Drivers at risk from inexperienced marshals

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Three significant accidents in Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix here once again raised questions about safety in Formula One.

In the most serious, the French driver Olivier Panis sustained double fractures to both legs. In others, Ralf Schumacher struck a tyre wall at very high speed when his Jordan-Peugeot may have suffered a tyre or suspension failure, while Ukyo Katayama's Minardi also crashed heavily.

In each accident, the cars' structures withstood very high impacts, thanks to the stringent mandatory pre-season crash tests by the FIA, the sport's governing body.

But the manner in which the tyre walls coped has led to some criticism, as they tended to separate and in some instances single tyres were thrown on to the track. After the race, there were calls for tyres to be tied together more securely.

David Coulthard, who was on course for victory until a clutch problem delayed his McLaren-Mercedes during his final stop, put the concerns about the tyres into perspective, however, when he said: "Accidents can happen anywhere and maybe we need to look at more tyres at the particular corner where Panis crashed. But it's a straightforward corner, no more dangerous than anything we have at Monaco, and I certainly don't regard that as a dangerous circuit."

Of greater import to Panis' colleagues was the manner in which the inexperienced marshals insisted on lifting him from his car, even though he was indicating his wish to remain there until Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA doctor, arrived. In 1989, the French driver Philippe Streiff got himself out of his damaged AGS after a crash during testing in Brazil, but later suffered permanent paralysis after failing to get the right advice and treatment at the right time, and the drivers have long been aware of the need for sound medical counsel.

Watkins is the first man any of the drivers wants to see after an accident, and they were concerned that removing Panis from the car prematurely could have had serious consequences had he actually sustained spinal injuries. At the time, there was no threat of fire and no way that the marshals could have made a valid diagnosis of his condition. Behind the scenes, Watkins' safety group has been studying means of incorporating a special seat into F1 cars which could act as a back support in such incidents and which could be removed complete with driver.

Mark Blundell, the former McLaren racer turned IndyCar driver, who was standing in for Martin Brundle on television commentary duty, was particularly perturbed. "After I had my accident earlier this year testing at the Homestead track in America, I told them my hands were feeling numb. They put me on a back board and I was strapped there for four hours before things had stabilised. What they did with Panis was very bad, because they couldn't have known the extent of his injuries. They should have waited for Sid."