Motor-racing: Call to help risk-takers

David Tremayne says motorsport is demanding protection from prosecution
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Governing body of motorsport is expected to press the Italian government to introduce a "dangerous sports law" in the light of the Ayrton Senna case, which goes to court this week.

Blame at present must be apportioned in any fatal accident and, if necessary, prosecution follows. In the Senna case, the team owner Frank Williams, his fellow director and designer Patrick Head and the designer Adrian Newey are among those charged over the death of the Brazilian during the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit on 1 May 1994.

Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, is expected to call for a modified law which recognises that competitors take calculated risks and must be allowed to do so without running the gauntlet of criminal prosecution in the event of an accident. Risk is an inherent part of motorsport, as it is in other pursuits, such as boxing, and adds to the appeal.

The San Remo Rally of 1987 set a precedent when a driver crashed, left the road, and struck a hut in which an individual unconnected with the event lay sleeping. He was injured and the driver of the rally car received a four-month suspended jail sentence for dangerous driving. The prosecution alleged he must have been driving too fast simply because none of the other competitors crashed at that point.

"That sort of thing means it's not possible to hold such events because they prevent competition drivers from driving on the limit," a sports official, who did not wish to be named, said last week. "Under the letter of Italian law, driving on the limit, as one must in such circumstances, would put drivers at the risk of committing a criminal offence. That is just not acceptable."

The charges arising in the Senna case have obliged FIA officers to consider further the ramifications for those who are dependent upon their judgement. Williams, Head and Newey, together with FIA-elected officials from the San Marino Grand Prix, could face prison sentences if found guilty of causing Senna's death. The best legal advice available to the FIA suggests this is highly unlikely. Indeed, the majority view is that when the case finally reaches its conclusion (and that is not expected for some time), no action will be taken.

But concerned F1 team owners are increasingly disinclined to place themselves at such risk, and there is a ground swell of opinion against racing in Italy until such time as the law can be amended. In the aftermath of Senna's death, the newly reformed Grand Prix Drivers' Association demanded that a number of trees be cut down in the park at Monza to facilitate a greater run-off area in one of the corners. The issue erupted into conflict between the sport and environmentalists, and as both sides became entrenched it took a threat by the FIA to cancel the Italian Grand Prix to bring about the reconciliation, through which the required tree surgery was conducted. Monza, it transpired, lay in a sensitive voting region, and losing the grand prix would have been political suicide.

The Italians now face a similar situation as the future of international motor racing in their country will inevitably come under threat. The San Marino Grand Prix is but eight weeks away, which is far too soon for any change, but the FIA and the team owners are demanding assurances for the future.

Meanwhile the Senna case drags on, boosted in the media by the news that Damon Hill, the world champion who Williams sacked, will be a prosecution witness and that Frank Williams will not, after all, be present when the trial opens on Thursday. There is nothing sinister or spiteful in Hill's role; like Michael Schumacher, an eye witness to Senna's accident, Hill (Senna's team-mate) is being called in case he can shed light on the incident.

The fact Williams has chosen not to attend until absolutely necessary is far less surprising than the fact that the case has been brought at all. Most expected that it would go the way of similar accidents - such as those involving the deaths at Monza of Wolfgang von Trips, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson, in 1961, '70 and '78 respectively - and be allowed to fade away.

This is where the Senna case seemed headed, for by the time the prosecuting magistrate Maurizio Passarini's findings and recommendations went before a judge in June last year, things had quietened down. But accusations by an influential Italian motorsport magazine that things were being hushed up set in motion an unstoppable chain of events. Exertion of political pressure to amend the law remains one of the slim hopes that the Senna case will avoid heaping indignity upon tragedy.