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Italy's F1 races under threat?

THE San Marino and Italian Grands Prix could be dropped from the 1997 Formula 1 calendar if Italian magistrates push ahead with legal action resulting from the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994. The FIA Formula 1 Commission met last week in London and we believe that it decided on an F1 calendar with the two Italian races only provisionally included.

Contrary to our report three weeks ago, it seems that Bologna prosecutor Maurizio Passarini has been given clearance by Justice Diego di Marco to prosecute Frank Williams and five others with manslaughter. The five are believed to be Patrick Head, the FIA's then race director Roland Bruynseraede, the race starter Giorgio Poggi, Federico Bendinelli, managing director of the SAGIS group which runs the track, and a Williams mechanic who carried out modifications to Senna's steering column, which Passarini believes caused the crash.

The Williams team has already let it be known that it will challenge Passarini's findings both from a technical and a legal viewpoint. The team says the steering was broken in the impact with the wall and argues that the Italian authorities should have given Williams access to the wrecked chassis so its engineers could analyze what caused the crash.

Charges are formally expected this week and a trial - which will have to be held in Imola - could begin as early as January. It is likely that there will then be a long adjournment as Williams is given time to examine the car and prepare its defense. The case - if it goes ahead - will inevitably drag on for years because Williams does not want to be judged guilty, as this would open the way for massive damage claims against the team from the Senna family.

Although the FIA says it does not want to be publicly involved in the case, legal action against Bruynseraede is, in effect, an attack on the governing body. Poggi and Bendinelli are both likely to be cleared of any charges because Imola was declared safe by Bruynseraede, the then FIA F1 Safety Delegate.

The FIA will have no qualms about taking on the Italian authorities. It canceled the Italian Grand Prix in 1994 because organizers could not overcome environmental protests and cut down trees. The race was only saved after the intervention of the then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

We believe that the FIA has already warned the Automobile Club of Italy that international races could be canceled if Williams runs into legal trouble over the Senna accident. The ACI is understood to be looking at ways to have Italian law relating to racing accidents changed.

Ironically, there were rumors this week that Imola has just signed a new five-year deal for the San Marino GP to continue until after the event in 2001.

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