Crash a cruel reminder of safety's role

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The Independent Online

"The death of Ayrton Senna was like the sun falling from the sky," his former McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger said. It was the unthinkable, the atomic bomb applied to motor racing. And it shook the sport to its core. Questions were even asked in the Italian parliament.

"The death of Ayrton Senna was like the sun falling from the sky," his former McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger said. It was the unthinkable, the atomic bomb applied to motor racing. And it shook the sport to its core. Questions were even asked in the Italian parliament.

Today Sir Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey still face an uncertain future following the recent reopening of the investigation into Senna's crash. Italian law requires a culprit in the case of accidental deaths, and magistrates remain determined to find one even though everyone with a personal interest has come to terms with that tragedy on 1 May 1994.

In 1968 the death of the brilliant Jimmy Clark at Hockenheim had a similar effect and set off a deadly train of events with a driver being killed virtually on the same date for the next three months. But back then there were no legal actions, nor dramatic changes. In 1994, even before the Austrian Karl Wendlinger was placed in induced coma after crashing at Monaco a fortnight after Imola, or another fortnight later when Italian Andrea Montermini crashed his Simtek heavily when practising for the Spanish GP - both survived - the governing body, the FIA, had already taken drastic steps.

There was an outcry from the teams when rear wing and diffuser measurements were altered for the Spanish race, and a drivers' strike until a makeshift tyre chicane was installed on the back straight to slow things down. A reduction in engine size from 3.5 to 3 litres followed, together with special tethers to discourage wheels flying off in accidents. Narrower track and grooved tyres have also subsequently slowed the cars. Formula One racing underwent a sea change, yet thanks to the technical brilliance of the engineers each year it has become successively faster yet safer.

A racing driver's life could once be measured in the same terms as a Battle of Britain fighter pilot's. The Seventies alone saw Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, Jochen Rindt, Hans Laine, Ignazio Giunti, Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Jo Bonnier, Gerry Birrell, Roger Williamson, François Cevert, Peter Revson, Helmuth Koinigg, Mark Donohue, B J Swanson, Tom Pryce and Ronnie Peterson die in high-level racing accidents.

In 1982 the legendary Gilles Villeneuve and the rookie Ricardo Paletti died in grand prix accidents, but until Roland Ratzenberger at Imola on 30 April 1994, the Italian Elio de Angelis was the only man to die in an F1 car, testing at Paul Ricard in France in 1986. Some believed the old ghost had been exorcised. It was not complacency, just self-belief, but the events of Imola showed only too cruelly that however much had been done in the name of safety, since Jackie Stewart's crusade and all the technological breakthroughs that had followed, motorsport still carried an ultimate risk.

Had Senna lived the sport would have been so different. He would have won the 1994 title, and most likely the 1995, 1996 and 1997 titles too, with Williams Renault. Schumacher would not have established the reputation that he has, nor Damon Hill or perhaps even Ferrari...

But now, a decade later, a dichotomy has arisen between the FIA and some teams and drivers. The federation want to impose swingeing changes to slow the cars down; many teams and drivers believe that today's cars are so safe that this year's dramatically increased lap speeds do not border on the dangerous.

Incredible as it might seem there are fans today who have only dimly heard of Ayrton Senna, and who have no inkling that a driver could be killed in such ultra-safe cars. But the men behind today's superb safety record know only too well, and have been reminded every May since 1994, that the sport is at its most dangerous when you allow yourself to believe that its oldest spectre has been defeated.

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