The IndyCar racer and four-time Champ Car series champion discusses his remarkable recovery from a 230 miles per hour crash in this interview from the latest issue of AUTO+ Medical, the FIA’s journal of motor sport medicine.
During Qualifying for the 2017 Indy 500, Sébastien Bourdais lost control of the rear end of his car at 230 miles per hour in the middle of Turn 2. He counter-steered to catch the slide, but the front tyres suddenly gripped, and he hit the outer wall at a near 45-degree angle.
The resulting impact meant he sustained a shattered pelvis, fractured right hip, and two broken ribs, but amazingly, he overcame these injuries in just eight weeks to attend a mid-season test, before making a full racing return in the final three rounds of the 2017 IndyCar season. He spoke to FIA AUTO+ Medical magazine about his injuries and swift recovery.
AUTO+ Medical: You haven’t had many big crashes in your career, so was this even more of a shock?
Sébastien Bourdais: I’ve never hurt myself physically before. I’ve had some sizeable shunts before, but none where I ended up at the hospital with an inactivity period, so it was all very new to me.
A+M: You remained conscious despite the 118G impact – would it have been better to be knocked out?
SB: I think there are some plusses and minuses about staying conscious or being knocked out, but I don’t have a strong opinion about that. I kind of wish I had been knocked out because at least then I wouldn’t have been in so much pain.
A+M: What was your thought process after the accident?
SB: There’s always the scary period post-crash when everybody is trying to work out how bad it is. Once I got the bigger picture – that things were broken but nothing that couldn’t be fixed within a reasonable amount of time – I wasn’t too worried. There is the crash at the beginning, then the pain, and then you get the analysis and think, it’s not going to be pleasant, but we’ll make it through.
We talked about how things were going to work out with orthopaedic surgeon Dr Kevin Scheid after he did the surgery, the Sunday after the crash. The timeframe was about six weeks for weight bearing, eight weeks for walking and feeling normal, and then three months to get back in the car. At that point, it was clear to me that the objective was to get back in the car for the last race, and if I was going to be ready for the last race then I was going to be ready for Watkins Glen, two
Providing everything went to plan, there was no reason to sit out the rest of the season. I think doctors are always very cautious with their prognosis, so I guess they told me I was out for the season to take the pressure off me. The bone healed pretty well, I don’t have much point of comparison because I haven’t broken anything before. I had no idea how fast it would heal but it turned out that my body recovers pretty well.
A+M: What did your physiotherapy consist of, and how did you deal with the injuries?
SB: I had broken ribs, so crutches were not exactly the best thing for mobility. From the offset I thought about what the smartest and best way to deal with the injury was going to be. My wife hated me using a wheelchair, but it was a 15-minute crutches walk, or three minutes in the wheelchair to get to the rehab place, and I was going three times a day. It wasn’t very pleasant, but you’ve got to be practical at that time.
A+M: Due to your fitness level, doctors operated on both your hip and pelvis simultaneously – did that speed up recovery?
SB: They all said I have a really fast metabolism, which tends to accelerate the healing process, but I wouldn’t venture trying to explain that. Everybody has got their own rate of reconstructing their bones and soft tissue injuries, so you’re never quite sure how fast things like that are going to recover. I recovered fairly well and although there are better days than others, it all turned out okay.
A+M: How does it make you feel to have beaten the projected timeframe for recovery?
SB: I tried to follow instructions as best as I could, because the last thing I wanted to do was rush things and make it worse, especially at the very beginning when dealing with bone reconstruction. I tried to be mindful and listen to what they told me because I always had in mind that a return was possible, and we talked about it. It wasn’t a case of me just saying ‘I’m going to do the last race.’
I started thinking and talking about coming back before the end of the season when I had been prescribed a timeframe of what was going to be allowed, providing certain criteria were filled. I didn’t do what the Moto GP guys do, who just ride with broken bones and take their chances. They know that if they crash with pins and plates in they could break them, and then they’re going to need more surgery, which might not be that easy to fix. For us, thankfully, we crash, but we don’t get hurt every time.
I certainly wasn’t going to go against the doctors and say, “I don’t care, I’m getting back in the car” because with that same mindset I could have done the Indy 500. Physically if you’re willing to accept taking the chance, it’s possible, but if I had any kind of crash then I was right back where I was, and in worse shape. The big concern with the femur neck is it’s a tricky bone, there’s only one irrigation point and if you sever that, then you’re going to need an artificial hip, because the bone is screwed.
In the old days, you would have been in a hospital for a month with the injuries that I had – I was out of the hospital after four days. Putting everything in perspective, I’ve tried to be cautious, but once I got the green light and everything was strong enough to take another hit, there was no reason to hold back and sit out the rest of the season.
A+M: How satisfying was your comeback test at Mid-Ohio? Was there ever a worry that you might not perform at the same level as you did before the crash?
SB: Inside the car I really don’t feel much of anything as far as the hip is concerned. At the Mid-Ohio test in July, the biggest problem was the neck. I must have pulled a muscle, so I couldn’t quite drive without padding, but other than that it was all pretty good. It was just a matter of doing laps, feeling comfortable, and regaining confidence. The test went well enough that when I got the all-clear to get back to racing two weeks later, I didn’t think twice about it.
It was only three months out of the car, and we have longer off-seasons than that! What makes it challenging is the long inactivity period, because you lose muscle twice as fast when you are mostly sitting or lying down for the first two months. That was definitely a time to work pretty hard at it to physically get back.
A+M: Would it have been harder next season if you didn’t return before the end of 2017?
SB: For me, it was very much about giving myself every chance of being successful next year. When we come back in St. Petersburg next year, all I want to talk about is the season ahead, not how I managed to come back and where I’m at physically. For me, it’s important that this chapter is closed, and that we’re focusing on the job ahead instead of unpleasant memories. That was only going to happen if people saw me as they used to see me and not as a guy who has survived something and is just coming back. I completely understand, but I just wanted to get ahead of it and put it behind me.
The SAFER barrier
Bourdais believes that he would have died if not for the massive advancements in motor sport safety over the last few decades. One of the most prominent introductions, certainly in American oval racing, has been that of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier.
Though French driver’s injuries were severe, this energy-absorbing structure helped reduce the massive 118G impact at Indianapolis. This, combined with the deliberate deformation of the car’s crash structures and the swift intervention of the Holmatro Safety Team all contributed to his ability to walk out of hospital just four days after the crash.
Many have likened the crash to the fatal accident of Gordon Smiley, who was killed in a crash at Turn 3 during Qualifying for the 1982 Indy 500. Much like Bourdais, he steered into a slide when the rear of the car oversteered, but the front tyres gripped, and he too was sent into the wall. The car disintegrated, sending wheels, the engine, the flaming fuel tank, and Smiley himself flying across the track. Though the accident was a tragic loss, Bourdais’ survival 35 years later, and incredible recovery, is a testament to just how far safety has progressed.