Death

Returns In Formula
My first hint that something was wrong came Sunday afternoon when I logged on to
the BBS (bulletin board service, a central computer acting as a host for other
users to exchange messages) for auto racing. Someone posted a short but gripping
note, “I think I just witnessed the death of Ayrton Senna,” he said.


My eyes widened as I exclaimed “what,” in shock and dismay. A few
hours later, the facts became clearer. Senna had crashed on the sixth lap of the
San Marino Grand Prix while leading the race. It happened at a section called
“Tamburello” – a gentle bend taken at top speed, about 186 miles per
hour. His car had suddenly veered off the course and crashed into a solid
concrete wall. Senna was already considered one of the top drivers in grand prix
racing history. He had more pole positions than any other driver did and only
Alain Prost who retired last year surpassed his total wins. Incredible intensity
and deep concentration characterized his driving. Mistakes from him were rare.

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It was shocking that he would have a serious crash, even more inconceivable that
he would be in mortal danger. On the BBS, all of us were experiencing a sense of
loss and were having a difficult time finding solace among outsiders to the
sport of auto racing. Crashes like Senna’s tend to bring out the worst critics
who insist that those who want only to see crashes watch-racing events. And so
we turned to each other expressing first our anger, then sadness and finally a
candid assessment of the sport and how it could be made safer. This was the
second death of the weekend as another lesser-known driver was killed during a
practice session before the race. The modern formula one or grand prix car is a
masterpiece of engineering and contemporary design. The top teams to develop the
cars to their maximum potential spend incredible sums of money. Their shape is
wind tunnel tested. Exotic materials like carbon fiber along with chemical
additives for optimizing the gasoline are just a few of the important
technologies used. Telemetry logged into a computer (like an airplane’s
“black box” flight recorder) can tell the mechanics and designers
exactly how a car can be optimized for a particular track. In fact computer
technology has played an even greater role in the last two years through the
development of real-time enhancements. These “driver aids” as they
have been called include: active suspension, engine management along with
semiautomatic transmission, and traction control. Of course, along with the
technological advancements has come a steady increase in speed. More
importantly, this steady increase has led to a greater potential for serious
harm in an accident. Details of Senna’s crash serve to illustrate some of the
dangers that grand prix racing must overcome if it is to survive. At the section
where Senna went off the track, there are some bumps, which (according to other
drivers) were disruptive and may have caused a mechanical failure, resulting in
the veering of the car. Earlier in the year (during preseason testing) Senna
himself had pointed out the danger of these bumps and had requested that the
surface be smoothed out. This was supposedly done but the result was even worse!
Reports indicate the bumps were perhaps 2 inches high-an incredible hurdle to a
modern F1 car. Also there is the wall where the crash occurred. On most tracks
there are large runoff areas with sand traps that have proved effective in
slowing down out-of-control cars. Stacked tire walls have also helped soften
areas of possible impact. However, at Tamburello none of these techniques were
employed. There is a small river that runs near the course at this point; hence
the placement of a large concrete wall at an acute angle only a few yards from
the pavement but in front of the river. A sandpit was contemplated but there was
inadequate room. Finally, a patch of concrete was added over the grass to help a
car gain some control and perhaps avoid the wall if it went off course. The
drivers head has also become increasingly vulnerable as the speeds have
increased. Senna was killed by a piece of his car’s suspension that had broken
off during the collision and impacted his forehead. Roland Ratzenberger, the
driver who was killed in practice, also suffered a fatal head injury. But
perhaps the greatest problem is beyond the scope of a technical discussion. It
is a factor, which lies outside the control of any designer, engineer, mechanic,
or driver. To illustrate, at the beginning of the year, FISA (the governing body
of grand prix formula one racing) began enforcing a new set of rules which
banned the use of most of the driver aiding computer technology. It was thought
that driver ability was playing a much lesser role than it ever had, resulting
in less competition and increased cost. But in fact, had active suspension been
permitted at the San Marino race, Sennas’ car would have been able to negotiate
the bumps at Tamburello much more easily and a mechanical breakage would
probably not have occurred. It has also been argued that the wall at Tamburello
makes the track unsafe and that a grand prix race should not be held there. In
fact, many tracks in the US have been denied a race for similar reasons. Yet the
promoters of San Marino seem to have a strong influence and their voices have
thus far held sway. Meanwhile, the technology of formula one cars continues to
improve while the drivers cope with greater speed and frequently greater danger.


And so the deeper problem begins to surface: can a governing body, subjected to
political forces, safely and effectively guide the progress of formula one
technology? Since that fateful weekend at San Marino, immediate and long-term
rules changes are being contemplated by FISA. That they will be effective in
improving safety remains to be seen. But even if they are, crashes will not be
totally avoidable. And the critics will continue to say that racing fans are
blood mongers who want only to see horrendous accidents. That there will be more
death is also a possibility. But many people die even as they walk down the
street, drive a car, or ride in a plane. Yes, the danger will always be present,
separating the great drivers from the reckless and the mere finishers. After
that tragic weekend, Niki Lauda, the retired grand prix champion was quoted as
saying; “God lifted his hand from formula one racing momentarily this
weekend after having protected it for ten years.” To those of us who admire
the drivers and thrill at the delicate beauty of a formula one car as it
fleetingly dances along the path of the worlds race tracks, we can only pray
that the benevolent hand of protection will return and restore the relative
safety of the past ten years.