Commentary

Kovalainen a walking miracle after spectacular crash in Spanish GP

Want to witness a miracle? Watch replays of Heikki Kovalainen's horrific crash at the Spanish GP ... and watch him get out of his car alive, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: May 9, 2008, 10:37 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

Heikki KovalainenAP Photo/Bernat ArmangueA metal guardrail swallowed Heikki Kovalainen's race car, which was traveling 120 mph at impact.

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- For those watching the Spanish Grand Prix on TV, the scariest part of Heikki Kovalainen's accident was what the cameras were not showing.

Kovalainen's Vodafone McLaren Mercedes had gone straight off the track as he was braking for a corner and speared into stacks of tires lining a steel guardrail. The accident was not replayed on TV, nor did the screen show what was going on at the accident scene. That's a sure sign that a crash has been severe and may have had nasty consequences.

Then came the wonderful helicopter TV shot of Kovalainen giving the thumb's-up as he was wheeled away on a stretcher.

And then the TV started showing the replays of the accident from various angles.

Eleven days later, having been given final clearance by the FIA medical team, Kovalainen was at the Istanbul Park circuit preparing for this weekend's Turkish Grand Prix.

Kovalainen says he remembers nothing of the April 27 accident. He helped the rescue workers take off his helmet and told them he had no injuries. He waved to the helicopter. He went to the infield medical center. He was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Barcelona.

It was only then that he "woke up."

[+] EnlargeHeikki Kovalainen
AP Photo/Victor R. CaivanoHeikki Kovalainen gave a thumb's-up after rescue crews extracted him from the car.

"I remember being in intensive care in the hospital in the city, a lot of people around me," he said. "I was a bit confused what had happened so I asked my team doctor Mr. Hintsa, 'What are we doing here?' And he explained what happened. And then after that the memory has been normal, and I was aware of everything after that. That's where I got back on track."

"I haven't had a blackout before," he added. "I've had a couple of serious accidents before, but I never knocked myself out like that. Therefore it's got to be the most serious accident so far.

"The brain was confused and I didn't record anything on my hard drive!"

It is probably better that Kovalainen's brain did what normally happens to people in traumatic cases like this and blacked everything out.

He had been traveling at 160 mph and was on the brakes for Turn 9 at the Barcelona circuit when his left front tire suddenly deflated because of a wheel failure.

"It has been established that, owing to a process fault during manufacture, the outer clamp surface of the wheel was given a clear lacquer coating," a McLaren statement said. "As a consequence of this fault, the clamp load that attached the wheel was not to specification.

"In running, the consequent loss of load caused the wheel to fret and distort, leading to its eventual failure.

"Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and the wheel supplier have now established new procedures designed to prevent a re-occurrence of this issue."

Kovalainen braked as much has he could, but the car was still traveling at about 125 mph when it went straight off the track and plowed into the rows of tire stacks used as barriers with a force of 27 Gs. The car pierced through the tires and hit the steel guardrail hard enough to break off the front 20 inches of the chassis.

There were agonizing minutes while he was trapped under the tires before a tractor pulled his car out.

"I've obviously seen it on the images [on TV], that the tires were over me, and I sort of penetrated through the tire wall, but I don't remember that moment," Kovalainen said.

His helmet was covered in tire track marks.

"I think the helmet did its work," he said. "It took the impact very well and I didn't have any injuries to my head -- that's the most important thing."

The tire barriers slowed the car down. It is usually better to slam into a tire wall barrier than directly into a steel guardrail. But on the other hand, Kovalainen was trapped and it took time to extract him.

"It's something that we all should look very carefully at and see if there are better compromises," he said of tire wall barriers, "but luckily I had no injuries.

"I was not in a hurry to get out of there; my life was not threatened. So in this case the tires did the work very well. But had I injured myself while hitting the barrier, maybe then it was more important to get myself out of there quickly, and it would have been a bit marginal. It's something we should have a look at."

Last June, Robert Kubica had a terrifying wreck in the Canadian Grand Prix. He jokes that he did not have to watch the replays because he watched it live. He remembers what happened as it happened.

Kovalainen has watched the replays of his accident in Spain.

"I have seen it on television afterwards," he said. "It is a serious accident I managed to walk away. I think I was a little bit lucky, but also must stress that all the safety standards that the FIA has been pushing for worked very well there. The chassis took the impact reasonably well as did the barriers.

"The FIA medical team and the marshals did a fantastic job to get me out of there quickly and in a short period of time. I am able to make a recovery without any injuries in my body. I think it [safety] is something that we must still keep working on but the work paid off that day."

Kovalainen spent two nights in a Barcelona hospital.

One of the calls he received while there was from his teammate and friend Lewis Hamilton. The pair gets along very well.

"Heikki is very easy to get on with," Hamilton told ESPN.com. "Fortunately he is well to race this weekend, which is great for the team and his year.

"There is no stress [between us]. He wants to beat me and I want to beat him. After that last race it was a bit concerning that he might not be fit to race [in Turkey]. I was able to speak with him while he was at the hospital. It is that kind of relationship.

"He lives not very far away from me [in Switzerland] now, so we can do a lot more traveling and fitness stuff together. It is just really easy with him. He is a good laugh."

After recuperating and training at his native home in Finland, Kovalainen headed for Istanbul and the final medical check. The FIA gives all drivers a series of tests before they race in F1 for the first time. After a severe accident, especially one involving head injuries, the drivers must retake the test and match the baseline of the initial test.

"Basically they check how your brain and body is working and the reactions," Kovalainen explained. "I redid the test this morning and improved the score, so the impact seems to have a good effect!"

Kovalainen says everything is back to normal.

"I am looking forward to hopefully a strong weekend and to getting back in the car," he said. "I feel 100 percent."

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE