JUNE 1, 2011
Anaysis: Time for action at Monaco?
BY TONY DODGINS
Resurfacing work at Monaco has been cited as a potential contributory factor in the accidents that occurred coming out of the tunnel and under braking for the harbour front chicane during the grand prix weekend.
"I think this year they have put down some new tarmac and it's not so flat," said Pastor Maldonado, who is a multiple Monaco winner in the junior formulae and was on his way to points in his first F1 race there before his accident with Lewis Hamilton five laps from the end.
"It was very bumpy, especially on the main straight and under braking for Turn 1 and Mirabeau, after the tunnel and even at Tabac," Maldonado said. "It's always been very, very bumpy, but now I think it's too much. On the entry to Tabac it's so bad that you start to lose vision.
"I think it's a combination -- all the cars that crashed coming out of the tunnel were on their first lap, the tyre pressures maybe weren't enough and, even looking at Perez, he completely lost the line, was on the dirty side of the track and when he braked he lost the rear completely. That point is critical and it's always difficult to stop the car because you come out of the tunnel flat-out and the moment you brake the track dips down. You always feel the car really loose."
There is also a bump in the surface there that some drivers felt was worse this year. For years, drivers have jinked right to avoid a crest in the road coming out of Casino Square on the run down to Mirabeau. It avoids stress on the car and it also avoids repeated shock transfer to the driver's back caused by grounding out over the crest.
This year, some drivers were feeling the effects of the bump coming out of the tunnel worse than in previous years and some attempted to drive to the left of it. That is what Vitaly Petrov was doing when he crashed in free practice. The added steering input needed to get the car back across to the right to take the ideal line through the chicane, while on the brakes, caused him to lose control.
Sergio Perez also exited the tunnel on an unconventional line, way over to the left of the road, which was dusty. His memory of the accident is not strong, however.
"I remember starting Q3 and I also remember some of the accident," he said. "For the time being I'm missing some memories about what happened after the first impact and the rescue procedures. I don't really know what caused the accident. My race engineer told me there was no problem with the car. I can only guess that I might have been a bit off-line or braked on a bump."
Perez was certainly off-line but the reason why is not fully clear.
"It didn't look like understeer," Williams technical director Sam Michael said, "because when you understeer in the tunnel you drift into the wall in the tunnel. He wasn't just a little bit off-line, it was one and a half car widths. He also drifted wide on exit, it wasn't at the entry or apex. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps he was looking down at the steering wheel, doing something."
The luckiest man was Nico Rosberg, who narrowly missed a head-on impact with the bit of flush barrier that Perez impacted sideways. While everyone accepts the reduced safety possibilities that come with the space constraints of racing at Monaco, there have been rather too many let-offs at the Nouvelle chicane to excuse continuing without modifications.
"Maybe you can have another design of barrier because that's a really dangerous place," said Perez's team boss Peter Sauber. We saw the same accident with Rosberg and then Sergio's accident brought back memories of Karl Wendlinger, which was 17 years ago now."
Wendlinger, also driving for Sauber, crashed at the same place just days after F1 had gone through the double tragedy of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna's deaths at Imola. He was in a coma for a lengthy period and although he later returned to a Sauber cockpit, his F1 career was short-lived.
Since then, Jenson Button was hospitalised in 2003, David Coulthard had an escape and with four incidents at this year's grand prix alone, it seems as if the time has come to take some decisive action.
Since Wendlinger's accident the barrier has been moved back but there is still scope to gain more space. Behind the barrier is a crane, then a small space before a row of trees. While tree removal might meet with opposition, the crane could be moved and there has been a suggestion that a gently curving barrier from the right as drivers approach the chicane, would alleviate the possibility of hitting anything head-on.
"That would be better," Michael said. "You would still destroy the car but it would be directed down the road towards Tabac, where there is more space and there would be no big stop, which is what's a concern for head injuries."
Potentially though, that would leave a car exiting the chicane at low speed, vulnerable to being T-boned. Another possible option could be a barrier that curves left to right, sending an errant car down the current escape road, which would need to be lengthened. That, though, would also have to overcome the issue of the barrier end butting out towards the on-coming cars, as the current one does.
Rosberg himself, said: "My case was just an unnecessary mistake, I wouldn't say it's the track being unsafe. I trust the FIA, they always do the best possible job but maybe we could push that barrier back a bit to improve safety. For sure, I was lucky. I just closed my eyes and prayed to miss the end of the barrier..."
While F1 can take pride in the cockpit safety advances that prevented Perez suffering a more serious head injury, it does seem as if it is time to have another look before 2012. We were lucky this time.