Firman survives a brush with disaster at 170mph

Click to follow

Ferenc Szisz, Laszlo Hartmann, Zsolt Baumgartner. Not names guaranteed to set the casual Formula One fan's pulse racing, granted, but high currency in Hungary.

Szisz occupies a unique place as the first man to win a grand prix after taking his Renault to triumph in the inaugural grand prize in France in 1906. Hartmann was killed in a collision with the first world champion, Giuseppe "Nino" Farina, at Tripoli in 1938. And, thanks to the misfortune of the English racer Ralph Firman, Baumgartner gets his break this weekend as the first Hungarian to participate in a World Champion-ship Formula One grand prix.

The chance came on Saturday morning when, only moments after his Jordan Ford had left the pit lane for practice, Firman crashed heavily at the fourth turn. His car lost its rear wing just before he swept through the 170mph left-hander, and he was a passenger as it slammed hard enough sideways into the tyre wall that the metal safety barriers were bent back on their four-inch-thick support posts. He was lucky that the car did not flick over.

Medics were on the scene almost immediately and extracted Firman, who had suffered high G loadings but was reported to be moving within the car. He stood momentarily once helped from the cockpit, but was then taken directly to the trauma unit at nearby Sebeszeti hospital for a check-up.

"Tests showed Ralph to be in the clear, but he will stay in hospital for 24 hours' observation as part of the routine in these situations," the team principal, Eddie Jordan, said. "Professor Sid Watkins [the official F1 doctor] reported that Ralph had made a very quick recovery and had recognised him at the accident scene, and the check-up showed that he has nothing worse than bruising to one ankle. The head restraint did a superb job, and Prof said that it was badly damaged in doing its work, just as it should be."

"All I remember is suddenly I could tell something had happened - the car sped up and felt different, but I didn't know why," Firman reported. "Then almost instantly I was spearing off the track."

As an investigation was launched into the cause of the breakage, steps were taken to put Baumgartner, who had driven the Jordan in the previous morning's private practice, into the race car as Firman's replacement. After talks between Max Mosley, Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt and Ron Dennis, he was granted the necessary super- licence, and celebrated by setting the 16th fastest time in the prequalifying warm-up session after lunch.

And he did a good job to put the indisposed Firman's Jordan in 19th slot for his grand prix debut. "I've got mixed feelings getting the drive after what happened to Ralph," Baumgartner confessed. "I had hoped to be ahead of both Minardis, but I'm not that far off Jos [Verstappen]. It's a great opportunity, and for me the main thing was not to make any mistakes."

In the circumstances, as first man out on a dirty track, that would have been all too easy. Many more experienced racers were disappointed with their performances, among them the world champion.

Qualifying most certainly did not go to form, with the Spaniard Fernando Alonso snatching pole position for Renault (as he did in Malaysia in March) ahead of the favourite, Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber starring for Jaguar with a brilliant third place in a car supposedly optimised for the race rather than qualifying, and Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher only seventh and eighth respectively. "It's a great feeling to get my second pole," Alonso said. "Our car has been competitive since the start of the weekend, and I don't see any reason why that should change tomorrow."

Schumacher Jnr was bemused when a dramatic fastest time in the first sector progressively slipped away from him, leaving his BMW Williams only second best. "It was a very good result, but unfortunately I am starting on the wrong side of the track," the German said. "After my very good first-sector time I was really surprised to lose so much in the other sectors. I thought it was a clean lap without any mistakes."

But Ralf was not as perplexed as his big brother. Michael had been fastest ahead of Alonso in the pre-session warm-up, but come qualifying his Ferrari lost its edge. "Everything was fine in the warm-up and I cannot really explain my lap time," was all he could say.

"This starting grid promises an interesting race," said the BMW-Williams chief operations engineer, Sam Michael. Indeed. With his major rival, Montoya fourth, team-mate Barrichello fifth, a disappointing Jarno Trulli sixth and Raikkonen seventh, Schumacher Snr has it all to do in a race expected to be very hard on his Bridgestone tyres.