Leading Article: Death in the afternoon

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SAO PAOLO's traffic came to a halt yesterday as thousands of Brazilians came on to the streets to grieve as the coffin carrying Ayrton Senna came home. On the other side of the world, in Paris, motor sport's governing body, the FIA, issued its first response to the appalling events at Imola last weekend, which culminated in Senna's fatal 180mph crash.

Although motor racing is inherently dangerous, the accident that claimed Ayrton Senna's life was profoundly shocking. This is partly because safety has improved exponentially in recent years. The last time a driver was killed in a grand prix was 12 years ago. We have become used to spectacular crashes from which drivers have walked almost casually away. But the other reason why Senna's death was so shocking was because it was Senna. It is difficult to think of any sportsman who performs as consistently close to perfection. If anybody was going to be killed on the race track, it was not Senna.

It is this sense of disbelief, compounded by Roland Ratzenberger's fatal crash on Saturday, which has led to a frantic search for explanations and new safety measures. The explanation for what happened may, however, be the simplest. After failing to score in the first two races of the season, Senna was expected to win easily at Imola, a power circuit which should have favoured his Williams-Renault. He must have been surprised to find Michael Schumacher's Benetton- Ford pushing him hard. Under great pressure, he may just have made a mistake. As to safety measures, there are none that would with certainty have prevented his death. Three measures might, however, have saved him. The first is a cockpit airbag of the kind recommended yesterday by the FIA. The second is longer run-off areas and gravel traps at high-speed corners. The third is a substantial reduction in the cornering powers of the cars. With luck, grand prix will go at least another 12 years without a death on the track. But, as Ayrton Senna would have been the first to acknowledge, risks can be reduced but not eliminated.

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