19 February 1997
Manslaughter trial begins three years after Senna's death
IMOLA, Italy (Feb 19, 1997 - 10:12 EST) - Frank Williams, formula one team chief, and five other men go on trial Thursday accused of manslaughter in connection with the death of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna.
Here is a chronology of the events leading to the trial.
April 29 - Brazil's Rubens Barrichello loses control of his Jordan Hart car during a qualifying run for the San Marino Grand Prix and crashes at 270 kph but escapes serious injury.
April 30 - Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, driving a Simtek car, dies after crashing at over 300 kph in final qualifying for the race - the first fatality in Formula One since June 1983.
May 1 - The San Marino Grand Prix starts but is immediately halted after Portugal's Pedro Lamy, driving a Lotus, smashes into the Benetton Ford of Finland's J.J. Lehto. Debris is spread across the track, injuring seven spectators and a policeman.
A safety race car leads the remaining drivers around the circuit for five laps before the grand prix re-starts.
2.18 pm - After seven laps, Senna loses control of his Williams-Renault at the Tamburello curve, smashing into a concrete wall at between 210-220 kph. The race is stopped again and Senna is taken to hospital in critical condition. The race resumes.
4 p.m. - A Ferrari mechanic is badly injured, struck by Italian Michele Alboreto's Minardi car as it accelerates away after a pit stop.
4.20 p.m. - Germany's Michael Schumacher wins the race.
6.40 p.m. - Senna declared dead.
Later that day, Italian authorities open an inquiry into the Grand Prix and close the Imola circuit.
June 1 - Frank Williams, Patrick Head and other Williams staff are warned they are under investigation in the probe.
Feb. 24 - Prosecutors lodge an initial 500-page report. It says Senna lost control of his car after the steering column snapped. The column had been modified by Williams' technicians.
April 19 - A remodelled Imola motor racing circuit is officially opened following extensive changes to the track.
April 30 - San Marino Grand Prix held.
Jan 30 - The International Automobile Federation (FIA) decides all Grand Prix racing cars will be fitted with aeroplane-style black boxes from the start of the 1997 Formula One season to help investigations in future serious accidents.
June 25 - Chief prosecutor Maurizio Passarini asks for six people to be charged with manslaughter in connection with Senna's death -- Frank Williams, the Williams team's technical director Patrick Head and its designer Adrian Newey, Belgian international race director Roland Bruynseraede, Imola track manager Federico Bendinelli and track director Giorgio Poggi.
Passarini recommends that proceedings against five people investigated over Ratzenberger's death should be dropped.
Dec 16 - An examining magistrate rules that the six men accused of manslaughter over the Senna death should stand trial.
Dec 17 - The FIA warns that drivers and motor racing officials may be unwilling to risk taking part in races in Italy following the trial decision.
Feb 16 - London's Sunday Times newspaper publishes a photograph showing a small piece of debris in Senna's path moments before he crashed into a wall and suggests he lost control of his car trying to avoid the fragment.
Williams trial reopens Formula One safety debate
PARIS (Feb 18, 1997 - 19:48 EST) - Formula One boss Frank Williams and five others face manslaughter charges over the death of Ayrton Senna this week, but whatever the outcome of the trial, the jury is still out on the safety of the sport less than a month before the start of the 1997 season.
For while lawyers argue whether or not the death of the brilliant Brazilian at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was avoidable, motor racing remains stuck with the paradox of needing to be dangerous enough to attract the attention of sponsors, the media and the spectators, but not so dangerous that it frightens them away with a series of fatalities.
Senna's death on May 1, 1994 at Imola was the second in the space of two days after the sport had been fatality-free since 1982.
Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died in practice when his Simtek smashed into a wall during Saturday's qualifying, a day after Senna's compatriot Rubens Barrichello narrowly escaped with his life when his car flew into a wall.
Any suggestion that the Imola track was a bad apple among circuits was quickly dispelled when another Austrian Karl Wendlinger ended up in a coma in the very next race after Imola; the Monaco Grand Prix.
Then Finland's Mika Hakkinen hammered into a tire wall at 125 mph in Adelaide at the end of the 1995 season, fracturing his skull and lying unconscious for 24 hours before recovering.
The spate of crashes forced Formula One chiefs to rethink their priorities, and they have made strenuous efforts since Senna's death to render the sport safer.
The introduction of carbon fiber monocoques to encase the drivers had already greatly enhanced their chances of surviving a shunt, but 1995 saw the introduction of sweeping changes by the Federation Internationale d'Automobile.
Cars were made heavier, engine size was reduced to three liters, cockpits were strengthened and rear wing heights lowered.
Tracks such as the notoriously fast Imola layout and Silverstone in Britain, were slowed by accommodating more chicanes. In addition, the Grand Prix Drivers Association gave the men behind the wheel a real input into improving the safety of circuits.
Further modifications were made in 1996, with the focus again on driver safety and aerodynamics -- nose cones were blunted -- and this season 'black box' accident data recorders will be fitted to F1 cars. Speed reductions are in the pipeline for 1998.
Yet with the top teams like Williams, Ferarri, McLaren and Benetton shelling out in excess of 100 million dollars a year, the price of combining safety with success has never been higher.
It is a difficult balancing act. Williams, Benetton and Jordan have all experienced trouble this season introducing the new rear impact structures that they claim have increased the cars rigidity, making them more susceptible to vibration.
Indeed, Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve, whose father Giles died in a crash in 1982, is in no doubt that things have gone too far.
"I think it's gone a little overboard on the safety side. Formula One is safe enough. I would like to see us go faster," he said last month.
Irreverent words when quoted on the eve of the Senna trial perhaps, but they serve to reinforce the suspicion that Formula One remains an accident waiting to happen.
Williams trial will be kept low key
BOLOGNA, Italy (Feb 18, 1997 - 19:54 EST) - The trial for the manslaughter of world champion Ayrton Senna, who died in a racing crash in the San Marino Grand Prix at nearby Imola on May 1, 1995, opens Thursday in a deliberately low key and will continue at a slow pace for many months.
Only lawyers will attend the procedural opening day, the next session on Feb. 28, and other hearings, which will take up two days each week, sources close to the case say.
None of the six accused, including the owners and designer of Senna's Williams car, nor witnesses such as world champions Damon Hill, Senna's teammate, and Michael Schumacher, his chief rival, will be called until late April or early May.
The judge and lawyers involved recently agreed that witness hearings should be timed to avoid local major events such as the April 27 Grand Prix at Imola, and conflicts with the busy world championship season, with its races usually every second weekend.
From Williams, the accused are team owner Frank Williams, his partner and technical director Patrick Head, and the car's chief designer, Adrian Newey.
The other accused are: Federico Bendinelli, managing director of the Societa Allestimento Gestione Impiante e Servizi (SAGIS), which rents the Imola circuit from the local authorities and runs events; the then Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) circuit inspector Roland Bruynseraede, who declared the circuit safe; and clerk of the course (race director) Giorgo Poggi.
All have been charged with 'omocido colposo,' culpable homicide or manslaughter, a less serious offense in Italian law than in anglo-saxon law. The maximum sentence is five years' jail, but most penalties are short, suspended terms.
Investigating magistrate Maurizio Passarini brought the charges after a technical report by Prof. Enrico Lorenzini of Bologna University's school of engineering. It concluded steering failure caused by a faulty weld sent the car out of control into the wall at the 300 kph Tamburello bend.
Williams strongly rejects the allegation. It says its telemetry showed the steering working normally and that the column broke when the car hit the wall. Head said last week that although he accepted the results of the metallurgical examination, he contested the interpretation.
Senna's car was impounded and apart from a brief inspection just after the crash, Williams has not been allowed to study the wreckage.
Head said their lawyers were originally told their applications to see the car were 'too early' and that since the charges have been laid, they have been told it is 'too late.'
The charges against the officials are understood to allege the track edge had a slight dip which allowed Senna's car to become partly airborne and would have prevented his controlling it had the steering been intact. A major bump at the apex of Tamburello which Senna's car is known to have scraped, may also be involved.
Last Sunday, a British newspaper published a photo appearing to show that before the crash, Senna's car hit a piece of debris from an earlier accident. It was suggested that might have caused a tire to deflate, leading to his crash.
Williams will appeal any guilty verdict to higher Italian courts.
Although a guilty verdict would open the way to damages claims by the Senna family, it is understood that Frank Williams, who sits on the Board of the Senna Foundation, has been assured there will be no such action.
The case is being considered as an ordinary road death, as no Italian law specifically covers accidents in motor racing.
The FIA has said it could not guarantee the future of international motor racing in Italy if such charges hung over competitors or its officials.
But the sources said there has been considerable quiet discussion about the problem. The FIA now is expected to let the San Marino and Italian Grands Prix proceed awaiting the verdict in the Senna case.
It has urged the Italian government to revise the law, and is also pressing for a Europe-wide law to cover accidents in all dangerous sports undertaken voluntarily.
Williams still smiles in the face of adversity
PARIS (Feb 18, 1997 - 18:18 EST) - For a man confined to a wheelchair the trials of life can all too easily be put into perspective, yet for Formula One team boss Frank Williams this year promises to be testing in more ways than one.
Battle commences in the Italian city of Bologna on Thursday, when Williams, together with technical director Patrick Head, chief designer Adrian Newey and three race officials stand accused of manslaughter in the death of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Williams is also facing the likelihood of costly court proceedings against Newey, who is trying to break his contract with the team and switch to Ron Dennis's rival McLaren camp.
An estimated 50 million dollars or more hangs on the outcome of the challenge to the sport's ruling body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), by Williams, McLaren and Tyrell over who runs F1.
It's a tall order for ordinary mortals, but Williams is far from that.
Singlemindedly, if not single-handedly, the stoney-faced Englishman has reserved his place in Formula One's hall of fame by dominating the sport for nearly two decades.
The first of his record eight world constructors' titles - the same number as won by Ferrari -- came in 1980 and his drivers, the Australian Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg of South Africa, clinched the drivers' title in 1980 and 1982 respectively.
A period of consolidation followed before suddenly, in 1986, Williams' life changed. A car crash in the south of France left him tetraplegic and wheelchair bound.
"I am convinced that without that accident, I wouldn't have lost the Honda engine at the end of 1987...and Ayrton Senna, whom I had been talking to, would have signed for us and not McLaren," Williams said.
Another Brazilian Nelson Piquet used the Williams car as his vehicle to the 1987 drivers' crown, and Britain's Nigel Mansell, in 1992 and Frenchman Alain Prost the next year, followed suit.
Williams finally nailed his man when Senna joined the team in 1994 and the rest is a tale of tragedy that will rear its head again in court on Thursday.
With less than a month until the start of the new season, Williams, whose head is already on the block after he dropped last year's world champion Damon Hill from his 1997 lineup, could be forgiven for his familiar hangdog expression. Yet the man in the dock is unfazed.
"There is nothing else in the world that I'd prefer to do," he said. "There are pressures of course, and I worry a lot. But I think its wonderful and I adore the whole world of motor racing."
The next 12 months could go a long way to deciding whether the feeling is mutual.
Calendar of events leading to Williams charges
PARIS (Feb 18, 1997 - 18:18 EST) - Diary of events leading to Williams manslaughter charges:
May 1, 1994: Three-times former champion Ayrton Senna loses control of his Williams-Renault attempting to take Tamburello Curve at 190mph and crashes into concrete wall on second lap of restarted San Mario Grand Prix in Imola.
The Brazilian is helicoptered to Bologna's Maggiore Hospital where he is later pronounced dead from massive head injuries. Italian authorities impound car and investigation is launched.
February 1995: Frank Williams says he awaits with 'trepidation' imminent official report, amid speculation the magistrate has concluded accident was caused when faulty steering column broke.
Technical director Patrick Head expresses disappointment into official report which has been handed to magistrates in Bologna who will decide what action to take.
April 1995: With findings still to be officially published, Williams admits it will be an emotional occasion as Formula One returns for first grand prix race at Imola since Senna's death.
December 1995: Enrico Lorenzini, chief investigator into Senna's death, denies a report which claimed he attributed accident to steering rod that was badly welded together.
February 1996: Italian authorities deny reports that Williams and Head will be charged with manslaughter following inquiry, saying no decision has been made.
June 1996: Prosecutor Maurizio Passarini is reported to be recommending that Williams, Head, six Williams engineers and two senior track officials be charged with manslaughter.
November 1996: Williams says the 'volcano will erupt' soon following report that Passarini had been given leave by examining judge to proceed with manslaughter charges.
December 1996: Williams, Head, chief designer Adrian Newey and three others face trial on manslaughter charges. Preliminary hearing set for February 1997. All six deny charges.
Villeneuve demolishes Estoril track record
ESTORIL, Portugal (Feb 18, 1997 - 16:18 EST) - Canadian Jacques Villeneuve in his Williams-Renault broke the track record Tuesday afternoon when he clocked a lap time of 1 minute 18.36 seconds to shave 0.29 seconds off the previous record set earlier in the day by Austrian Gerhard Berger.
Despite being outpaced by Villeneuve, Berger remained confident that his Benetton-Renault was progressing well.
"We're already going faster and even though we still have some improvements to make, the results of the car are satisfactory," said the Austrian. "The times are very positive and I'm sure we are going to be competitive (this season)."
Berger, in his second stint at Benetton, beat his record set on Monday of 1min 19.56secs.
The previous record set by Finland's Mikka Hakkinen, 1min 19.56, had stood since February 1996.
Tuesday's fastest times:
1. Jacques Villeneuve (Can/Williams-Renault) 1:18.36 (65 tours)
2. Gerhard Berger (Aut/Benetton-Renault) 1:18.65 (35)
3. Jean Alesi (Fra/Benetton-Renault) 1:18.76 (29)
4. Heinz-Harald Frentzen (All/Williams-Renault) 1:19.51 (33)
5. Ralf Schumacher (All/Jordan-Peugeot) 1:20.14 (34)
6. Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita/Jordan-Peugeot) 1:20.70 (23)
7. Ukyo Katayama (Jap/Minardi-Ford) 1:21.81 (39)
Berger breaks Estoril record for second time
ESTORIL, Portugal (Feb 18, 1997 - 14:36 EST) - Austria's Gerhard Berger broke the track record in his Benetton-Renault for the second time in two days Tuesday during Formula One testing -- covering a lap in 1 minute 18.65 seconds.
The Austrian, in his second stint at Benetton, beat his record set on Monday of 1-min.-19.56-secs.
The previous record set by Finland's Mikka Hakkinen, 1-min.-19.56, had stood since February 1996.
If Williams convicted in Senna's death, Italy may lose 34 events
LONDON (Feb 18, 1997 - 13:06 EST) - World motor racing authorities are unlikely to sanction any events in Italy if Formula One chief Frank Williams is convicted of manslaughter over the death of Ayrton Senna nearly three years ago.
The head of the Williams' team and five others go on trial in Imola this Thursday.
FIA president Max Mosley has already hinted that the world governing body would take some action if the six are found guilty.
And although Mosley has declined to outline what he has in mind, a logical move would be to withdraw approval for the 34 events currently held in Italy, including the San Marino Grand Prix in which Senna was killed on May 1, 1994.
Flavio Briatore, head of the Benetton team, has already said he would be unwilling to race in Italy if Williams is convicted.
"I would not risk bringing my team to a country that can convict you for an accident," he said last December. "Fatality is part of the game."
Briatore was backed a few days later by Ken Tyrrell, another team chief, who said he did not think it would be possible to get insurance cover for possible criminal charges.
"Motor racing is a dangerous sport," Tyrrell commented.
This year's San Marino Grand Prix scheduled for April 27 is not threatened as the case could languish in the courts for years under Italy's notoriously slow legal system.
The trial itself is expected to take at least six months and appeal processes could drag the process out for up to seven years.
FIA, though, could act well before any decision is reached in order to thwart future prosecutions.
One suggestion is for FIA to persuade the Italian government to introduce a law removing the risk of prosecution for accidents in a sport which is inherently dangerous.
Brazilian Senna, a three times world champion, suffered fatal head injuries when his Williams' car crashed into a wall on the Imola course's Tamburello curve.
A report for Bologna prosecutor Maurizio Passarini, who led the investigation, concluded that the car's steering column had been modified and snapped as a result of a poor weld as the vehicle took the curve.
The Williams' team has argued that the steering column was intact at the moment of impact.
The other men charged are Williams' technical director Patrick Head, chief designer Adrian Newey, Belgian international race director Roland Bruynseraede, Imola race track director Frederico Bendinelli and a former track official Giorgio Poggi. All deny the charge.
Ferrari test at Mugello
Mugello, 18th February - This was Ferraris first day of testing at the Mugello circuit.
Today, Michael Schumacher covered 51 laps, with a best time of 1m25.57s, a performance that Ferrari technicians see as very good.
The German driver was at the wheel of the third F 310 B (chassis number 174). He worked on the aerodynamic set-up and tested some new parts.
Tomorrow, Schumacher will be joined by his team-mate, Eddie Irvine.
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