Tragedy mars Ferrari's homecoming

Italian Grand Prix: Fire marshal dies in hospital after being struck by flying debris from dramatic multi-car pile up on first lap

The first fatality at a Formula One circuit since the death of Ayrton Senna overshadowed everything else at the Italian Grand Prix here yesterday on a day of drama befitting this evocative old theatre of motor racing.

The first fatality at a Formula One circuit since the death of Ayrton Senna overshadowed everything else at the Italian Grand Prix here yesterday on a day of drama befitting this evocative old theatre of motor racing.

While Michael Schumacher's victory lifted him to within two points of McLaren's Mika Hakkinen at the top of the world championship to revive Ferrari's hopes of a first title in 21 years, the day was dominated by a a spectacular crash involving at least five cars on the first circuit. A fire marshal, Paolo Ghislimberti, 30, died after sustaining severe head and chest injuries when he was struck by a flying wheel.

Following a skirmish at the very first chicane which forced Eddie Irivine out of the race, a much more serious collision followed at the second. Britain's David Coulthard, in the other McLaren, was among those caught up in the mayhem.

He was thankful to be unscathed after Pedro de la Rosa's Arrows cartwheeled over him. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was criticised by some drivers for his part in the accident. His Jordan-Mugen team-mate, Jarno Trulli, and Rubens Barrichello, in the second Ferrari, like Coulthard, were helpless.

Coulthard said: "I've never seen Rubens so furious. He was pointing the finger at Heinz-Harald, who looked very sheepish. We all know how to get round the first lap and this is stupidity.

"It was a horrible feeling sitting in the car. So much was going on but because of the dust it was like being in a blackout. I ducked my head and just hoped. I heard a noise coming towards me. It was De la Rosa's car but I didn't see it going over. I was scared to lift my head."

Johnny Herbert, making his last appearance in a European Formula One race, was another who had an uncomfortably close encounter with the Arrows. The Englishman, who retired his Jaguar, said: "De la Rosa launched himself off the back of my car. I looked up and saw a wheel 100 feet in the air."

De la Rosa said: "I just saw the yellow flags and braked and then saw pieces of car all over the place, lots of tyre smoke. After the smoke cleared there were two cars travelling really slowly and I just couldn't slow down my car enough. I think it was [Ricardo] Zonta and I hit him on the rear wheel. This launched me into the air and then I just barrel-rolled until the car stopped.

"Fortunately I am OK, there is no problem. It is a racing incident. I wouldn't say I was unlucky as I am lucky to be here. I stayed a little time in the car after the crash because the car was upside down and the marshals were trying to turn it over but they couldn't, so I decided to get under the gravel a little bit and crawl through the small gap under the car."

The fire marshall, struck by the flying debris from the crash, was initially treated at trackside before being taken to hospital, where doctors were unable to save his life.

An Italian magistrate, Salvatore Bellomo, opened a formal investigation into Ghislimberti's death and interviewed the drivers. It is understood that the cars involved have been impounded by the local police authorities.

The FIA, motor racing's governing body, completed its own investigation hours after the incident and concluded that it was a "racing accident" and that no further action was necessary.

Jenson Button survived both incidents only to be caught out as the safety car, which came on to the track for 11 laps, peeled off. He turned sharply to avoid running into the back of Jacques Villeneuve's BAR but clipped a barrier and could not keep his car on the road as they rounded the Parabolica.

The Williams-BMW driver blamed Schumacher, saying: "He was going slowly, then accelerated, then braked hard. There was nowhere for me to go except on to the grass."

Schumacher acknowledged: "Everything was so low in temperature after so long behind the safety car I was accelerating and braking to warm up the brakes. I think I did a mistake and I'm sorry for whoever suffered for that. I thought everyone realised what I was doing."

Schumacher and Hakkinen avoided the widely anticipated problems on the first lap and went on to dominate the race. They filed behind the safety car before the Ferrari pulled away and forced Hakkinen to accept second place.

Ralf Schumacher drove his Williams into third place, Jos Verstappen was a splendid fourth for Arrows, the much maligned Alexander Wurz was fifth in a Benetton and Zonta sixth for BAR Honda.

While yesterday's race tightened the gap between the two main title contenders, Coulthard conceded that his own challenge for the crown was effectively over. He said: "That's it, finito. It probably means the team will need me to support the guy in front. It's very disappointing, but I fully understand the situation."

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