Motor Racing: Austrian killed in 190mph crash: San Marino Grand Prix: Death of newcomer to Formula One provokes fresh debate about safety on the track

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The Independent Online
THE fatal accident which befell the Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger here yesterday afternoon has cast a pall over today's San Marino Grand Prix, while uniting a shattered Formula One fraternity against an enemy it has not had to confront for eight years.

On his second lap, the 31- year-old Ratzenberger's Simtek lost its front wing as it approached the right-hand corner named after the late Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, who himself died at the wheel in 1982. This is the fastest part of the course, and when Ratzenberger failed to negotiate the curve he slammed into the wall on the left-hand side at virtually undiminished speed.

Estimates suggest he was travelling in excess of 190mph, and when the car finally came to rest, 200 metres further on, Ratzenberger was slumped motionless in the cockpit. He received immediate medical attention at the scene of the accident and after prolonged efforts at resuscitation was transferred by air ambulance to the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna. He succumbed shortly afterwards to his injuries. He had only come into Formula One at the beginning of the year, and had made his debut at the recent Pacific Grand Prix in Japan, where he finished 11th.

His death came just as the sport was breathing a profound sigh of relief following a high- speed crash involving the young Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello at almost exactly the same time the previous day. His Jordan hit a safety fence at 140mph after he had lost control, but he was remarkably fortunate to emerge with nothing worse than a severe shaking and facial cuts and bruises.

Ratzenberger's death has inevitably raised questions about regulation changes made for the 1994 season. Among other things they outlawed the active suspension systems that helped cars to absorb surface irregularities. The bumpy nature of the Imola circuit had already highlighted the shortcomings of machines with very stiff suspension which permits little vertical wheel movement, and when Barrichello struck the trackside kerb, his car was launched four feet into the air. But the accident which killed the Austrian was one for which there can be little regulation. He was a victim of the sort of incident that occasionally defies all of the painstaking design and development that goes into today's cars. It will, however, provoke fresh investigations into safety at a time when the neck injuries sustained already this year by J J Lehto and Jean Alesi are creating mounting concern that the cars are now too fast. The sport's governing body, the FIA, has plans to introduce chassis designs which generate much less aerodynamic downforce, in an attempt to slow their cornering speeds, and after recent speculation that this may be delayed until 1996 it is more likely that they will now go ahead as planned for 1995. Ironically, some of the greatest research input done so far for the FIA has been conducted by the talented young designer Nick Wirth, who owns the Simtek team for which Ratzenberger drove.

Barrichello's dramatic escape had once again appeared to confirm the inherent strength of the present breed of Formula One cars, whose carbon-fibre composite structure has moved motor racing far beyond the dangerous image it projected in the past. The last man to be killed in a Formula One car was the Italian Elio de Angelis, whose Brabham crashed at the Paul Ricard circuit in 1986 following structural failure. In 1990 Martin Donnelly, of Ulster, was ejected from the remains of his Lotus after hitting a guardrail at more than 140mph in practice for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, but despite severe leg injuries he recovered to full health. In the Brazilian Grand Prix in March this year, four cars were involved in a collision when Eddie Irvine and Jos Verstappen touched at high speed, but none of the drivers was seriously injured. Irvine, who was banned for three races for his part in that, was a shocked spectator on Friday when his Jordan team-mate Barrichello crashed.

Qualifying practice resumed just under an hour after the accident, but few really had much heart in the proceedings. The anticipated battle for pole position between Ayrton Senna and his Williams-Renault and the championship leader Michael Schumacher in the Benetton-Ford had already been settled in the Brazilian's favour on a circuit where power is paramount. In the circumstances, neither men, nor their respective team-mates Damon Hill and J J Lehto (third and fifth on the grid in company with the Ferraris) went out again. 'We thought that it was the right thing to do,' said Tom Walkinshaw, Benetton's Technical Director, and Frank Williams echoed his sentiments.

As the Formula One teams attempt to regain their self-confidence, the speed with which the safety and medical services responded to both accidents drew universal praise. 'I remember exactly the moment before I touched the barrier, waiting for the crash and then everything went into darkness,' Barrichello said. 'The next thing I knew I was in the medical centre with Senna alongside me.

'I had very good care there and I want to say thank you to everyone for that. They really took good care of me.'

This afternoon the 25 drivers on the grid - Simtek have withdrawn their other car - must put all thoughts of the tragedy behind them, but no matter who wins, the result will inevitably be tainted by yesterday's sad event.

Grand prix fatalities

(Deaths in practice or during Grand Prix)

1954: O Marimon (Arg/Maserati), practice, German Grand Prix.

1958: P Collins (GB/Ferrari), German.

L Musso (It/Ferrari), French.

S Lewis-Evans (GB/Vanwall), Mo roccan.

1960: C Bristow (GB/Cooper), Belgian.

A Stacey (GB), Belgian.

1961: W Von Trips (Ger/Ferrari) Italian.

1964: C Godin De Beaufort (Neth/Porsche), practice, Italian.

1966: J Taylor (GB/Brabham), German.

1967: L Bandini (It/Ferrari), died after crash ing at Monte Carlo.

1968: J Schlesser (Fr/Honda), French.

1969: G Mitter (Ger), practice, German.

1970: P Courage (GB/De Tomaso), Dutch.

J Rindt (Aut/Lotus), practice, Italian.

1973: F Cevert (Fr/Tyrrell), practice, Ameri

can.

R Williamson (GB/March), Dutch.

1974: H Koinigg (Aut/Surtess), American.

1975: M Donohue (US/March-Penske), prac tice, Austrian.

1977: T Pryce (GB/Shadow), South African.

1978: R Peterson (Swe/Lotus), died following crash, Italian.

1982: R Paletti (It/Osella), Canadian.

G Villeneuve (Can/Ferrari), practice,

Belgian.

(Photograph omitted)

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