Italy faces boycott threat

David Tremayne examines possible implications of the Ayrton Senna affair
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AS TEAMS prepare for the new season, everyone in grand prix racing is anxious to see an outcome to the investigation into the death of Ayrton Senna, but are heartily sick of the fresh wave of speculation that Williams chief Frank Williams and designer Patrick Head face possible jail sentences for man- slaughter now that the report into the Brazilian's accident at Imola in May 1994 is finally nearing publication.

The Williams team maintained their silence last week, sceptical of the credibility of reports emanating from the Italian media that magistrates will seek a two-year jail term against various parties involved in the San Marino Grand Prix two years ago. However, assistant investigating magistrate Maurizio Passarini, firmly denying that any decision had been taken, said: "All these hypotheses are being made out of nothing. We are still considering the findings."

Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing body, the FIA, was cautious. "I have looked at the law a little bit in various countries," he said, "and procedures are very much the same in most non-Anglo Saxon countries. They are obviously looking very carefully and have been for some time. Our position is one of complete neutrality; it's a matter for Italian law."

Though the FIA might remain neutral, teams will consider a boycott of Italian races if jail sentences were to be handed down to men in a sport where risk is an accepted part of the contract between team and driver. "Everybody has a right to decide what they want to do," Mosley said. "It's like a driver saying he doesn't want to race. But it doesn't directly concern us. We won't be taking sides; there's no side to take."

However, Ron Dennis, of the McLaren team, has indicated publicly that he would be uneasy racing in Italy if any action were to be taken against his rivals at Williams, and other team owners harbour similar private feelings. Back in 1973, as the ramifications of the Rindt accident at Monza in 1970 still threatened Lotus chief Colin Chapman, other teams were prepared to boycott the Italian Grand Prix. Eventually the matter was settled without recourse to law. This time, strenuous plea bargaining efforts are being made behind the scenes to ensure that, even in the worst outcome, parties involved at Imola would receive only suspended sentences.

Mosley said that in most European countries there is the legal machinery for the team owner or designer to be prosecuted if a driver is killed, though it has only usually been a problem in Italy: "I think if a similar accident happened, for example, in France, they might well have a look at it. I think the way the Italians look at it is that they say, was there an accident? Was somebody injured or killed? If the answer to that is yes, they say, was somebody negligent? If it was quite a small degree of negligence, then in an Anglo-Saxon country that would be a civil matter. In most Mediterranean countries, any degree of negligence must be prosecuted."

Mosley must chart a careful course and is anxious not to offend Italian parties or to inflame the situation, but last week he revealed the FIA's plans to circumnavigate the unacceptable delays that have marred the Senna investigation by introducing black boxes for 1997, which would record data on the performance of every car in the same way as similar units do in aircraft.

The latest Senna rumours have arisen at an unfortunate time for motor racing, which has never been viewed more positively by the Establishment - it was recently the subject of a two-and-a-half hour debate in the House of Lords. "People such as Ian Lang, of the Department of Trade and Industry, had a lot to do with the debate," Mosley said, "and I think that quite a few politicians have woken up to Britain's tremendous motor racing heritage. We have a pretty extraordinary industry, and there is a growing feeling that maybe people can learn from it."

Ironically, as the new safety-conscious breed of F1 cars has begun to emerge wearing mandatory high cockpit sides that resemble uncomfortable surgical collars and are designed to protect drivers' heads, Tyrrell design chief Harvey Postlethwaite described his new creation as a "75mph car". "We analysed the characteristics of all the circuits hosting a Grand Prix in 1996 and it's been very enlightening," he said. "These days the most common motor racing corner is a second gear, 75mph corner, and we have to design a car which loves going round that kind of bend." The season's first race is in Australia on 10 March.