DECEMBER 16, 1996
Watch out Italy!
AT Bologna last weekend Benetton's managing-director Flavio Briatore let it be known that if members of the Williams team are convicted of the manslaughter of Ayrton Senna he will not consider taking the team to race in Italy.
Briatore's comments are a very clear message to the Italian authorities from the F1 community that the sport will happily turn its back on Italy - the home of Ferrari - if the laws are not changed. The FIA has already told the Italian national sporting authority to campaign to have the laws changed, but this does not seem to have deterred the Italian magistrates.
F1 bosses Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley have proved in the past that they have no qualms about pressuring the Italians. In August 1994 they canceled the Italian GP because the Monza authorities would not cut down trees to make the track safe. Three days later - after the personal intervention of the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - a compromise was reached. The trees were cut down; the race was put back on the F1 calendar and Mosley and Ecclestone were both awarded the country's Order of Merit - the highest award that can be made to non-Italian citizens.
Briatore's comments are almost certainly sanctioned by Ecclestone, who often uses Briatore as his mouthpiece.
The threat to cancel the Italian and San Marino GPs will, of course, upset Ferrari's parent company Fiat - the largest private company in Italy - and if it happens there is likely to be pressure on politicians from Fiat to stop the legal action. This is a delicate matter, however, because the Italian judiciary is currently in the middle of a "Clean Hands" campaign to stamp out corruption and external interference in the justice system.
The high-profile Senna case cannot easily be seen to be dropped without the judges being criticized for allowing themselves to be swayed.
It is worth noting, however, that while there have been several attempts to prosecute racing people in Italy in the last 45 years, all have failed.
In 1951 Alberto Ascari was prosecuted after a crash on the Mille Miglia road race in which a doctor was killed when the Ferrari driver spun into a crowd. He was cleared of the charges three years later.
In 1957 Enzo Ferrari and the Belgian tire company Englebert were prosecuted for manslaughter after Alfonso de Portago crashed on the 1957 Mille Miglia. De Portago, his co-driver Edmund Nelson and 10 spectators - five of them children - were killed in the accident which took place near the village of Guidizzolo, between Mantua and the finish of the event in Brescia. It took four and a half years before Ferrari was cleared.
And in February 1981 Riccardo Patrese and race starter Gianni Restelli were charged with the manslaughter of RonnieÊPeterson at Monza in 1978. Both were cleared in court in November the same year.