in Rome and DERICK ALLSOP
The crash that killed Ayrton Senna at last year's San Marino Grand Prix was caused by a mechanical fault in the Brazilian driver's steering column, according to a team of judicial investigators, whose conclusions on the deaths of both Senna and the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger were disclosed yesterday.
The investigators handed in their 500-page report to the judicial authorities in Bologna, who will now decide whether or not to prosecute members of Senna's Williams team for criminal negligence for the accident on 1 May. Seventeen people, including the Williams chief, Frank Williams, and designer, Patrick Head, are under formal investigation. The findings about Senna were the most damaging part of the report. The Imola circuit did not appear to be at fault, it said, while Ratzenberger's death was a pure accident.
The report pinned Senna's death on a pre-race adjustment to the steering column, which the driver had requested in search of a better driving position. Williams mechanics shortened the column and welded on a length of narrower tubing, which the report claims subsequently became weakened by the strain of the race and snapped as Senna tried to take the Tamburello curve on the seventh lap.
The report described how Senna's car shuddered and banged against the ground curve as he tried, in vain, to brake. His loss of control, it said, was exacerbated by a four-degree gradient in the track as it sloped towards the wall where he finally crashed. He died after sustaining serious head injuries.
Williams's lawyer in Italy, Roberto Causo, disputed the report's findings last night. "Our data shows the steering was working until the moment of impact," he said. The team declined to comment, saying they wanted to read the full report. They are concerned about damaging publicity ahead of the new Formula One season which opens in Senna's home town of Sao Paulo on 26 March.
In the next few days, magistrates in Bologna are expected to start questioning witnesses and technicians. A trial judge will then have to decide whether to press criminal charges, which could include manslaughter, drop the case or pursue further evidence. Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing body, FIA, has warned that legal proceedings against Williams could cause the other teams to consider boycotting races in Italy.