Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Dark Season

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

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.

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."

What these young drivers have come to feel in a fortnight, said Ecclestone, is that "yeah, maybe it is dangerous."



Wendlinger's crash at Monaco prompted overdue changes in the height of the drivers' cockpits.



A prerace tribute to Senna was attended by the sport's suddenly wary drivers, whose pit speed in Monaco was restricted.



[See caption above.]



Amid the gloom, Schumacher emerged triumphant for the fourth time this season.