This past Sunday, sport offered some especially dramatic moments. Whether you follow it or not, you likely saw footage of a dramatic car crash at a Formula One Grand Prix event in Bahrain. Formula One is considered the pinnacle of car racing and involves multi-million dollar machines speeding around a race course. You don’t need to be a fan to realize that their Sunday drive is a little different than our Sunday drive to get ice cream. The race starts with cars set up two by two. They aren’t getting on Noah’s Ark, but are preparing to race at unfathomable speeds for several hours. The cars are lined up based on qualifying performance. Cars compete individually against the clock in a time window a few days before the race to determine their start order. One of the knocks of Formula One racing is that races are boring to average fans as the start order largely predicts the outcome. It’s very difficult to pass. For afficionados of the activity, the marriage of man, machine, and support team remains a gripping tale to follow.
On Sunday the race began and cars lurched forward in their lanes. From zero to several hundred kilometers an hour within seconds, the cars raced off. The howls of the engine emerge from relative silence. During the first lap, within minutes of the start, mayhem surfaced. Cars were bunched up coming out of a corner and heading to a straightaway. A couple of cars get tangled up on the right side of the raceway. The viewer’s attention is drawn to two cars struggling and going off course. Then from the complete opposite side of the track a car veers dramatically from the left across traffic to the right and keeps going right into a wall. The impact is intense and immediate. From race speed to a dead stop instantly. The car explodes into pieces as it is engineered to do dispersing much of the impact over the machine. Being the start of the race, the cars contain full tanks of fuel. In the disintegration of the vehicle the fuel tank catches fire, explodes, and the care erupts into flames. This all occurs to viewers as an instantaneous explosion. Engulfed in flames things don’t look good. Somehow, within a few seconds a rescue car with workers is on the scene likely filled with thoughts fueled by Jerry Lewis, “Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire.” More miraculously, the driver is able to extricate himself from the vehicle. In less than fifteen seconds from impact to exit, the driver materializes like Denzel Washington in a scene from Man on Fire as a shadowy silhouette emerges from the cloud of fire where he is ushered urgently away from the cooking carnage by rescuers. It sounds like he makes it out with relatively minor injuries. He lost a boot in the process and was left with some burns on his hands and a foot. All told, it looks like the race car gods smiled favorably on the driver.
Beside being awed by the awful footage, what lessons emerge from this incident?
- Past problems can become platforms for progress.
Accidents happen, especially in extreme environments. Nonetheless, in these worlds safety is no accident. There has been numerous improvements to safety equipment for drivers over the years. The driver sits in what’s referred to as the monocoque which is the driver’s cockpit. To drivers, it is the portion of the vehicle that is built with strong materials designed to stay in tact as the rest of the car breaks apart during impact. It is designed to serve as a cocoon for the driver. It includes details like a bespoke seat ensuring that the driver is positioned to protect their head from protruding. It’s not aerodynamics being pursued, but safety. Drivers are strapped to their seats with a robust yet restrictive five point harness. They are held in place tightly in order to stay in position to operate control elements of the car while enduring substantial g-forces. A Head and Neck Support System or HANS is a newer safety device that is worn around the neck which contains three straps. It is intended to allow some driver head movement while limiting head movement during a crash. It works with the helmet and monocoque. Before a driver even enters their vehicle, they don specific boots, overalls, gloves, and helmet. These four items work together to protect from fire. The suit is made of a synthetic material designed to provide a barrier for at least 12 seconds.
What is being worn is no accident. They have been meticulously crafted with the intent to serve. Much of this safety has arisen in recent years. It’s not just the vehicle engineering that has improved over the decades. The safety today stemmed from mishaps from the past. Progress has been made on the back of prior painful problems. The history of the sport is littered with lessons that hurt and even killed. In the last 50 years 32 drivers have died during a Formula 1 Grand Prix Sunday drive. This article highlights the safety developments since the early 70s. “For example, the mega crash in Spa in 1998 brought tethers for tires. Michael Schumacher’s frontal crash at Silverstone in 1999 promoted the development of modern Tecpro barriers. After Felipe Massa made acquaintance with an 800 gram metal spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car with his helmet in 2009, a Zylon band was introduced over the helmet’s visor.” Risk is inherent to the activity. Problems will arise. There are many individuals working to reduce the impact of problems. However, the inevitability of issues offer the opportunity to improve. Problems are platforms. We should worry less about avoiding them all together and focus on how they can be used to learn and improve.
2. In a crisis, we must depend on ourselves.
Separate from the safety built into the car and driver’s equipment, there’s safety built into the tracks and support crews surrounding it. Dozens, if not hundreds, of safety staff populate the track. Their jobs are to keep the track clear as well as being available to respond to crashes as they arise. Ambulances with medical personnel are on hand as are additional medevac services. These crews prepare and train for any number of emergency situations. Resources are allocated with the express objective of having people and equipment available to attend an accident within 15 seconds. Even with this investment of energy to provide support, drivers can’t sit patiently, passively waiting for help. They must act.
It’s a message at the core of Amanda Ripley’s book, The Unthinkable. She explores how humans react in emergency situations like the 911 attacks in the US, Hurricane Katrina, several plane crashes, and more. She writes, “It’s only once disaster strikes that ordinary citizens realize how important they are.” Rural folk inherently recognize the reality that even if help is on the way, it can take a while. Self-reliance isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Average response times for first responders increase as one exits the urban core. Even the extraordinary bar set of achieving response times under fifteen seconds in Formula One isn’t fast enough. Ripley offers, “Too much of emergency planning involves creating workflows for officials and first responders, not regular people. How can we empower regular folk to handle themselves in dicey circumstances?” Too often the counsel we receive from leaders is to sit by and stand by for information and instruction. Ripley asks, “Why don’t we tell people what to do when the nation is on Orange Alert against a terrorist attack—instead of just telling them to be afraid?” Instead of being told what to fear, we should be taught how to act. How can we take responsibility for ourselves and protect those we care about in difficult times? Even the best equipped, best trained, and best intended first responders can’t be everywhere, immediately. In a crisis, we’re alone. In a crisis, we must be prepared to act. We do this by leaning on our third and final lesson of last weekend’s drama.
At the point of panic is not the time to be seeking the counsel of professionals. Our question shouldn’t be who are we going to call, but what will you do. There’s no group of Ghostbusters waiting on the other end of the line. You don’t need Yoda. You need to know what you’ll do. No one has ever been given a medal of bravery or celebrated for calling for help. Heroes don’t holler, they help. Actions not asks. In a crisis we don’t need more people pushing panic buttons or pulling fire alarms. We need to rely on ourselves and prior preparation.
3. Routines Rescue.
Much of Formula One racing is built around choreographed routines. Consider the pit crews and intense attention to detail associated with tire changes. All wheels on a Formula One race car can be changed in under two seconds. This video shows a series of new world records of tire changes being made. Excellence follows practice. Crew members rehearse routines repeatedly until they can be executed reflexively. They aren’t depending on deliberation and thought, but executing. Drivers, too, spend thousands of hours every year over many years developing their skills to the point of being instinctive. To achieve this level of precision requires both a vision and a decision. There’s no improvising. The outcome is clear. A process is crafted, practiced, and pursued until accomplishing the outcome becomes automatic.
Back to this past Sunday’s incident, we’re drawn to watch the replays which capture the breathtaking impact and urgent exit of our driver. Each time it’s viewed one can’t help but marvel at how quickly and smoothly the driver had to react. We think of how lucky he is to have been able to escape with relatively modest injuries. It is incredible that emergency assistance was on hand in seconds. However, the driver didn’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting. He needed to take care of himself immediately. He had to release a cumbersome and tightly fitting five point harness. He also had to remove his steering wheel to create room to climb out. He then had to pull himself up and out of his seat and through his driver’s side window. All of this he had to begin doing immediately upon impact. He had no chance to sit, recover, or reflect. Action first. All of his efforts would have been made more difficult based on compromised visibility because of the flames, pain and discomfort from the intense heat, disorientation from the abrupt crash, and general fear. Each of these tasks aren’t easy at the best of times, they could only have been more challenging under extreme duress. Yet, he executed perfectly.
Brian Germain in Transcending Fear writes, “It is very significant that the area of the brain most affected by fear is the prefrontal cortex. If our willed actions are generated in this area of the brain, then it is easy to see why a scared individual feels disempowered to control his or her world. The very brain structure that allowed human beings to dominate the world is not functioning when this skill is needed most. This explains why fear creates victims instead of heroes.” On some level we recognize our default state in fear and duress is to not be our best. That’s why we marvel more at those that execute well under terrifying conditions. As dramatic and incredible as the footage is and the events seem, none of it should be. Everything that happened is a reflection of the level of detail involved in planning and practice that is part of the sport. The drivers prepare for emergency exits. They have worked through this process many times. They have developed their own rescue routines which have been rehearsed repeatedly. They are less likely to panic as they have a process. They aren’t depending on thought in the moment. They are relying on past practice. The more stress filled the situation, the more we rely on effortless execution of pre-programmed routines.
Ripley’s book, The Unthinkable, profiles an ex-military veteran turned office security and safety director for Morgan Stanley that worked at New York’s Twin Towers. Rick Rescorla was a former soldier and has been featured for both his military exploits and those during 911 in several other books. As Director of Security for Morgan Stanley, helping staff evacuate their offices high on one of the towers was a key responsibility. In the early 90s Rescorla’s role was afforded clout. He wasn’t glorified front desk security. He prepared and forced staff to practice evacuation procedures. As an employee of the largest employer in these buildings, Rescorla wasn’t comfortable relying on the powers that be to protect his charges in an emergency. If it was to be, it was up to me was his philosophy. He instructed staff to ignore the direction of official responders in an emergency and to rely on his direction and their practice. Fire drills weren’t optional. Nor were they a joke. They were treated with respect and results were debriefed rigorously. Ripley writes, “He didn’t care whether he was popular. His military training had taught him a simple rule of human nature…the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand.” Practice makes perfect. They were put on a clock. Timed. Progress was expected. Even visitors to their offices were trained with respect to what to do in an emergency.
On the morning of 911, 250 visitors were taking a training course at Morgan Stanley’s offices. Rescorla saw the first plane hit and heard the Port Authority of New York directions to folk in the World Trade Center buildings to stay put. He would have none of it and spurred into action. He began marshalling staff into the stairwells, urging them to exit. Ripley quotes a staff member that was part of the exit, “Knowing where to go was the most important thing. Because your brain—at least mine—just shut down. When that happens, you need to know what to do next. One thing you don’t ever want to do is have to think in a disaster.” Rescorla’s training and efforts in the moment saved 2,687 of 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees. Only thirteen were counted amongst the victims of that disaster. Sadly, he was one of them.
Self-reliance was a religion to Rescorla, Ripley notes. Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley staff to save themselves. Learning from past problems, allocating personal responsibility, and practicing over and over a process to manage a crisis works whether in a Formula One race car, our office, or our homes.