Motor Racing: Drivers query lack of safety car

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The Independent Online
A BELGIAN Grand Prix of unsurpassed drama confirmed the improbable emergence of a compelling spectacle and a new force in the sport from depressingly barren beginnings. Damon Hill's victory, a breakthrough for Jordan, eased the fears of Formula One's promoters that the championship would prove a cakewalk for McLaren-Mercedes, but it was the safety of drivers in the appalling conditions at Spa-Francorchamps that dominated thoughts in the aftermath of the race.

Several teams questioned why the race began and was allowed to continue for long periods without a safety car when drivers were racing at high speeds with no visibility.

"You have to question the safety issues," said Benetton's chief executive, Dave Richards, whose drivers, Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz, failed to finish due to accidents.

"Most of the incidents were cars running into the back of each other because they were just not visible through the spray. I am just thankful nobody was seriously hurt."

Wurz, who hit McLaren's David Coulthard soon after the restart, believed the original race - when he destroyed his Benetton - should have begun under the safety car. "The first crash was really scary," he said. Fisichella, whose car caught fire after a collision, said the safety car should have been brought out much earlier in the restarted race as the accidents continued.

The Italian was backed up by Hill, who survived a near-miss at the start to score his first win for nearly two years.

"I have concerns about this circuit when it's wet, and when its dry. It is a very high-speed circuit," said Hill. "All I know is that at times I was going at around 160mph and I could see nothing in front of my face. The conditions made it very difficult and the safety car issue will have to be looked at."

But Hill would acknowledge that the conditions helped his cause. Mika Hakkinen and McLaren-Mercedes made a commanding start to the season and in truth they still have the best car and looked well placed to win after their performance in the dry in practice.

Ferrari, and Michael Schumacher in particular, have managed to challenge them, and gradually a chasing pack has got close enough to take advantage of any mishap.

However, both the championship protagonists were victims of the mayhem, leaving the door open for the pack. But it was not Benetton, the first of the year's pursuers to capitalise, or Williams, who joined the hunt more recently. It was Jordan and Hill, the team and driver seemingly pedalling backwards in the first half of the season.

Their ascendancy is one of the stories of this season. Hill's victory, ahead of team-mate Ralf Schumacher, may have been presented by good fortune, but it was made possible by the momentum generated over the previous four grands prix. The car-engine package has been improved beyond recognition and Hill, outgunned by his young partner and stripped of confidence in the earlier races, has rediscovered the pace and rhythm that earned him the championship, two years ago, with Williams.

Hill has contended all along he still has it in him to win races and contest another title. He is expected to sign a pounds 3.5m contract with Jordan for next year before the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sunday week and is already canvassing support for the team cause.

"We have to make sure we exploit this success. It's going to be difficult to beat the likes of Ferrari and McLaren but that has to be our objective. Eddie wants more sponsorship so that we have the means to compete with the big guys," he said, praising the work of all who have strived so hard to improve the car and the engine.

Ralf Schumacher was a conspicuously reluctant reveller here, admitting he was not happy to be restrained from racing Hill. He accepted that instruction as professional good sense, but it did nothing to diminish his determination to leave the team and join Williams.

His big brother, Michael, was still less amused after running into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren when his mastery of the wet promised another win and a three-point lead in the championship.

Schumacher's confrontation with Coulthard, accusing the Scot of deliberately slowing and trying to kill him, will serve to further hype the show at Monza - no matter that the stewards threw out Ferrari's protests.