ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 37 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   And the Band Played On

  by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

Following the fatal accident at the Italian Grand Prix, where a fire marshal had lost his life, Ewan Tytler reviews the state of safety in Monza and in Formula One

Once again we have witnessed a tragic loss of life at Monza, but it would be a great disservice to Paolo Gislimberti, who lost his life on Sunday, to use this as an opportunity to score points in the debate on safety in Formula One. Nevertheless, the 2000 Italian Grand Prix may prove to be another milestone in the evolution of Grand Prix racing; the FIA will be forced to take action to reduce the chance of this happening again and will have to find answers to some tough questions.

Should Monza be allowed to host another Grand Prix? The lack of protection for the marshals around the circuit was obvious and will have to be improved. Jacques Laffite's suggestion, that there should be electronic warnings instead of flags, should be given serious consideration, but this may require an extensive fiber-optic system, similar to those at Sepang in Malaysia.

The Monza authorities have been criticised for not stopping the race, in particular by McLaren's David Coulthard. Although the race director's decision to continue the race can be justified by the track not being blocked, the chances of getting a slow puncture from the debris was high and there was little logic in having the safety car out for 10 laps. Stopping the race could have allowed the teams to thoroughly inspect each car and would have shortened the time needed to clear the track. However, a restart could have resulted in a similar pile-up. And although treatment of Paolo Gislimberti did not appear to be delayed, the ambulance did not appear until lap eight. At least out of respect for the injured marshal alone, the race should have been red-flagged. Sometimes the band should not play on.

Should chicanes be eliminated from Grand Prix circuits? The modifications to Monza were designed to improve safety by reducing speeds, but a chicane is a hazard that bunches cars together and only allows one car to pass through at a time. The sequence of events in the accident at the second chicane of Monza on Sunday was chillingly similar to those in the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, where Ronnie Peterson lost his life: on the approach to a chicane, two cars (Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari and Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan) touched, leading to a chain-reaction accident with cars in front of them (Jarno Trulli's Jordan and David Coulthard's McLaren) and a following car (Pedro de la Rosa's Arrows) piled into the accident.

Earlier this season we saw Jean Alesi narrowly escaping serious injury following a high-speed collision with Pedro Diniz at a chicane in Hockenheim. Hermann Tilke, the designer of the A1-Ring and Sepang, realised that overtaking opportunities are provided by slow corners at the end of long straights and not by chicanes. Hence, the A1-Ring and Sepang are both safe and reasonably exciting, while, ironically, Monza has proved to be more dangerous.

Can Monza be redesigned to make it safe? Perhaps the time has come to radically rethink the whole configuration of Monza for the 21st century, otherwise it may be doomed to become a relic of the past. This will not be an easy task, as the ancient forest in Monza is protected by strict environmental laws.

Are gravel traps now a hazard on circuits? Doubts were appearing about the safety and effectiveness of gravel traps in 1999, after Michael Schumacher's accident at Silverstone and Ricardo Zonta's accident at Spa. And in last weekend's race, the stranded cars of Coulthard and Barrichello in the gravel trap became serious hazards for de la Rosa's flying Arrows. Furthermore, dust and gravel thrown up from the gravel trap created another hazard after the first incident. The question remains, however, would De la Rosa have been injured or killed if he had landed on a paved or concrete surface instead of the gravel-trap?

Are Formula One cars safe enough? The safety features of the 2000-specification cars allowed all the drivers to miraculously escape injury, but once again it is crystal clear that the wheel tethers are totally ineffective. Wheel tethers will be improved in 2001, but it remains to be seen if this will be effective in reducing injuries, or if this will turn a damaged Formula One car into a 4-wheeled mace.

The narrow-track Formula One cars, with grooved tyres, have been a feature of Grand Prix racing since 1998. In theory, these cars are safer, because, in the event of a spin-off, they should leave the road at a slower speed. To compensate for these restrictions, these cars rely heavily on aerodynamics to provide traction, and on a low-downforce circuit like Monza, the driver has less traction and hence has less control over his car. If Formula One cars were wider, had smaller, higher wings and used slick tyres, would the accident have been more or less likely and/or more or less severe?

Why was this accident so severe? The answer is certain to be complex and it could be "all of the above." The lengthy investigation into the accident has already started and let us hope that the FIA find answers to these questions. Now is the time for analytical, open-minded and constructive thinking, and not for over-reaction, defiance and dogma. Blaming Heinz-Harald Frentzen for this accident, before all the evidence has been studied, is as inappropriate and unfair as it was for Riccardo Patrese in 1978.

Prior to this race, I had been impressed by the steady improvement in safety in Formula One, but pride comes before a fall and Sunday's race was another reminder that there is no room for complacency when it comes to safety in motor racing.

Ewan Tytler© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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