With one fellow driver lying comatose in a hospital and two others lying in fresh graves, Michael Schumacher, 25 and seeming younger, found himself suddenly, sadly alone atop the Formula One world last week. And after he had easily won Sunday's Grand Prix of Monaco—running his record to a tragically magnificent 4-0 this season—the young German admitted that in the days before the race he had had to overcome thoughts of retiring in the bud of his career, on the spot that is the loveliest in all of motor racing.
As of late Monday, Karl Wendlinger of Austria, also 25 years old, remained in critical condition, in an artificially induced coma, in a hospital in nearby Nice, with head injuries suffered in a crash last Thursday during a practice session on the storied Monte Carlo street circuit. Two weeks ago, during qualifying for the series' previous race, the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, rookie Roland Ratzenberger of Austria was killed in a nose-first collision; and in the race itself, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil died when his car left the course at the Tamburello turn and slammed into a concrete retaining wall.
"This," said Schumacher, nicknamed Spoonface by his peers for his jutting chin and trademark naive grin, "is a point I made to myself after all this: If I would feel afraid [during practice], then I would have to stop. I would not be able to race anymore the normal way.
"Fortunately," he concluded, "I can do it."
Then, struggling to maintain his composure, Schumacher said of his dead hero, "And I think if Ayrton knew.... This was his sport, his life, this Formula One. He would wish this sport to continue on. And that's what we're here for: to continue and make the best of it."
But the 52nd running of the Monaco Grand Prix surely signaled the end of an era that ran golden during a dozen years without a single Formula One racing fatality, before suddenly turning black. Last Friday, F/1's governing body, the International Motor Sport Federation (FIA), issued a drastic timetable for changes aimed at making the cars safer:
?By the next Grand Prix, in Barcelona on May 29, structural changes will significantly reduce the aerodynamic downforce of the cars in order to lower cornering speeds.
?By the Canadian Grand Prix, on June 12, new cars will have to be built, with a weight increase from the current 500 kilos (1,102 pounds) to 525 kilos; the monocoque "tubs" in which the drivers sit will be reconfigured so that the sides of the cockpit extend above the drivers' shoulders to increase lateral head protection; and front suspensions will be strengthened. (Senna's autopsy revealed that a sharp object, probably part of the front suspension that broke loose when his car hit the wall at more than 185 mph, pierced his helmet and penetrated his forehead.)
?By 1995, F/1 cars will be altogether different, with severely reduced aerodynamics, a mandatory drop in horsepower from the current 800 plus to below 600, and significantly improved passive safety measures for drivers, possibly including racing's first air bags.
The FIA even mandated a 50-mph speed limit in the pits for Monaco.