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A Dark Season
Ed Hinton
May 23, 1994
After three grim accidents, Formula One confronted safety questions at the series' showcase race in Monaco
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May 23, 1994

A Dark Season

After three grim accidents, Formula One confronted safety questions at the series' showcase race in Monaco

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Bernie Ecclestone, president of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) and the de facto czar of the series, said on Sunday that he isn't certain how much the new measures will help and is even concerned that in the haste to make changes "the side effects may be worse than leaving things as they are." Still, buffeted by a global storm of condemnation, the F/1 hierarchy felt compelled to do something. "It's necessary to give out the message to the world that we're not people who don't care," said Ecclestone.

On Friday, as the rich and famous arrived on the Riviera for both the Cannes Film Festival and the jet set's favorite motor race, they were greeted by a front-page headline in the French newspaper Le Figaro: FORMULE 1: LA SERIE NOIRE ( Formula One: the black series). That same day, amid speculation that the race might be canceled, drivers met for four hours to discuss safety. They decided to revive the long-dormant Grand Prix Drivers Association, bringing in as their leader the retired former world champion Niki Lauda, himself permanently disfigured in a racing accident 18 years ago.

And yet, while teams set about planning for the mandated changes, no common mechanical thread could be found for the three recent accidents. Computer telemetry readouts from Wendlinger's car indicated that he had simply braked too late entering a chicane. Ratzenberger's crash was triggered by a broken front wing. And though the cause of Senna's crash remains unclear, it is likely that his car suddenly bottomed out on the bumpy surface approaching Tamburello.

In 1992 and '93, F/1 cars were allowed to carry automatic traction control and computer-driven "active suspensions," instruments that did the thinking for the drivers, keeping ride height constantly optimal and adjusting to any surface, any corner, on any track in the world. But only four teams—Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton—could afford them, and purists complained that the systems were rapidly taking racing out of the hands of drivers and putting it under the control of computer engineers. This year both the FOCA and the FIA voted to ban the systems, and last week there was widespread speculation that elimination of active suspensions may have caused the storm of tragedies. But FIA president Max Mosley pointed out that "10 of the 12 years without fatality have been without these electronic devices." Even in '92 and '93, most cars were running without the systems, and there were no disasters.

Still, Ecclestone conceded that this year cars have been bottoming out dangerously. "Running that low, if you get a tire puncture or something, the chassis suddenly drops to the road, lifts the front wheels, and you have no control over the car," he said. "That may have been the cause of Senna's accident—we don't know. If it wasn't the cause of his accident, it sure as hell will be the cause of accidents if we don't do something."

One of Ecclestone's two immediate priorities, he said, is "to lift the cars off the deck." The other is "to do something about protecting the drivers above the shoulders." For several years, while Indy Cars have featured cockpit sides that come up about temple-high on drivers—restricting violent flopping about of the head during crashes—F/1 cars have continued with cockpit sides that come up only to about a driver's shoulders. And though higher sides on the tub probably would not have saved Senna, they might have helped Wendlinger enormously.

Sitting by the magnificent harbor in Monaco on Sunday morning, reflecting on the worst fortnight of his nearly 25-year tenure, Ecclestone said, "We've always tried to protect the guys after the inevitable bloody accident. Maybe we should have looked at protection above the shoulders before. We had blinkers on, maybe." And yet there are still those who maintain that taller cockpits would be a hindrance for F/1 drivers, to whom peripheral vision is far more important than it is to their counterparts in Indy Cars.

For a decade Ecclestone had crowed about elevating Formula One from its old status as the most dangerous motor sport in the world—15 F/1 drivers died between 1962 and '82—to that of the safest. "The things I've been striving for over the years have saved a lot of lives," he said. "But the biggest problem was that for 10 years we thought we could walk on water. We were doing it successfully. And now somebody's got drowned."

But the drivers were as deluded as the officials. "They, too, thought they were walking on water—that they could walk out of anything," Ecclestone said. Indeed, of the current generation of drivers, only Michele Alboreto and Andrea de Cesaris were even involved in F/1 in 1982, when Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti were killed within five weeks of each other. The youngsters have been lulled by the golden run of luck.

By last weekend the death and injury had clearly sunk in, even more so than at Imola, for Monaco was truly Senna's track, and his absence was palpable. He had kept a home in the tiny principality and had won six of the last seven races through its streets. Minutes after he became the first driver other than Senna to win Monaco since 1988, an emotional Schumacher said, "For all of us, these two weeks after Imola have been very difficult. For all of us, nobody was really sure what we should think about this and how we should feel."

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