RISKS OF THE SPORT
by Larry Roberts
January 09, 1998
Those of us who were viewing the televised running of the 1994 Italian Grand Prix at Imola watched in horror as the then-reigning world champion Ayrton Senna crashed his Williams Formula One car into the barrier at the fast left-hand Tamburello curve, a part of the track that was particularly treacherous.
We were even more horrified when we learned four hours later that Senna had died of a single massive head wound without regaining consciousness. The racing world had lost the man who many thought was the greatest racing driver who ever lived.
Our sorrow was heightened by the fact that backrunner Roland Ratzenberger had died the day before at Imola driving his Simtek S941. The death of Ratzenberger is reported to have reduced Senna to tears and he was reported to have told confidants that "...I just couldn't concentrate."
But what happened later that year startled and sickened racing enthusiasts around the world. The Italian government indited Frank Williams, owner of the car Senna was driving, for manslaughter along with team director Patrick Head and Williams designer Adrian Newey. Three track officials were also indited. Under Italian law any violent death must be investigated and someone of something judged to be the cause.
The rationale behind the inditement was that Williams himself along with his team chief and the car's designer had allowed slipshod and unworkmanlike repairs and modifications to be made to the Williams FW16 car that Senna was driving. The other proposal was that the Imola track was allowed to be raced on in an unsafe condition by the track officials who were listed as codefendants.
It's incredible that anyone could have been so naive as to think that Williams would send out a million-dollar race car with substandard modifications, driven by a driver he had signed to a multi-million dollar contact.
It's also ridiculous to think that track officials would allow a top caliber race to be run on an unsafe track and risk the loss of TV advertising money and corporate sponsorship.
Ironically, there was never an official inditement in the death of Ratzenberger.
The feeling among members of the Formula One fraternity was that prosecutor Maurizio Passarini was making a grand-stand play. The conviction of a racing luminary of the stature of Frank Williams over the death of a super-sports star of the caliber of Ayrton Senna would make him something of a celebrity himself and further his political career.
But a win for him would create ripples around the racing world. The Federation Internationale del'Automobile, the world sanctioning body for international races, made it known that it would no longer sanction races in Italy if the defendants were found guilty. It wasn't so much a threat as a safeguard from the specter of any incident in this most dangerous for of a dangerous sport leading to widespread arrests and inditements.
But reason prevailed and in December of last year, Judge Antonio Costanza acquitted all the defendants and for now, there is no "official" explanation for the death of Senna.
And while there is relief as to the outcome of the trial of Frank Williams et al, there is no cause to rejoice. The basic fact is that for whatever reason, the world of auto racing lost its most brilliant star that day at Imola.