Williams fear Senna fall-out

David Tremayne looks at the troubled legal process in the wake of a tragedy
CLAIMS that steering failure killed Ayrton Senna have again fanned the embers of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in May last year. The investigating magistrate Maurizio Passarini is at present working through the 600-page report submitted by Professor Enrico Lorenzini, of Bologna University, and his team of specialists.

The team has never denied that the column was modified, at Senna's request, and speaking about the steering column on the Williams car, which photographs had shown lying broken alongside it after the impact, Lorenzini said: "It had been badly welded together about a third of the way down and couldn't stand the strain of the race. We discovered scratches on the crack in the steering rod. It seemed like the job had been done in a hurry but I can't say how long before the race. Someone had tried to smooth over the join following the welding. I have never seen anything like it. I believe the rod was faulty and probably cracked even during the warm-up. Moments before the crash only a tiny piece was left connected and therefore the car didn't respond in the bend."

Serious questions have been raised about the manner in which this long overdue report has been compiled. Students at Bologna University and representatives of other motorsport disciplines have all been granted greater access to the remains of Williams FW16/2 than the men who designed it. Patrick Head, Williams's technical director and a man of unusual integrity, was given 10 minutes with the chassis in a dank garage beneath a grandstand at Imola, shortly after the accident, and a similar length of time later.

Head has voiced concern over the interpretation of data his team supplied to Lorenzini. "We sent some, and were asked to clarify it," he said. "What has been said during the period since the accident does not appear to reflect understanding of what we actually said, even though we were asked to couch the revised version in layman's language." He has also maintained that the car could not have generated the steering inputs revealed by onboard telemetry if the steering column had sheared.

Lorenzini claimed that the tabloid paper which printed his comments last week quoted remarks he made not recently, but early last year. Nevertheless, they still seem remarkably intemperate.

The delay in publishing the report has been scandalous, though similar instances in the past have also revealed the inherent sloth of the Italian system. When Wolfgang von Trips was killed at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix in 1961 for example, following a collision with Jim Clark, it was some years before the innocent Clark felt comfortable in Italy.

Italian law requires identification of those culpable in accidents such as Senna's. Frank Williams, Patrick Head and other Williams team personnel could face charges, but all racing teams hope that, at worst, Passarini would pass suspended sentences. Every entry ticket bears the warning "Motor racing is dangerous". Drivers, more than anyone, understand that. Serious sentences would serve no purpose beyond following to the letter a law regarded as dubious by the standards of most other countries. And they would certainly jeopardise the whole future of grand prix racing in Italy.

Passarini must conclude his deliberations with all decent haste. In November 1994 he told this paper: "Time is marching on. There is no deadline. But we cannot leave this matter for eternity." Twelve months on, patience has all but run out.