Remembering Imola: The aftermath and the improvements
IN MY final blog this week remembering the ghastly weekend at Imola in 1994 – it is time to look at the aftermath of the events and how the sport has moved on with radical and rapid improvements in medical facilities, safety and learning lessons from very dark and distressing times.
In the days after Imola, there was a lot of soul searching to be done by everyone who was involved in the weekend’s proceedings. Gerhard Berger, who was driving for Ferrari had to consider his future in the sport, especially after witnessing the death of his closest friend Ayrton Senna and countryman, Roland Ratzenberger. Others had sleepless nights but the show carried on and all the drivers who raced at Imola in 94 didn’t retire in its aftermath.
The FIA and especially its president, Max Mosley were inspirational in a time of real crisis. They made immediate changes to safety regulations in the sport, beginning from the Spanish Grand Prix, just two races after Imola and contiuning with this until well into 1995. Changes included the introduction of the ‘plank,’ to remove illegal skidblock wear which was the downfall to Michael Schumacher’s disqualification after winning at Spa that August. Driver cockpit sides were strengthened and made bigger and the FIA crash test came into force as a mandatory procedure, both in frontal and side impacts. A new pitlane speed limit was brought into force to reduce the chances of significant injury after the Michele Alboreto incident in the pits at Imola.
These changes were too late to save some from other nasty accidents. Austrian Karl Wendlinger fell into a deep coma after crashing at the Nouvelle Chicane during practice for the next race in Monaco. Wendlinger’s injuries were caused thanks to driver impact from the barriers. Pedro Lamy had a monumental shunt during private testing at Silverstone in which he was ejected from his Lotus Mugen Honda. Lamy survived but suffered serious leg injuries and multiple fractures. In Barcelona, the destroyed Simtek team had to deal with another cracked monocque when Andrea Montermini ran wide into the final corner and crashed heavily during practice, fracturing his heel and breaking his foot.
However driver injury has become far less in recent years. There have been close escapes, with Felipe Massa especially in 2009. Although there were two marshal fatalities due to flying debris at the beginning of the millennium, the most serious driver injury since 1994 was Olivier Panis breaking both of his legs after a suspension failure pitched him into the barriers during the 1997 Canadian Grand Prix. The FIA continue to set the standards in safety today. The deaths of Marco Simoncelli in MotoGP and Dan Wheldon in IndyCars last October highlight that motorsport is dangerous and always will be. However it is much safer than it ever has been.
In the wake of the Imola tragedies, the GPDA was reformed, having been disbanded in 1982. Three time world champion Niki Lauda initiated its return with Berger, Michael Schumacher and Christian Fittipaldi as directors. Membership isn’t compulsory but many of today’s drivers are part of the association. Temporary changes were made to many circuits including ridiculous but necessary tyre chicanes in Barcelona and the slowing down of cars for one year through the daunting Eau Rouge corner at Spa. A year later Formula One returned to Imola with permanent chicanes installed at Tamburello and Villeneuve corners to slow the cars down. Again, these measures were needed to slow the average speeds down but Imola lost its glory as a drivers circuit, often produced processional events and was axed from the F1 calendar at the end of 2006. Schumacher remained chairman of the GPDA for 11 years until his first retirement in 2006. Today’s chairman is experienced Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa with Massa and world champion Sebastian Vettel as directors.
The cause of Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident is unlikely to ever be found out. There have been many points of speculation including a terrible Channel 4 documentary in 2001 as part of the ‘Going Critical’ series where it was wrongly promoted the whole truth would be revealed. There was a high-profile trial into the case in Italy and Sir Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey were all acquitted of manslaughter in 1997. It would be wrong for me to speculate on what caused Senna’s accident although driver error was very very unlikely. For a car to crash at Tamburello, something would have to break or explode on the car, as Berger experienced at the same spot in the 1989 race. Roland Ratzenberger’s accident was caused by his front wing breaking as a result of it being weakened by impact with either an off-track moment or a high kerb. Ratzenberger’s car went straight on into the concrete wall with no steering or braking capability due to the loss of the front wing.
The legacy of both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger’s accidents and the entire weekend at Imola is that Formula One has taken onboard what happened and has done all it has to make sure that these kinds of tragedies are prevented in future. Death in F1 has happened before and it will at some stage, probably happen again. However so many precautions have now been taken and that is thanks to the hard work of the drivers and the FIA. Everyone wants to race in a safe environment and to a large extent, this has been achieved since that terrible weekend in April/May 1994.
Neither Senna nor Ratzenberger will be forgotten by the Formula One fraternity. The experience of these hellish events has made Formula One a safer environment today.