Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, September 11, 1998

Grand Prix Co-Pilots: Safety and Luck


By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The atmosphere will be tense at this weekend's Italian Grand Prix, not only in the battle between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher for the drivers' title but also because it is the 20th anniversary at the Monza track of a 10-car pile-up that seriously injured two drivers and took the life of a third, Ronnie Peterson.

That anniversary might have passed unnoticed were it not for a stark reminder Aug. 30 at the Belgian Grand Prix when 13 cars were destroyed in one of the sport's worst pile-ups. The fact that no driver was injured is partly a tribute to the strict safety rules now applied to the cars' cockpits, which are much more solidly constructed than they were in 1978. But it is also due to luck.

Nowhere will the off-track tension be higher Friday in Monza than in the race control tower, where the most important safety decisions are made. During the Friday practice session in Belgium, this reporter was invited to watch the scene in what is normally the privileged domain of a handful of officials who have the best seat at the track.

The 20 officials sat in deep concentration watching 39 television monitors in their room high above the track, in what looks like a cross between a TV station and NASA's Mission Control. When a car suddenly spun off sideways into a tire safety barrier at nearly 300 kilometers an hour (185 mph), the silent watchers sprang to their feet and spoke into walkie-talkies and cellular telephones.

''Red flag! Red flag!'' called out Charlie Whiting, the race director, to stop the practice session.

''Send the breakdown truck,'' another official barked.

''Go to the site,'' ordered another, as Whiting put on his windbreaker to go to inspect the scene of the accident.

Jacques Villeneuve, the car's driver, climbed out of the wreck and teetered like a boxer after absorbing an effective uppercut. But within 20 seconds, Sid Watkins, the track doctor, was by his side, having been dispatched to ''corner 3'' by the control tower.

Fortunately, Villeneuve was not hurt, and the session continued after a 15-minute track cleanup, done by the track-side workers following directions from the control tower.

The control tower is manned mostly by local officials, the most senior of whom is the so-called clerk of the course. They communicate with about 300 officials around the track.

Whiting, who represents the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, oversees them all. As race director, he ensures that the locals do things the same way in every country.

He is also the official race starter, which can turn the best seat in the house into the hottest seat. Both the Monza accident 20 years ago and the recent accident in Belgium occurred on the first lap. Two hours before the Belgian race, while the rain fell in sheets across the track, David Coulthard, the British driver, pleaded with Whiting to start the race behind the safety car.

A safety car leads the racing cars, in their grid order, around the track until it drives off, allowing the race to start in earnest. This kind of rolling start rather than a standing start can reduce danger of cars fighting for places at the first corner through poor visibility on a slippery track.

''We'd like you to use the safety car because otherwise a lot of us are going to go off the track,'' Coulthard said, ''and I'll probably be one of them.''

But Whiting, at noon, could not give Coulthard a definitive answer for the race that would begin at 2 P.M. He was nervous about the treacherous conditions, but said he would decide only just before the race. ''You have to address every problem individually,'' he said. ''The weather can change.''

By 2 o'clock it had cleared a little but the track was still wet under a light drizzle. The safety car was not used and Coulthard's words proved strangely prophetic: He was the first to slide off the track at the start, setting off the chain-reaction pileup.

After the race Villeneuve said the use of the safety car wouldn't have made a difference, while Alexander Wurz said the safety car should have been used.

Whiting said that the safety decisions are always ''a human thing as opposed to a machine.''






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