Motor Racing / Monaco Grand Prix: Schumacher puts foot down: Safety first for championship leader on way to pole. David Tremayne reports from Monte Carlo

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ACCIDENT which struck the Austrian driver Karl Wendlinger here on Thursday has threatened to puncture the small balloon of hope that Formula One had been trying to inflate in the aftermath of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in the recent San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

The Austrian driver sustained very serious head injuries when he spun his Sauber while braking for the seafront chicane. He is still in critical but stable condition in hospital in Nice.

A community that has had to become aware once again of the mortality of its stars remains stunned by a chapter of disasters.

Such has been the concern that the drivers agreed after a five-hour meeting on Friday to reform the Grand Prix Drivers' Association to protect their own interests. Gerhard Berger, Michael Schumacher and Christian Fittipaldi will be the representatives, and the retired champion Niki Lauda the spokesman.

The paddock was further disturbed on Friday when the governing body, FIA, announced dramatic changes for the future. For the next two races, at fortnightly intervals in Spain and Canada, teams must modify their cars to reduce aerodynamic downforce, while the new stepped-floor regulations intended to limit downforce further in 1995 are to be brought forward six months, and come into effect from the German Grand Prix in late July. For 1995, FIA plans to reduce power outputs from the current 750-plus horsepower to 'below 600', effectively creating a fuel efficiency formula more in keeping with current environmentalist views. At the same time, a special FIA Advisory Expert Group will initiate a detailed analysis of car and circuit safety.

The autopsy on Ayrton

Senna has revealed that he died after a front suspension component from his Williams punctured his crash helmet and inflicted his serious head injury. Part of the new changes will centre on strengthening suspension mountings to prevent similar incidents.

Max Mosley, the president of FIA, presented his plans with authority and aplomb, but many team owners believe that the real negotiation about future regulations is just about to begin. Few wanted to be quoted on their views, but most believe that the time-scale Mosley has placed on the biggest changes is unworkable.

Against this backdrop in Monaco, the show goes on. Once qualifying begins, the quest for the perfect lap ruthlessly pushes everything else to one side.

All weekend, Schumacher, in the Benetton-Ford, has been in unbeatable form that suggests he will avenge his retirement while leading last year's race. In a gripping shoot-out yesterday afternoon, he watched quietly as Mika Hakkinen, of Finland, took his

McLaren-Peugeot to within .08sec of his pole position time, before calmly moving the goalposts by almost a full second. Somehow it was apposite that the man seen by many as Senna's heir apparent should dominate so convincingly with a blend of sheer confidence, aggression and commitment so reminiscent of the Brazilian.

Hakkinen will nevertheless start from the front row this afternoon, for the first time, while Gerhard Berger fought splendidly in his Ferrari to take third place on the grid ahead of Damon Hill, the Briton being troubled throughout qualifying by a Williams-Renault that displayed a marked dislike of Monaco's numerous bumps. Jean Alesi has returned this weekend after sustaining a neck injury, and is fifth in the second Ferrari. Martin Brundle, who was on the front row after Thursday's qualifying session, slipped to eighth after brushing a wall in the second McLaren.

Johnny Herbert and Berger summed up the challenge of Monaco best. The Briton, 16th on the grid after a stylish struggle with a soon-to-be-superseded Lotus-Mugen Honda, said: 'Here it's really just a matter of how much you want to risk it, how much you want to chance hitting a barrier.'

Berger, who had decided against retirement after a week of anguish following Imola, said: 'It's like in a circus when you walk across the rope. If you keep looking up, you're OK. But if you look down, you're going to fall.'

Wendlinger's misfortune is another cruel reminder of what many had almost forgotten about with the progress that safety has made in the past decade - motor racing is dangerous. At Monaco, it is possible to get so close to the cars that you can frighten yourself just watching.

At the speeds they achieve round these steel-lined streets, the drivers must block out all external worries. Driving itself is a form of therapy, a means by which they can once again convince themselves of their ability to survive and control the laws of physics. Speed the potential killer becomes speed the panacea. You look at their eyes just before they leave the pit lane and begin to understand again what drives them on, even in the face of the recent tragedies. And why so many continue to be beguiled by what can sometimes be an intoxicating madness.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments