Motor Racing: Crash crisis deepens: Montermini escapes serious injury as accident mars practice for Spanish Grand Prix

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The Independent Online
AN ACCIDENT here involving the Italian driver Andrea Montermini at the end of yesterday morning's free practice session for today's Spanish Grand Prix inevitably provoked further speculation that hasty revisions to the cars to cut downforce and therefore cornering speeds, announced recently at Monaco, were responsible for the eighth serious incident to befall Formula One this season.

The 29-year-old, the replacement for Roland Ratzenberger in the Simtek team, crashed exiting the fast corner that leads on to the pit straight and was knocked unconscious after hitting a wall. There was widespread relief when it was announced that he was conscious and speaking to doctors as he was flown to hospital, where he was diagnosed as having nothing worse than a broken toe and a cracked heel.

The accident owed little if anything to the changes, as Montermini simply made a small error which had sizeable consequences. But the revised cars have met with unfavourable reactions from the drivers. The Brazilian driver Christian Fittipaldi said: 'They go as fast in a straight line, so we still arrive at the corners at the same speed. The reduction in downforce has made the cars less predictable.' Mark Blundell said: 'I wouldn't say these cars are now more dangerous, but they're not any safer.'

When final qualifying began, it was business as usual for Schumacher and the Benetton- Ford team. The championship leader's car exhibited outstanding poise despite its modifications, even through the makeshift tyre chicane upon which the drivers had insisted, and he was his customary smooth self as he recorded his second consecutive pole position.

Once again, Mika Hakkinen, of Finland, challenged him strongly in a McLaren that now appears to lack only horsepower from its Peugeot V10 engine. However, it was Damon Hill who finally secured the other front-row position with a late run for Williams-Renault, but the team have yet to tame their car's handling and Hill had a noticeably harsher ride than Schumacher.

Hakkinen is joined on the second row by his countryman, J J Lehto, himself an accident victim earlier in the season when he crashed his Benetton at Silverstone. He put in his best performance of the season to take fourth place ahead of Rubens Barrichello, who had that miraculous deliverance from his own accident at Imola. The Brazilian showed that there have been no lasting effects by taking his best qualifying position in the Jordan with fifth place, ahead of the Ferraris of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, and Martin Brundle's McLaren.

The other star of qualifying was the newcomer David Coulthard, taking Ayrton Senna's seat at Williams. The 23-year-old Scot has adapted very impressively to his new environment, and ninth position bodes very well for his future.

Following the dictates he made so publicly in Monaco, the president of FIA, the sport's world governing body, Max Mosley has been under heavy fire from the teams, who believe that the technical changes he proposed and the timescale for them was completely unworkable. Privately, McLaren wrote to him to complain. The Benetton team chief, Flavio Briatore, did so rather more publicly last week, and their war of words dragged into Thursday and Friday in an argument over safety issues.

Representatives of Benetton, McLaren, Williams, Jordan, Lotus and Footwork met for four hours on Friday morning with Bernie Ecclestone, FIA's vice-president of marketing but also the head of the constructors' alliance, Foca. Mosley joined this meeting part-way through, and was left in no doubt about the teams' dissatisfaction with the manner in which he had handled the rule changes.

Some say that he emerged the victor, having seen the changes he wanted implemented before electing to step back in order to leave the day-to-day affairs of Formula One safely within the teams' hands so that he could concentrate on other areas of motorsport which require his urgent attention. But others believe that Mosley was threatened with a face-losing boycott by the leading teams, and that this was used to inflict a political defeat. Mosley vigorously denied any such defeat.

Now Ecclestone and the teams have a piece of paper in their hands (allegedly Mosley's authorisation to look after the running of the series), but it remains to be seen whether this really means peace in our time for Formula One - and that rule changes will now be implemented only after detailed discussion by the car designers and the drivers - or if Barcelona merely signalled the first salvos in a new war between the teams and the governing body.

(Photograph omitted)

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