“They always say sportsman die twice. Once when you lose your career, and then once at the actual end.” - Will Buxton
When lockdown began, like most families whose televisions focused mainly around live sports, we had to find something to pass the time until the warm weather came and we could get outside. For us, one of the first Netflix binges we found was Formula One: Drive to Survive.
Honestly, prior to this, I'd never watched a car race in my life, and probably had no desire to either. So watching a documentary on it seemed even less attractive.
Fast forward – we watched both seasons of it quickly – and it turned out to be the only piece of new television I would watch in 2020 that actually got my engine going. So much so in fact, that when the real F1 season began again in July, a new Sunday morning family ritual was born; Race Day.
In the third-last race of the year, my wife, our two boys and I settled in as usual to catch the live event. Early in the race, we watched in horror as Team Haas driver Romain Grosjean crashed through the wall in Turn 3. Car racing is a dangerous occupation to be sure, and collisions are not uncommon. And despite a small handful of tragic crashes in history, they are usually more damaging to the car and to the driver’s point standings than to the actual human operator.
This particular crash though, we knew instantly as something different. My heart sank into my stomach and I felt absolutely paralyzed by the severity of the situation. I stood, at my fireplace mantle, no more than a foot from my TV screen, in complete awe, disbelief, and fear.
What I saw from my 12-inch perch was a car in two pieces; the front half on the track side of the barricade, the back half, with driver still in it, having ripped through the steel barricade, engulfed in a raging inferno. It’s still almost impossible to describe in words; one of those scenes that even Hollywood, with today’s CGI, would have trouble re-creating.
No human being could ever have survived that crash.
Fast forward to March 2021. Needless to say, we eagerly awaited season 3 where we could watch Netflix’s recap of the 2020 season.
Last night we watched episode nine – in which we witnessed once again the unbelievable events of that fateful race in Bahrain. But despite the months that have passed, watching it again impacted me equally if not more than it did live that Sunday morning.
“How the fuck did he get out of there? How...how did he jump out? That...that’s an act of God.”
The images of Romain, in the cockpit of half of that car, submerged in flames for more than 20 seconds, are still impossible to comprehend. And if you were in his head, or that of his wife and children during that time, it wasn’t just Romain that was on fire, it was his whole world. His family didn't know for close to 3 minutes whether he was alive or dead.
Watching those events a second time really hit me. It hit me first as a result of the incident itself, but second because of how I can see the bigger parallels to life.
In life, there are moments where we can feel like our whole world is on fire. Moments where we wonder if the fire will consume us, or if we'll somehow escape.
Moments where we wonder more about how the burning will feel, than what we can do to get out of the blaze.
We’ve all been there, some time or another, and to some extreme or another. We face uncertainty. We fear for our health. We worry about our family, our finances, and our future.
We build our lives around families, jobs, homes, friends, obligations, objects, and material things; and the amount of conscious thought these all occupy can be overwhelming.
In fact, so overwhelming sometimes that they can ignite a blaze of the mind; a flaming cockpit impossible to climb out of. And because we fear abandoning our longest held beliefs, too often we'll sit in the flames, or stand amidst charred wreckage, immobilized and unable to move forward. Unable to stop the burning. Unable to walk out of the fire.
When you look left, you fear what’s coming from the right. When you look down, you fear what’s above. When you look inside, you fear the exterior. There is fire everywhere you look. Your world is on fire. And while you may not be physically burning, it can be equally difficult to see the path out of the flames.
The challenge is this: how do we step out of a fire before it starts burning? How do we choose a new path, create new priorities, and walk in a new direction without a catalyst, or a spark, that challenges our status quo?
We must question everything we used to know, everything we think we know now, and everything we think we want to know in the future.
Don’t wait until your world is on fire to question, to understand; and most importantly, to choose. Find a way to let everything go except for those more important values that can be the basis for your next step, your next mile.
Romain sat in the centre of that fireball long enough to have absolutely everything fall away except for only what was most important for him; his family.
In his recollection of his last moments in that fiery cockpit, he said that he felt his kids in the car with him. That he heard their voices in his head somehow.
“No, Daddy, this is not happening. It cannot be … It cannot be the end.”
Romain said that when the doctor pulled at his overalls, that was the time he realized he was alive. That he was going to live.
"And that feeling, I think, will stay in my head forever. It changed my life forever."
For Romain, he may never race F1 again, despite the fact that his injuries were, in comparison to what they could have been, pretty mild. Even before the crash, he didn’t know if he would be part of a Formula One team for 2021 anyway; but as it turns out, it may not have mattered.
Romain may race again, he may not; but either way he will choose where he goes next in life with a stunning perspective very few human beings will ever know.
He was the man that walked out of fire.
We could all learn a lot from that.
“Few people have known that moment, uh, where … you almost accept that you’re dead.” – Romain Grosjean