Motor Racing: Formula One desperate for some answers: Derick Allsop reports from Monte Carlo on the crisis of direction in grand prix racing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Formula One fraternity reassembled here still in shock after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola but that, most agree, was a freak weekend.

They tried to comfort themselves with the belief that the sport was no more dangerous than it had been a fortnight previously. They had also left behind the high-speed curves and concrete walls of the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari for the relatively slow, tight confines of the principality's street circuit. Surely a semblance of normality would return and the risk of undue panic recede.

Now, after Karl Wendlinger's accident, the seriousness of the sport's predicament can no longer be camouflaged. Formula One, motor racing's flagship, is confronted with a crisis of confidence and direction.

Rubens Barrichello was lucky. He escaped a spectacular crash in the first qualifying session of the San Marino Grand Prix relatively unscathed. Twenty-four hours later, Ratzenberger's Simtek- Ford lost a wing and went straight on at the end of the fastest section on the track. He died from head injuries. In the race, Senna's Williams-Renault ploughed into the wall at Tamburello and he, too, sustained fatal head injuries. Yesterday Wendlinger's Sauber-Mercedes slammed into a barrier. He suffered head injuries.

Everyone wants to know what is going on. No one has an answer. Grief and anxiety are matched only by bewilderment. However, grand prix drivers and officials insist that to try to blame the accidents on the abolition of state-of-the-art driver aids is wrong. Traction control and active suspension were available only to the top four teams, who were able to afford the technology.

Perhaps the modern car has finally outgrown existing circuits. Perhaps there are more catastrophic accidents waiting to happen.

Emergency meetings of drivers and administrators will be held today. Already there have been commitments to revise the safety standards of cars and circuits. Particularly urgent is the need to provide greater protection for the head and neck. That, however, could demand a major change of car design and could not be achieved overnight.

All the more reason, some would argue, to suspend the season. The meeting at FIA headquarters in Paris last week rejected calls to cancel the Monaco Grand Prix and the rest of the championship. Those options must be back on the agenda. Such calls cannot be dismissed as alarmist.

The authorities have pleaded against over-reaction, suggesting hasty measures could have still more dire consequences. Yet Gerhard Berger's appeal here on Wednesday remains in the memory. The experienced Austrian, stunned by the loss of his friends, Senna and Ratzenberger, and racked with guilt because he felt he ought to have been more vigilant in the pursuit of a safer Formula One, urged a more acceptable balance between the sporting and commercial priorities.

Formula One is a multi-million pound going concern, providing, in the better times, entertainment for millions. Events of the past fortnight, alas, have rendered its credibility in danger of bankruptcy.


Friday 21 January

J J Lehto crashes during test with Benetton at Silverstone. Spun after hitting bump exiting Stowe corner at 130mph. Car careered backwards into concrete wall. Lehto suffers two crushed vertebrae, misses first two grands prix.

Sunday 27 March

Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo: Four-car pile-up involving Eddie Irvine, Martin Brundle, Eric Bernard and Jos Verstappen, Lehto's substitute. Irvine, attempting to hold off Verstappen with lapped Bernard and Brundle in front, cuts across Verstappen, whose car flies across the track at 180mph, wrecking Brundle's and splitting the Briton's helmet. No serious injuries, but Irvine fined dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,700) and banned for one race, increased to three after unsuccessful appeal. In separate incidents, Ayrton Senna spins off and Mark Blundell crashes his Tyrrell at 150mph; wheel failure is suspected. No injuries.

Wednesday 30 March

Jean Alesi knocked unconscious when Ferrari spins off during testing at Mugello in Florence. He quickly regains consciousness but suffers compressed vertebrae, misses two grands prix.

Saturday 16 April

Senna and Damon Hill spin off in qualifying for Pacific Grand Prix. Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, says: 'It is worrying because both of them spun at the same corner and using the same set- up. We don't yet know if they were just trying too hard or whether something fundamental is amiss.'

Sunday 17 April

Pacific Grand Prix, Aida, Japan: Senna hit from behind by Mika Hakkinen, then rammed by Nicola Larina (Alesi's substitute) at the first corner. Larini and Senna out of race. Later, Hill spins off after tangling with Hakkinen. Senna and Hill both critical of the Finn.

Friday 29 April

Rubens Barrichello in 160mph crash on first day of qualifying for San Marino Grand Prix. He fails to negotiate left- hand corner and flies sideways, clipping top of tyre barrier and lifting into fencing. Broken nose and bruised ribs. Cause unclear. Jordan's other driver, Andrea de Cesaris (Irvine's substitute) hits wall and loses wheel; Senna, Hill and Brundle spin off in separate incidents.

Saturday 30 April

Roland Ratzenberger becomes the first Formula One driver killed for eight years when he loses control at Villeneuve Corner during second day of qualifying for San Marino Grand Prix. The Austrian was going at more than 190mph when he hit a brick wall.

Sunday 1 May

San Marino Grand Prix: Ayrton Senna, three times the world champion, dies after plunging into a brick wall exiting Tamburello Corner, the bend where Senna's former McLaren team-mate, Gerhard Berger, survived an inferno after crashing five years previously. The race had had to be re-started after Lehto stalled on the grid, causing Pedro Lamy to smash into him sending debris high into the air. Eight spectators and a policeman injured.

Thursday 12 May

Karl Wendlinger critically injured in practice for Monaco Grand Prix.

(Photograph omitted)