Gadgetry made F1 less perilous

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 1994, 12:00am

WITH regard to the hysterical outpourings that have followed the tragic events at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, I think it only fair to point out, in view of the very nature of the sport, the absolutely amazing safety record that Formula One motor racing has enjoyed for more than a decade.

Until 15 days ago only one man had been killed during practice, in 1986, and one on the starting grid, not in race conditions, in 1982. In view of the staggering increase in racing cars' performances over these years I think these statistics are truly amazing.

The only world champions that survived the era in which I was designing and racing cars - between 1957 and 1970 - are Juan Fangio, Jack Brabham and John Surtees. And only Phil Hill died in his bed.

Even Fangio walks with his head crooked as a result of an unscheduled trip over the top of the banking at Marenello.

In my opinion the cause of the three appalling crashes at Imola were the direct result of FIA doing away with the electronic goodies that had been developed up to the end of the 1993 season. Without active suspension and computer assistance the drivers now have to rely on their own incredible, but nonetheless fallible, reflexes. Barichello and Ratzenberger were both comparative novices to Formula One racing but were very experienced test drivers and had spent many hours testing the new electronic devices last year. This season they became fully fledged racers in cars equally powerful, but lacking the gadgetry they had become used to in the Formula One cars they had previously experienced.

Senna, of course, was at the other end of the scale. He was capable of driving a Formula One car faster than anyone else, right on the limit.

He too had been used to driving with active suspension et al.

During practice the two least experienced drivers got on, or close to, the limit at some corner and flew off the circuit. There is a strong possibility that Ratzenberger's car shed its rear wing, but I still hold to my argument. These drivers simply did not have the skill or experience to control cars that, this season, rely far more on the driver and not on a black box of electronic wizardry.

Senna drove the only way he knew how - to win. He was leading when, as was his wont, he went to 101/2 tenths. So miniscule are the differences between triumph and disaster that, without the computer, to which he had become so accustomed instantaneously rearranging the handling, the Williams-Renault was off the track and into the wall before even Senna could do anything.

While I was never a fan of Senna as a person or competitor, I have never wavered in my admiration for him as one of the greatest drivers that ever lived. I believe that in the coming season the drivers most at risk will continue to be young, but experienced, tearaways like Schumacher, Hakkinen and probably Alesi. They will continue to give it all they've got. Among the other more staid such as Burger and Hill there will be no need for the authorities to introduce artificial means to keep their speeds down - Senna has already done it for them.

HENRY C. COMBE Lamma Island