Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, April 30, 1999

Imola Still Haunts Formula One

5 Years After Senna's Crash, Racing Is Safer -- Some Say Too Safe

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - As Stephane Sarrazin's car headed out of control and straight for a wall at 270 kilometers per hour in his debut Grand Prix three weeks ago in Brazil, the French driver thought of Ayrton Senna.

Five years after Senna died on May 1, 1994, when his Williams ran into a wall during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, memories of the accident still haunt Formula One. The European leg of the series starts this weekend at Imola on the anniversary of that race in which two drivers were killed, and several other people were injured in five incidents.

Sarrazin's accident, in fact, had more in common with the one that killed Roland Ratzenberger, an Austrian driver, during the time trials the day before Senna's death. Ratzenberger's Simtek, like Sarrazin's Minardi, lost part of its front wing while at top speed, making the car uncontrollable. Ratzenberger died instantly after hitting a wall.

That was the first death in Formula One during a race weekend since Riccardo Paletti was killed at the start of the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. During those 12 years, Formula One had expanded into a popular television sport with its dueling stars, Senna and Alain Prost, as famous for their off-track feuds as for their driving exploits.

Prost retired in 1993, and Senna took the Frenchman's seat at Williams. But it was not until Imola that their feuding publicly ended. While Prost was commentating for French television, Senna sent him a message from the car radio: ''A special hello to my dear ... our dear friend Alain. We all miss you a lot.''

But all was not well for Senna that weekend. During Friday qualifying, the Jordan driven by Rubens Barrichello, a 21-year-old Brazilian protégé of Senna's, went airborne after hitting the track curb. The car struck the fence and flipped over three times, giving the driver a concussion and facial bruises.

After Ratzenberger's crash the next day Senna was seen turning his head away from the television monitor in disgust, and he later fought back tears. Neither he nor Michael Schumacher took to the track again that day.

Senna said he was wary about driving the race. The cars had become so dependent for their grip on aerodynamic downforce ‹ the wind force that pushes the cars down using their wings and flat undersides ‹ that if they lost part of the chassis they became uncontrollable.

Before the race, Prost said, ''The drivers aren't complaining enough. We're forgetting about safety and just saying the cars are strong enough.''

At the race start Pedro Lamy's car collided with J.J. Lehto's, sending a wheel and parts of the suspension into the crowd, giving one spectator a serious head injury.

The race was suspended behind a safety car with Senna in the lead. After the restart on lap six, as Senna turned almost flat-out into the long, wide Tamburello curve -- ''the curve of all the dangers,'' as Philippe Alliot, a French driver, called it before the race -- the car shot off to the right and hit the wall at about 300 kilometers (186 miles) an hour. Senna was struck in the head by a part of the suspension and was pronounced dead at a hospital in Bologna some four hours later.

No explanation of why his car went out of control has been found. Prosecutors in the subsequent manslaughter trial in Italian court against several Williams team members -- from which they were acquitted in 1997 -- contended that the steering column snapped before the accident. Williams said that happened during the impact with the wall.

Not since Jim Clark, the Scot who won two Formula One titles, died in equally mysterious circumstances at Hockenheim in a Formula Two race in 1968 had Formula One lost its greatest star in a race accident. But while few people saw Clark's accident, Senna's was witnessed by millions.

Max Mosley, president of the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, pushed through massive safety changes in a process that continues to today. The cars are narrower, with high lateral protection around a driver's head. Slick tires were banned. Tires now have grooves. Track curves deemed dangerous were modified, and pit-lane speeds are limited to avoid the kind of accident that injured mechanics later in the 1994 Imola race. The bottoms of the cars are stepped, and ride higher off the track. This year the wheels must be attached to the chassis with cables to prevent them from flying off.

In an interview last week, Mosley said that the rules now aimed for a ''zero-death'' target.

''All we can do is reduce the probability of a fatality. I don't think we can ever eliminate it,'' he said. ''Just like, with people playing tennis to the best of their ability, they're going to hit the ball out of the court sometimes. Even if nothing breaks on the car, the driver will make a mistake occasionally and he'll have a crash. So you can only try to ensure that when he does he'll walk away.''

Sarrazin and Ricardo Zonta, a Brazilian driver who injured his foot in another spectacular accident in Brazil three weeks ago, are perhaps proof of Mosley's success. But Sarrazin's car registered an abrupt loss of downforce the moment he lost that wing, and two of Zonta's wheels flew off despite the cables.

Many drivers, notably Jacques Villeneuve, criticize the safety measures as watering down the sport. And in January, Stirling Moss, who raced from 1951 to 1961, said on the BBC that Formula One had become too safe. ''The safer a car gets the more contempt you get of danger,'' he said.

Mosley, who drove in the race in which Clark died, thinks drivers are not the best judges. ''If you want to pursue a sport, it's up to the people running it to make sure you can do so as safely as possible,'' he said.

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