Atlas F1 The Senna Trial:
The Final Curtain

  by Roger Horton, England

When appeal court president Francesco Mario Agnoli finally handed down his verdict and acquitted Williams technical chief Patrick Head and ex-designer Adrian Newey of all charges brought against them resulting from the death of Ayrton Senna, it effectively ended the legal process resulting from the Brazilian's death. In the end, the judge ruled that there was 'no proof of blame'.

Despite the fact that the matter is no longer before the Italian courts, such has been the controversy surrounding just what took place in the seconds between Senna crossing the start-finish line to commence that last fatal lap, and the contact with the wall that would lead to his death at the exit of the Tamburello curve, that even now, some five years later, the speculation continues.

It is somehow tragically fitting that Ayrton Senna, who was perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial Formula One driver of all time, should have died the way he lived - surrounded by yet more controversy. It is another layer of tragedy, that despite all the investigations and time that has passed, we are still left wondering just why did Senna's car leave the track, and is a criminal trial the best way to find out the truth?

To reduce the thousands of pages of evidence from the prosecution and defence lawyer's cases to a few simple lines can be dangerous but it would appear that there can be only two possible reasons for the crash that killed Ayrton Senna. That, as the prosecution contended, the steering column broke under the lateral strain as he rounded the Tamburello curve, and that the breakage of the column was caused by the negligence of the Williams team and therefore they caused his death.

Or, that it was just an accident, a combination of circumstances that all added up to Senna loosing control and paying the ultimate price. The fact that the car bottomed heavily on some bumps (made worse by the fact that the car was running lower than usual due to prolonged running behind the safety-car, allowing its tyres to cool) complicated the issue for all concerned.

All through the hearings the Williams team never expressed a firm conviction as to the cause of the accident, just that it could not have been steering failure as they had been receiving telemetry from the steering system right up until the point of impact.

The overwhelming feeling generated from these proceedings was that the court - as was its duty - was trying to pin blame and not trying to find the cause. The investigation prior to the trial had been thorough and well prepared, accumulating a huge amount of information that pointed firmly towards the breakage of the steering column causing the crash. But when the prosecution failed to prove, to the judge's satisfaction, that the defendants had actually personally handled the modifications that are alleged to have caused the breakage, their case collapsed.

This Italian trial, though, has raised many other issues as the Formula One business enters the 21st century. Just how fitting is it that a criminal trial should result from a racing driver getting killed in a racing car? Drivers have been getting killed this way since the very start of organised racing. Isn't this part of the sport? Surprisingly, perhaps, the Formula One community is divided on this issue. Frank Williams, the man who perhaps had the most to lose from this whole process, was never in any doubt; "The law is above motor sport," was his phlegmatic response when questioned about the trial.

On the other hand, FIA president Max Mosely was quoted as stating that, "Nothing useful came out of the legal case. In fact, it was a great hindrance to any work on safety, because by impounding the car and all the equipment and everything relevant thereto, they prevented us from looking at it, and just wasted everybody's time."

Flavio Briatore, previously team boss of the Benetton team, had said that if Williams, or anyone else, was convicted, his team would have boycotted both the Grands Prix held in Italy - an important chunk of the racing calendar. "I would not risk bringing my team to a country that can convict you for an accident. Fatality is part of the game," he said.

Just how much crashes are a part of the game is all too common for the keen observer of the Grand Prix scene and hardly a race weekend passes without at least some incident that could lead to potentially fatal consequences given an unfortunate throw of the dice.

A few races after the events at Imola, Damon Hill suffered a potentially catastrophic mechanical failure during the opening practice session for the British race. Driving for the Williams team as Senna had been, Hill's car came clattering to a stop just moments after leaving the pits when both front top wishbones came away from their mounting points. A "car assembly problem" was the official reason given. Put simply, someone messed up and a driver's life was endangered.

Fortunately the accident was minor and the incident was soon forgotten except perhaps by the driver during quiet moments when thoughts of the possible consequences had the same thing happened at Spa-Francorchamps and he had been entering Eau Rouge at a sedate 250 km/h, even on an out-lap.

During the '99 German Grand Prix Saturday practice session at Hockenheim, Johnny Herbert was extremely lucky to walk away when the rear wing failed on his Stewart-Ford whilst he was at maximum speed in top gear. His car had already suffered two rear wing fractures during the Friday practice so clearly the team had a design problem of some description on their hands, but teams just can't pack up and go home in this type of situation. The team works it out and the driver drives.

Fortunately Herbert suffered nothing more serious than a sprained thumb despite hitting the retaining barriers hard, but at the speed he was travelling he could have ended up just about anywhere and with much more serious consequences. The fact that his accident happened at exactly the same spot as Jim Clark's fatal crash way back in 1968 was an irony not lost on many.

The most high-profile crash of the '99 season was of course the one that saw Michael Schumacher break his leg at Silverstone. That his accident was in part caused by the failure of the rear brakes was quickly acknowledged by Ferrari. Again a team member made an error and the driver paid the price. Now at no time has any of these drivers publicly berated their teams or indicated in any way that it has affected their attitude to them.

Hill drove for Williams for over two more years, Herbert is still with the same team and Schumacher will line up again with Ferrari for his annual attempt to secure his third drivers' title. Yet all three drivers could well have been killed by these accidents and one could well have made a case that all three had died as a direct result of negligence, or "finger trouble" as it is widely called, when a mechanic forgets something, or an engineer makes a mistake.

In the litigation stakes, racing drivers have always been treated rather like test pilots. When you are constantly pushing the envelope you are occasionally going to get burned. When teams test and race they are constantly trying to find an edge, a speed advantage. If the designer is going to face a manslaughter charge if the demands of the track prove too much for his design and a driver is killed, then who will ever take design risks at all?

All racing teams take the safety of their drivers seriously, yet cars will always break and components will often fail. When a driver suffers a non-fatal accident, the resulting in-house investigation is always swift and thorough. Apart from the obvious need to find the cause and eliminate the possibility of it happening again for pure safety reasons, cars that crash cannot win races, and winning races is the reason the team exists in the first place.

In other words, no Formula One team requires any prodding to find out the reason why one of their cars suffered a failure, it is part of their culture.

In the case of Senna's crash it would seem much more likely that had the wreckage been transported directly to the Williams factory and a thorough investigation was carried out under the supervision of the FIA, we would have known long ago the cause that robbed the sport of its leading driver. There is a precedence for this, from admittedly over 30 years ago.

When the late Colin Chapman, the Lotus founder, lost his great friend and number one Lotus driver Jim Clark at Hockenheim in a Formula two race, he arranged for the car's remains to be transported back to the team's base at Hethel in the United Kingdom. A full crash investigation was carried out there, under the overall guidance of a RAC scrutineer Peter Jowitt, a senior engineer at Farnborough, who specialised in military aircraft accidents, and representatives of both the engine manufacturer Cosworth, tyre supplier Firestone.

This team produced a detailed report that pin-pointed the cause of the tyre failure (caused by running over some debris on the track) and the design of racing tyres were changed as a result of their findings. Despite the fact that he was devastated by the death of Clark, Chapman was determined that the cause of the tragedy be known.

Just how much of his motivation was affected by the fact that all this was happening in the United Kingdom and there were no criminal proceedings pending from the process is impossible to say. But the net result was much more satisfactory to the memory of this legendary driver of the sixties than the unsatisfactory outcome resulting from Senna's death in the nineties.

Formula One, of course, continues; the races and seasons pass, drivers and teams come and go. Almost inevitably, at some point in the future another driver will die. The fact is, that deep down all the drivers accept this. It will not be them, of course, it never can be. No driver has a death-wish, but all drivers have enough imagination to realise just how dangerous the game still is.

Great strides have been made in safety since Senna's death, especially in the area of car construction and raised cockpit sides. Without these changes the FIA's chief medical officer, professor Sid Watkins, has stated that others drivers would have been killed had they been driving 1994 specification cars in some recent accidents.

Lessons are learned and progress is made, but only when there is a clear understanding of the reason for a fatal accident can the sport move on and let the matter rest along with the unfortunate driver. No amount of investigation or accusations can ever bring a driver back to life, but if the cause of his death is left hanging, then for millions of his fans it is unfinished business.

The Tamburello curve where Ayrton Senna died has been swept away like so many other things in the aftermath of that tragic weekend. The wall has become a shrine to his memory. But after five years the court only expressed the opinion that "steering failure was the most likely cause," and what really does that mean? If it can't be proved, is it correct?

After finishing the investigation into the accident that cost the life of Jim Clark, Peter Jowitt lamented that "Hindsight is too damned easy." But the Clark story ended with the knowledge that his deflating tyre (and the lack of barriers) gave him no chance of surviving. The greatest driver of his era died clearly through no fault of his own.

With all the technology now available in the nineties, how is it that we didn't have the same for Ayrton Senna?

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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