, and his prospects of returning in Abu Dhabi.
“For me it wasn’t quite 28 seconds, it felt more like a minute 30, if I had to put a time on it,” said Grosjean, speaking from Bahrain, having returned to the paddock on Thursday.
“When the car came to a stop I opened my eyes and unclicked my seatbelt straight away.
“The thing I didn’t remember the next day is what I did with the steering wheel as I didn’t have the memory of taking it off and they said no the steering wheel’s gone in between your legs, the column and everything broke and went down.
“I [tried to] jump out and I felt like something was touching my head, so I sat back down in the car, my first thought is ‘I’m going to wait, I’m upside down against the wall so I’ll wait that someone else comes and helps me’, so I wasn’t stressed and not aware there was fire.
“Then I looked right and left and saw on the left there is fire so ‘okay I don’t really have the time to wait here’, next time I try to go up a bit more on the right [side of the cockpit], it doesn’t work, go on the left, doesn’t work.
“I sat back down and thought about Niki Lauda, his accident, thought it couldn’t end like this, it couldn’t be my last race, it couldn’t finish like this, no way, so I tried again and I’m stuck.
“I got back and then there’s the less pleasant moment where my body start to relax, I’m in peace with myself and I’m going to die.
“I ask myself the question ‘is it going to burn my shoe or my foot or my hand, is it going to be painful, where’s it going to start?’
“Then I thought about my kids, and I say ‘no they cannot lose their Dad today’. So I don’t know why I did what I did but I decided to turn my helmet on the left hand side and to go up like this and try and twist my shoulder, that sort of worked.
“Then I realised my foot was stuck in the car so I sat back down, pulled as hard as I could on my left leg, the shoe stayed where my foot was but my foot came out of the shoe, and then I did it again and the shoulder was going through [the halo] and the time the shoulder was through I know I’m going to jump out.
“I’ve got both hands on the fire that time, I see my gloves, [which] are red normally, especially the left one, changing colour and they started to melt and were going full black.
“I felt the pain my hands are in the fire but also I felt the relief that I am out of the car, and then I jumped out, got on the barrier, and felt [Dr] Ian [Roberts] pulling on my overalls so I knew I was not on my own anymore and there was someone with me.”
The accident was caught live on Formula 1’s world feed, before cameras cut away, with replays not shown until Grosjean’s condition was known, which came a couple of minutes later.
Grosjean explained that had he been watching on TV he would have been convinced that the driver involved was killed.
“I know the footage from outside, unbelievable, and if any of my friends would have been in that race and I would have been watching from home I would have been sure that the driver was dead,” he said.
“When you see the first impact, there is no way you can not think the driver is dead.
“If we can learn anything from that incident in terms of safety but also in the way I behaved in the car, survival instinct, I never panicked, I was never stressed, everything I did was mathematical.
“Even after, removing the glove because I knew my hands were burnt, every step was rational. I don’t know if you are born with that instinct or if it is something you can improve through your life but obviously that saved me.
“If I can, as Jules [Bianchi] did for me, save [a] life in the future by my experience, then I will have a very strong legacy in motorsport and it will be probably my biggest pride.”
Grosjean commented that his family’s wait to understand his condition is what has left him with the most remorse.
“I really spoke a lot with [wife Marion] and my kids,” he said. “My kids had many questions, my oldest son Sacha was worried that I would be all black, all burned and never be the same, so it was relief when he saw I looked the same.
“My son Simon, five years old, is convinced I have a love shield and I can fly. He doesn’t process the fact I walked out of the car, he thinks I flew out of the car. That’s why they think I’m a super hero.
“My daughter, three years old, it’s a bit harder to know exactly what she thinks. She draws [something] for me, every day something for my hand injury and sends me a kiss and a hug every day.
“They’re OK because yesterday I video phoned them and they wouldn’t even come to see me, they were playing outside. They weren’t bothered about coming to see me!
“Sacha went in front of his class [at school] for 45 minutes in the morning talking about it, his friends asked questions, he explained and told them what happened.
“Marion, it’s been very hard for her. She flew to Bahrain, Wednesday night she arrived. I think for her it was key to hug me. Even though she could see me on the video, it was hard to process that yes, I was in one piece.
“What is the hardest? For me it’s not what I went through, this is my life, my job and the risk we take. But it’s what I put people through, my family, my parents, my kids, my wife, my friends.
“For two minutes and 43 seconds they thought their friend, their father, their husband, was dead. That is what I’m working on, because that made me cry. That I made people suffer to that extent.”
Grosjean has been replaced by reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi for this weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix but has targeted a return in Abu Dhabi, to be held next weekend.
But Grosjean says he will not push through a comeback if it means risking permanent damage to his body.
“Burns are not an exact science, I’m quite good with knowing about burning nowadays, I learned a lot, I went through some tough times when they started cutting the blister with the scissors and started peeling off the skin,” he said.
“You see things that you don’t really want to see. So it’s not an exact science, I’m hopeful every day it recovers better than it does the previous day.
“When will I have a final answer [on Abu Dhabi]? I don’t know yet.
“Obviously I’ve got 60 years or so to go with my left hand so one race is important to me but it’s not as important as living a normal life for the rest of my life.”