There was a slightly worrying note on Sunday evening in Sochi, when it emerged (from his own mouth) that Carlos Sainz had been feeling “a bit dizzy” before and in the early stages of the Russian Grand Prix. Sainz had suffered a split-second 46G impact in his accident on Saturday and was airlifted to a local hospital for tests. He was discharged that evening. The following morning he was given the all-clear to race by the FIA Medical Delegate Professor Jean-Charles Piette, a doctor of internal medicine at the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris, and by Sergey Papiyants, the Chief Medical Officer of the Sochi circuit.
I am not a doctor, but I have been around F1 for a long time and I have seen a lot of different kinds of head injury over the years. I have to admit that I was a little surprised to hear on Sunday morning that Sainz was going to be allowed to race. I fully understand that a racer always wants to race, but generally after a really big crash, the doctors are cautious because of concussion. What Sainz described after the race suggests that he may have been suffering from one.
The problem is that concussion is not easy to define, let alone diagnose. Concussion is usually caused by a blow to the head, but it can also occur when the head is violently shaken. The word, in fact, comes from the Latin concutere, which means “to shake violently.”
It is said to be the most common and least serious type of brain injury, but in reality it is a spectrum of things, rather than an easily-defined ailment. What it means is that for an undefined period of time, one’s brain does not function normally. It is confused. The symptoms are varied, including disturbed vision, balance problems,confusion, clumsiness, slurred speech, headaches, sensitivity to light, dizziness and even memory loss.
There is a celebrated story about Martin Brundle having had a huge crash in qualifying at Monaco in 1984. Running back to the pits, seemingly unhurt, then getting into his spare car and asking team boss Ken Tyrrell what circuit he was at. Because the symptoms and the timings vary from one person to another, many people suffer concussion without even knowing they have it, but most concussions do not require staying in hospital, while others can last for up to three days, as the brain settles down.
What has been discovered in recent years is that too many concussions close together can cause long-term effects and in extreme cases can even kill, so it is best to be cautious, keep the patient under observation for a day or two and insist on physical and cognitive rest. The effects of these type of injuries have been put in the spotlight in recent years by revelations about concussion in the NFL. The league adopted a stricter rule on return-to-play, stating that a player who suffers a concussion should not return to play or practice on the same day if he shows any signs or symptoms of a concussion. Today the league has “concussion spotters” watching each game, looking for signs that a player may be suffering from a concussion.
During the FIA Sport Conference Week in Mexico City in June, the subject of concussion came up during presentation by Dr Steve Olvey, a well-known name in IndyCar circles.
“I’m very concerned about concussion,” Olvey said. “Ten to 15 years ago we used to say when a driver walked from a car: ‘Oh he’s okay, he’s just had a concussion, but he’s ok’. Now we know from things that have happened in hockey, soccer and American football that repeated concussions too close together are very detrimental and can cause severe illness. We miss a lot of concussions because the symptoms often don’t show up for 24 or 48 hours, so we need to make the diagnosis early and not let them back into competition too soon.”