If you have ever been on a very scary rollercoaster ride, that will have been about 1% of what Zhou Guanyu went through even before the first corner at the British Grand Prix.
This sort of accident is the inevitable product of open wheel racing. If two drivers touch with rotating tyres, one will climb over the top of the other and from there on in you are in the lap of the gods in terms of the outcome.
The FIA has worked tirelessly for many years to offer an increased chance of survival and it is impossible to guarantee that outcome, but you can certainly significantly improve the probability of it.
However, based on the outcomes we saw in the grand prix and with the crash between Dennis Hauger and Roy Nissany in Sunday’s Formula 2 race, the FIA should be complimented for its efforts. Zhou will have been one of the first to thank them.
The FIA will conduct its own accident investigation, while the Alfa Romeo team is also taking a very close look at the car. But here’s my look at what happened, why and the damage sustained.
First of all, George Russell was inching to his left unaware that Pierre Gasly was coming through on his outside. A light touch of wheels turned Russell’s Mercedes to the left and Zhou rode over his left-front wheel, launching himself into the air.
This shot is probably the first time Zhou knew that he was in a bit of trouble and that no matter how much opposite lock he applied it wasn’t going to help. From there, it’s just a case of pull your head down and pray!
The first impact with the ground would have been with the car still traveling in the same direction as the rest of the cars at probably 140-160mph. But as Zhou was at ninety degrees to the track and rolling, with the inertia of the weight of the back of the car rotating it, the rollover bar would have got a fairly dramatic forward impact – and with that a side swipe as it hit the ground for the first time.
This can only be judged from the footage and the images we’ve seen, but from there it looks like the rollover bar or its mounting system has failed. Sauber constructed this chassis using a single-strut rollover bar.
All of the other teams use a roll hoop, which is a bit like a double horseshoe. This structure all joins together at the top and has four legs to distribute the load reasonably well to the outer corners of the top of the carbon chassis. You might call it a lucky horseshoe, but in the case of this accident, it didn’t bring quite as much fortune as Zhou would have liked.
Before the halo came into play there was a front and rear roll over bar structure. The front one was just in front of the steering wheel and the rear one behind the driver, as it still is. A straight line between the two had to clear the drivers helmet by something like fifty millimetres.
Now, with the halo also in place that has become the forward roll over bar and has to withstand similar loads to those it did previously. But because of the design of it, the front part that acts as a forward rollover bar is now much higher to give more clearance to the drivers helmet. It also has three legs to distribute the load around the chassis.
That’s all good, but it will change the direction of the load going into the rear rollover bar which may have contributed to this failure.
The rollover structures on each car are subject to very stringent FIA load tests and the Alfa Romeo team, as all the others, has passed those tests. But with the forces that are involved and their direction, you can never account for every scenario and sometimes failures can occur. It’s a question of learning from every scenario and constantly dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
Once the car landed upside down, it stayed that way as it slid along the track and through the gravel. This was because of the rollbar failure.
Normally, the rollbar creates a triangular shape which means it has no flat area to sit on if it’s upside down, when the tyres bite into the ground from traveling sideways it will trigger a barrel roll. But with the roll bar broken off or punched into the top of the chassis, the track surface simply grinds away the carbon area behind the driver’s head. Zhou is very lucky he is not the tallest driver in the pitlane.
But if there is a failure to the rear rollover bar the chassis is being supported by the titanium halo and the rollover bar support surface behind the driver is simply getting worn away.
Fortunately, the chassis didn’t get worn away enough to expose the fuel tank. With over 100kg of fuel in there, that could have led to a very different outcome.
This is then where the car digs in. Off the start line it would have weighed well over 900kg and even after all that time spent upside down rubbing itself away on the asphalt it still has enough energy to be flicked into a roll and over the barrier. It came to rest between the crash barriers and the debris fence.
With this sort of crash, you can easily see why the spectators need to be that far away from the track – especially in high speed corners like Abbey.
So what can be learned from these two accidents?
Looking at the Formula 2 crash, the FIA needs to stop insisting on using these sausage kerbs to stop drivers from flouting track limits. The white lines are there for all to see, and in the short term an observer positioned correctly – a bit like a lines person at Wimbledon – at each corner to make sure that the drivers respect those lines would be a major step forward, getting rid of these sausage kerbs would be better for any formula.
As for Zhou’s accident, the halo was what saved him. But it’s obvious that the load tests on the rollover bar need to be increased and the position and direction of those tests reviewed.
Just looking at the car on the back of the flatbed just shows how much the chassis is worn away behind the driver’s head. If the Halo hadn’t been there, I dread to think what the outcome might have been.
The outcomes of both these accidents has been positive with no serious injuries. Accidents will happen and the work the FIA is constantly doing means that drivers can survive horrendous crashes, dust themselves down and walk away.
However, there was a lot of luck in the outcome of Zhou Guanyu’s crash and you can’t rely on that every time.