MARCH 4, 2001

How unlucky can you get?

THE death of a marshal in Australia on Sunday was not good news for Formula 1.

THE death of a marshal in Australia on Sunday was not good news for Formula 1. It is only five races since another marshal was killed in a similar incident at Monza. It suggests that Formula 1 needs to pay more attention to safety. But the fact is that analysis of Jacques Villeneuve's accident in Melbourne reveals that the safety was not bad. It was just bad luck that circumstances contrived to allow a wheel to go through a hole cut in the safety fences in order to allow marshals access to the track. These access points cannot be closed up as they are needed to ensure that marshals have rapid access in the event of a different kind of accident.

Villeneuve's accident was - thankfully - very unusual. Drivers know the risks of such crashes and do everything they can to avoid them. Villeneuve ran into the back of Ralf Schumacher at around 135mph. It is not clear why he did. Afterwards he said that he felt that Ralf Schumacher had braked early but the Williams team said that this was not the case. Ralf had braked at the same spot as usual. Villeneuve, looking for a way to pass the Williams, may have been concentrating more on Schumacher than on the road ahead and been caught out. This seems to be the most logical explanation. Whatever the case Villeneuve had no time to do anything. The nose of the BAR hit the left rear tire of the Williams and was launched into the air. As it flew the car twisted in the air and landed tail-first on the lip of the trackside concrete wall. This had the effect of keeping the rear in the air while the front slammed downwards onto the track. The front right tire was torn straight off but the front left held on thanks to the wheel tethers. The momentum carried the car down the wall and it arrived at the opening in the fence with the rear still at about the same height. It seems that the right rear tire then passed through the hole in the fence and eye-witnesses report that it hit the marshal in the chest.

Other wreckage flew into the air and went over the top of the debris fences. This caused minor injuries to seven spectators in the public area behind the marshals area. The seven were treated at a nearby first aid post and all were released soon afterwards having suffered only cuts and bruises as they were hit or hurt themselves diving for cover.

Medical help was on the scene immediately but the marshal's heart had stopped beating and cardiac massage was necessary for a lengthy period to keep him alive. An ambulance arrived and the victim was evacuated from the track (still being given cardiac massage). The ambulance drove very slowly to the Alfred Hospital, allowing the medics to continue their work inside but on arrival at the hospital tests revealed that nothing could be done and he was pronounced dead.

The accident will inevitably raise questions of track safety coming just five races after the death of fire marshal Paolo Ghislimberti at Monza last September. Given the violence of the accident and the tiny probability of a wheel going through such a small opening the accident may be put down to sheer bad luck but this should not stop questions being asked about the safety. The wheel tethers on Villeneuve's car did not all do their job. Three wheels came off and only one was left attached to the chassis.

The accident involving Luciano Burti's Jaguar R2 in qualifying in Melbourne had previously raised questions over the effectiveness of the wheel tethers. Burti went into the wall at Turn 5 after an apparent failure of the left rear suspension, and the Jaguar hit the retaining wall with its left hand side at considerable speed. Despite newly-reinforced tethers implemented for 2001, both the front and rear wheels were ripped off.

The FIA has doubled the strength of the tethers fitted to the wheels on a Formula 1 car following the multi-car accident in the opening lap of last year's Italian Grand Prix at Monza last year. But in that case Ghislimberti was out in the open and unprotected by debris fencing. The debris fencing in Melbourne did a remarkable job - as it was designed to do - and there is no doubt that it saved the people who were behind it.

Despite this the FIA will want to examine every aspect of the crash to ascertain what can be done to improve the current safety measures. The cars are now incredibly safe but perhaps there is an argument that the tracks need to be safer. There are also questions as to whether the raised nose of the cars is a good idea given that contact with a tire will launch the car as it did Villeneuve but engineers in the F1 paddock say that lowering the noses will make little difference. Cars will always fly in such situations.

The general feeling in the F1 paddock after the crash in Melbourne was that F1 had been unlucky. The sport has incredible levels of safety and the FIA is working all the time to improve the situation but the fact remains that when you have cars travelling at high-speeds and spectators close to the tracks it is inevitable that there will be accidents. One can judge F1 harshly for Melbourne but one should think what would have happened if the debris fencing had not been there.

The Le Mans disaster in 1955 when around 100 people were killed by a car flying in the very similar circumstances shows just how far the sport has come in its quest to safety. But there will always be a chance that circumstances will conspire to catch out the sport.