The Hockenheim protester

AUGUST 1, 2000

The Hockenheim protester

THE FIA is to investigate an incident in Hockenheim when a 47-year-old Frenchman, protesting at being fired from a Mercedes-Benz factory in Le Mans, walked onto the track in the middle of the German Grand Prix. The race organizers could face a fine for lax security, particularly as it has since emerged that the man tried to make a protest on the pre-grid as well, just 15 seconds before the cars were to set off on their final parade lap before the race. On that occasion he was grabbed and dragged off the grid by marshals. It later emerged that the same man was found in the pitlane at the French Grand Prix a month ago with 10 laps to go in the race. He was apprehended by an FIA official on that occasion. The worrying thing for Formula 1 is that when faced by a determined protester there is little that can be done at some circuits because often the security precautions have to allow for gaps in the fences so that spectators could, if necessary, escape from being crushed. These provisions were introduced as a result of the football disasters at the Heysel Stadium in Belgium and at Hillsborough in England.

The man was handed over to the German police after the incident and on Monday released on bail of $945 pending a formal charge against him. The German authorities said there was no reason for him to remain in jail. The prosecution department in Mannheim will decide whether to recommend charges following a complaint by the Hockenheim race organizers claiming trespass.

While it is easy to understand the reluctance of the authorities to push ahead with legal action, it is a very worrying situation for Formula 1 because of the dangers involved in such protests. The huge TV audiences that watch Grand Prix racing make it an obvious target for protest and there are fears that other extremists may follow suit if the Hockenheim protester escapes without punishment.

The dangers of such protests may not be obvious to the people doing them but Formula 1 has not forgotten the last time that a car travelling at high speed hit someone running across the track. It was in March 1977 at Kyalami in South Africa when the Shadow of Renzo Zorzi stopped on the main straight with its rear end on fire. Zorzi got out of the car but the fire was still burning and two marshals decided to run across the track with their fire extinguishers. Unfortunately in their excitement they did not appreciate that they were doing this just after a blind brow and when they were halfway across the track two cars arrived at the scene, side-by-side and battling for position. Hans Stuck was able to miss both men but Tom Pryce hit the second, killing him instantly. At the moment of impact the marshal let go of his fire extinguisher and this hit Pryce on the head and killed him as well. In addition to that Jacques Laffite was fortunate to escape serious injury because he tried to overtake Pryce's car as it continued down the main straight with the driver dead at the wheel and his foot jammed on the accelerator. Thinking he had overtaken Pryce, Laffite turned into the corner and was t-boned heavily by the Shadow.

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