GLOBETROTTER

The philosophy of safety

A funny thing happened on the way to the autodromo. We were motoring through the lovely hills behind the circuit. It was a beautiful morning with the kind of light that sends photographers scurrying for their cameras. We came around a corner and there, standing beside the road, next to a Jeep, was a British Brigadier in battle dress. He looked a little bit out of place.

In the car there was a slight double-take.

"Wasn't that a..."

"British brigadier-general... Yes."

"Strange."

"Yup."

And that was it. Formula 1 is like that. You see so many strange and bizarre things and curious people that a British brigadier loitering on an Italian country road does not seem at all ridiculous. It is not normal - but there is bound to be a reason for it, which makes perfect sense. And so there was.

Around the next corner was a jeepload of British paratroopers in full battle dress, with red berets, Pegasus badges and all the right paraphernalia.

"That's a bit odd."

A few yards further down the road was a three-ton truck full of US Marines - looking as though they had lost their way to Guadalcanal. And then there was a tank.

Next up was some chaps in German uniforms - complete with the helmets from the days when German armies still did European tours. It became more and more bizarre. There were Jeeps, tanks half-tracks and lorries all stuffed full of Italians in World War II uniforms. We knew they were Italians because several had pigtails and most had silly goatee beards - which are all the rage these days in Italian fashion circles.

"Why do all Italian men have silly little beards?" someone growled later in the press room.

"Because they want to look like their mothers," came the evil reply.

The explanation for all this was that it was a national holiday in Italy. Celebrating the day that the Italians rose up to throw the Germans out of Italy - April 25 1945. To celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the beginning of 13 days of frantic resistance before the war ended, the local geeks - who like to dress up in old military uniforms and run around fields refighting battles, were out in force.

What a funny thing I thought that a few miles down the road at Imola an army of Germans in camper vans, sitting on top of a hill at Imola waiting for "Schumi", the heartthrob of all of Italy, to emerge from the pits in his big red Ferrari.

No sooner were we clear of World War Two "anoraks" that we encountered the first of Schumi's Army, walking down the middle of the road, with their red flags, silly goatee beards, overpriced sunglasses and Schumacher Ferrari hats.

You can like them or you can hate them but whichever way you cannot fail to be swept up by the feverish enthusiasm of the average "tifosi". Even the word is derived from typhoid fever.

Nowhere on this earth is there such passion for fast motor cars. This is the land of Enzo Ferrari. The towns of Modena and Maranello are just down the road, although it will take you hours to get there because this is where the Highway Code has a chapter called "Creative Driving" - which is anything you can get away with. This is not hard as the policeman are far too busy trying to create traffic jams and needless diversions to worry about traffic offences. The richest men in Italy must be the panel-beaters and the folk who sell new brakes.

The Italian passion for cars intense and almost every major town or city in Italy hosted street races of some form or another. Some enjoyed outstanding international histories: there was the Circuito del Garda at Salo dating from 1921 which was still being used for Formula 3 into the Sixties; Caserta - one of the centers of the Roman empire - which held its first race in 1928 and also survived until the Sixties; Pescara, the home of the longest circuit ever to host a World Championship Grand Prix (in 1957), dated back to 1924. With its mad rush through the Abruzzi Mountains and the four mile straight beside the sea, Pescara was over 15 miles in length, dotted with level crossings, bridges and hill villages. The track was always crammed with crowds of people - not to mention chickens and dogs. This was the home of the Coppa Acerbo and even a 12 Hour sportscar race in the early Fifties.

Another of the famous Italian tracks was at Modena - Ferrari town. This held street races pre-war (Enzo Ferrari won two) and post-war switched to a military airfield - the Aeroautodromo Modena - which was used for F2 in the late fifties and for F1 in 1961.

A stroll through the history books reveals tracks everywhere: Alessandria, Avellino, Belluno, Livorno, Posillipo, Bari, Messina, Cesenatico, Salerno, Syracuse, and Teramo. All have long since vanished.

The highest concentration of the Italian automotive passion is to the north of Imola, heading to Bologna and Modena. This is where the Maserati Brothers (Chico, Harpo, Groucho etc.) set up in business and where Lamborghini was established. When Bugatti was re-established a few years ago it was logical that the factory was located here. This is a Silicon Valley for speedy, road cars and beautiful styling.

The area is steeped in racing history. This is where the Mille Miglia race - which ran 1000 miles from Brescia to Rome and back again - burst through the Appenine hills on the run back northward, diving through the wild twisting sections of road in the famous Passes of Futa and Raticosa. Up their in the hills is an impressive monument to Clemente Biondetti, who won the great sportcar race four times.

In those days motor racing was allowed to be a dangerous business. A few years back FIA President Max Mosley went to Indianapolis and returned telling everyone about a T-shirt he had seen which declared that "I remember when motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe".

By any measure the Mille Miglia was a bloody affair. In 1938 and again in 1951 spectators were killed when cars went out of control and ran off the roads. It was, I guess, a bit like modern day tarmac rallying. In the second incident a prominent local doctor was killed when Alberto Ascari spun into a crowd. Ascari was charged with manslaughter but was cleared of the charges three years later.

In 1957 the Marquis Alfonso de Portago's Ferrari suffered a tire failure near the village of Guidozzoli and slewed off the road at high-speed into a crowd of children standing beside the road. It was about as bad as things can get. De Portago, his co-driver Edmund Nelson and 10 spectators were killed - five of them children. Twenty more people were injured. The newspapers predictably went crazy. Enzo Ferrari and the Belgian tire company Englebert were charged with manslaughter and it took four and a half years before they were cleared.

That crash ended the Mille Miglia, coming as it did two years after the disaster at Le Mans. Motor racing had to become more safe and street circuits all across Europe faded away. Circuit racing became the norm.

Accidents will always happen in motor racing. It is the job of the authorities to make sure that spectators are protected - often from themselves because fanatics will always go to dangerous spots to get a closer view of the action. Often people have no idea about how much damage an out-of-control car can do.

For 12 years Formula 1 was safe. No-one died. There was Elio de Angelis, killed in a testing crash at Paul Ricard but it was not the crash which killed him but rather the lack of any assistance after the crash.

And then, after years of holiday, the evil demons got together at Imola in 1994 and we found that it was not socially-acceptable to kill the world's biggest racing star on live television.

These days Imola - which was once such a happy place - is remembered as the place where Ayrton Senna died. This year a melancholy statue of Ayrton was unveiled a few feet from where he crashed on May 1, 1994.

Formula 1 would like to put that day behind it, but with the seemingly endless trial to ascertain why Senna was killed is grinding on in a converted dance hall in Imola town. It will go on for some months yet, no doubt, before the matter is finally laid to rest. Who knows what the court will decide but for most of us there will never to be a certain answer to the question of what caused Ayrton to crash on that evil weekend.

The outcome of the case is, of course, important to the future of motor racing in Italy, although it is not the first time that racing people have been dragged over the legal coals in Italy because of accidents. The sport has survived. It has to adapt.

I suppose the racing drivers of today are no different really from those folk who like dressing up as soldiers. We can thank our lucky stars that now in western Europe people are only playing at war. Life has become more precious and with it, motor racing's old habit of wasting the best, the brightest and anyone else who gets in the way has had to be quietly forgotten...

Motor racing, after all, is only a game.

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