Protests threaten safety of race

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The Independent Online
Motor racing


reports from Melbourne

Threats of disruption by protest groups have ensured that even before engines have been fired in anger there has been plenty of off-track noise as the Australian Grand Prix switches from its traditional end-of-year slot in Adelaide to the season's opener in Melbourne's Albert Park.

During a day in which protesters picketed grand prix functions and gave their views about the staging of a grand prix in the park to the Victoria state premier, an anonymous demonstrator - said to be a terminal cancer patient - has threatened to throw himself beneath the cars during Sunday's race.

Ross Brawn, technical director of Benetton, admitted that the team had received warnings. "We have had letters advising us not to run our cars, and I believe that we are not the only ones," he said. Some leading teams were sent animal bones, and small metal staples. Protesters have threatened to fire the staples at speeding cars, and some letters warned: "If cars run in Albert Park, there will be blood!" In light of Mika Hakkinen's accident last year in Adelaide, which was caused by a puncture, officials are taking the threats seriously and security has been stepped up.

Ever since it was announced in 1994 that the race would switch from southern Australia to Victoria, protesters have been mustering themselves. Under the leadership of Jenny Chandler, who has been careful to distance herself from the more extreme threats, the Save Albert Park campaigners plan a march through the city on Sunday morning.

A local poll suggests that more than 70 per cent are in favour of the race, and that the protesters account for only five per cent. Bob Jennings, of the Adelaide Advertiser, said: "The state has spent some $45M (pounds 23m) on improvements to Albert Park, and only half of that is direct spending because of the race itself. The big problem is that nobody actually consulted the local residents before going ahead with the race, and their campaign has inevitably attracted some fringe loonies."

Damon Hill, who starts favourite for the race and for the season, said yesterday: "The protesters are very concerned about the environment - and so am I. They have every right to be concerned. We should not appear to be oblivious to those concerns. It's important as a sport that we take them on board and get across that what we are doing is as least environmentally unfriendly as we can make it and that we are doing our best."

n The French Grand Prix will stay at Magny-Cours until 1999, despite an earlier announcement that it would move to the Le Castellet track next season.