Schumacher's crash shatters safety complacency

The sight of Ralf Schumacher, slumped in the cockpit of a heavily damaged Formula One car during the US Grand Prix here on Sunday, aroused uncanny echoes of Imola in 1994. There are some people in the sport who truly believe that drivers can no longer get killed, such has been the progress made in safety in the decade since Ayrton Senna's death. But they tend not to be the ones who understand a sport that can strip away complacency in the blink of an eye.

The sight of Ralf Schumacher, slumped in the cockpit of a heavily damaged Formula One car during the US Grand Prix here on Sunday, aroused uncanny echoes of Imola in 1994. There are some people in the sport who truly believe that drivers can no longer get killed, such has been the progress made in safety in the decade since Ayrton Senna's death. But they tend not to be the ones who understand a sport that can strip away complacency in the blink of an eye.

For a while it seemed the young German was in serious trouble as the safety car was deployed and the race put on hold. He had spun through 360 degrees on the fastest corner of the track, which drivers negotiate at upwards of 320kmh (200mph), hit the concrete wall backwards, and then come to rest facing traffic hurtling towards him at even faster speeds as competitors accelerated on to the long pit straight. Schumacher was fortunate that none of the approaching drivers collided head-on with his stricken car.

Normally Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA medical delegate, would be at a crash scene literally within seconds. But because of the positioning of Schumacher's car on such a dangerous part of the circuit, some observers timed a minute and a half before help arrived and three before medics reached Schumacher.

A week earlier, a failure in the left rear suspension of Felipe Massa's Sauber-Petronas had sent the Brazilian driver crashing head-on into a tyre barrier at the hairpin at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, during the Canadian Grand Prix. Like Schumacher, Massa was a passenger as his errant car expended its kinetic energy. As the nose struck the barrier of old tyres wrapped within a rubber conveyor belt, its front suspension was torn off in the intended manner and its two front wheels folded back into the car's sidepods. Much, however, was made of the fact that the left rear tyre, on the side on which the suspension failed, was torn off the car completely and thrown into a grandstand.

Since the 1994 weekend in Imola, when a wheel was thrown over a grandstand and into the crowd after a startline collision, severely injuring a policeman, all Formula One cars are fitted with two steel tethers, each with a breaking strain of 10,000kg (4,535lb). These are designed to minimise the risk of wheels being torn off. Although Massa's wheel did part company with his car, the tethers absorbed a considerable amount of its energy and influenced its direction of travel, and nobody was injured.

Each driver was taken to hospital for precautionary checks. But while both incidents were thus ultimately benign, there are elements which will doubtless bear further investigation.

Complacency is a zero option. The FIA president, Max Mosley, has been concerned about an increase in speed due to the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin, and the marginality of brake performance in certain cases on certain circuits.

At a time when he is determined to railroad through his latest proposals for Formula One, it is not beyond possibility that Mosley might try to effect the change he desires on grounds of safety.

INDIANAPOLIS DETAILS

UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX (Indianapolis): 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 40min 29.914sec; 2 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:40:32.814; 3 T Sato (Japan) BAR-Honda 1:40:51.914; 4 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:41:04.414; 5 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1:41:07.414; 6 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap; 7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +1; 8 Z Baumgartner (Hun) Minardi-Cosworth +3; 9 G Fisichella (It) Sauber-Petronas +8. Not classified: M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 60 laps; N Heidfeld (Ger) Jordan-Cosworth 40; J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 26; C Da Matta (Br) Toyota 17; R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 9; F Alonso (Sp) Renault 8; C Klien (Aut) Jaguar 0; F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 0; G Pantano (It) Jordan-Cosworth 0; G Bruni (It) Minardi-Cosworth 0. Disq: J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW.

Drivers' Championship standings: 1 M Schumacher 80pts; 2 Barrichello 62; 3 Button 44; 4 Trulli 41; 5 Alonso 25; 6 Montoya 24; 7 Sato 14; 8 R Schumacher 12; 9 Fisichella 10; 10 Coulthard 9; 11 Raikkonen 8; 12= Massa, Panis 5; 14= Da Matta, Heidfeld, Webber 3; 17 T Glock (Ger) Jordan-Cosworth 2; 18 Baumgartner 1.

Constructors' Championship standings: 1 Ferrari 142pts; 2 Renault 66; 3 BAR 58; 4 Williams 36; 5 McLaren 17; 6 Sauber 15; 7 Toyota 8; 8 Jordan 5; 9 Jaguar 3; 10 Minardi 1.

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