Motor racing: Williams team acquitted of Senna's manslaughter

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The Independent Online
The burden of doubt has been lifted from the British grand prix outfit after a judge in Imola decided they were not responsible for the death of Ayrton Senna. Derick Allsop reports on a verdict which has also confirmed Italy's place in the Formula One calendar.

Motorsport's immediate future in Italy was assured yesterday when the six defendants in the Ayrton Senna trial at Imola were acquitted of the driver's manslaughter.

The judge took just 60 seconds to deliver his verdict at the end of a 10-month hearing. Frank Williams, team owner, Patrick Head, his technical director, Adrian Newey, the then team chief designer, and three racing officials were all found not guilty.

It is thought the prosecution will exercise its right of automatic appeal, which would prolong the legal process and uncertainty into 1999 and possibly beyond.

However, developments yesterday have served to remove any doubts hanging over next year's two F1 races in Italy, much to the relief of everyone involved in racing.

Motorsport's governing body, the FIA, warned that all its events in the country, including the grands prix of San Marino and Italy, could be cancelled if guilty verdicts had been handed down.

Senna was killed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, at Imola's Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit. The prosecution claimed the steering column in the Brazilian's Williams-Renault broke because of faulty modification work. The defence contended that the column snapped when the car hit a concrete wall on the outside of the Tamburello curve after leaving the track at 190mph.

Williams was virtually guaranteed his acquittal after giving evidence to the court, two months ago, when he explained he had no direct input on technical matters. But the prosecution maintained to the end that Head and Newey, who has since joined the McLaren- Mercedes team, should be given one-year suspended sentences. There was never a suggestion any of the defendants would be sent to jail.

The judge decided there was insufficient evidence to convict any of the defendants.

None of the Williams officials was present at the makeshift court yesterday, but the team, who won both constructors' and drivers' championships last season, issued a statement from their headquarters near Oxford.

It read: "Williams Grand Prix Engineering is pleased to confirm that Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey have been acquitted for all charges which were the subject of the Imola trial. Our legal advisers inform us that the prosecution has an automatic right of appeal. Clearly we would hope that this matter will not be pursued further.

"We firmly believe that this was the only appropriate outcome of the trial and now look forward to the 1998 season with confidence and enthusiasm."

Williams' lawyer, Peter Goodman, said at Imola that he expected the verdict. "I felt the evidence went very much in our favour and that a verdict of not guilty was the correct verdict. The prosecution's evidence was not consistent and I felt it could not have led to a guilty verdict." He added: "Frank will be very pleased it is all over."

The judge has yet to give the reasoning behind his verdict and until he does so, the FIA's president, Max Mosley, a lawyer, is reluctant to comment, as a brief statement issued in Paris yesterday explained. The prospect of a lengthy appeal process gives the authorities further reason for caution.

But clearly, they cleared a significant hurdle in the medieval town of Imola yesterday. Guilty verdicts would have held a threat of prosecution over every other team and official in the event of fatal accidents at future Italian races.

Mosley stressed at the outset of the trial that such a scenario would be deemed unacceptable and that his only course of action would be to withdraw motorsports under FIA's jurisdiction from the country.

The implications for a passionate motor racing name, Ferrari, and traditionalists everywhere were almost unthinkable. Imola and Monza are now confirmed as venues in the 1998 F1 World Championship and team members will be able to work and compete without the pressures that have emanated from the Senna case.

The verdict does not, of course, unravel the cause of Senna's fatal crash, but then that was not the specific objective of the trial. Its purpose was to establish the guilt or innocence of the six defendants.

The theories about the steering column, tyre pressures and objects on the track remain in circulation and the chances are that a definitive explanation may never emerge.

Mysteries abound in motorsport's history and in this case, as in others, the hidden truth will endure the legend.