DECEMBER 23, 1996
Williams is charged with manslaughter
FRANK WILLIAMS and five others have been charged with the manslaughter of Ayrton Senna at Imola in May 1994. Court proceedings are due to begin before a local magistrate in Imola on February 20, although Italian law does not insist on the five being present at that hearing.
The charges against Williams, his technical director Patrick Head and chief designer Adrian Newey suggest that the investigating magistrate Maurizio Passarini thinks that Senna's accident was the result of a steering failure caused by a faulty weld. This was the conclusion of a technical report prepared for Passarini by Professor Enrico Lorenzini of Bologna University's school of engineering. It is curious that Passarini has not charged the Williams mechanic who was responsible for the welding on Senna's steering column. Whatever the case, Williams is disputing Lorenzini's findings.
"We do not believe the charges are well-founded and intend to do all that is necessary to defend our position," said a team statement. Williams is arguing that the telemetry on the car showed that everything was working normally.
This ties in with comments made on the evening of the accident by Patrick Head and by Michael Schumacher - who was right behind Senna when the crash occurred.
"I saw that the car was touching the track at the back quite a lot on the lap before," said Schumacher that day. "It was very nervous in that corner and he nearly lost it. Then on the next time through he did lose it. The car just touched the track with the rear skids, went a bit sideways and then just lost it."
Head said: "We have some electronic recording data from the car and we also know a little from what Schumacher has said. The car was bottoming out in that corner over a bump. On the lap before the car's rear stepped out a bit and came back square. On that lap it stepped out again and this time it didn't come back square and went off. We don't have any indication of anything breaking but from the telemetry we know that Senna lifted off a little. That caused a loss of downforce to the rear wing, which meant that the car went straight on."
Marks on the road in Tamburello Corner showed that Senna's Williams had skipped across the tarmac and thus its braking was impaired. TV footage suggests that the Williams began to turn from its trajectory before it hit the wall - which would seem to indicate that Senna still had steering before he hit the wall.
Williams would seem, therefore, to have a strong case against the charges.
The additional charges against Federico Bendinelli - who is managing-director of the Societa Allestimento Gestione Impiante e Servizi (SAGIS), the company which rents the Imola circuit from the local authorities and runs events there on behalf of the Automobile Club of Bologna - suggest that Passarini also believes that the circuit is somehow at fault. This may be a reflection on the bumps which had resulted from resurfacing work in Tamburello Corner or because SAGIS did not extend the run-off area on the outside of the corner because of the proximity of the Santerno river at that point of the circuit. This, however, was not really Bendinelli's responsibility after the track had been declared safe for F1 by the FIA circuit inspector Roland Bruynseraede. Bruynseraede is also charged.
The charges against the fifth defendant - clerk of the course Giorgo Poggi - make little sense if Passarini is arguing that the car was to blame for the accident. Poggi's only apparent involvement was to despatch a Safety Car after the startline collision between JJ Lehto's Benetton and Pedro Lamy's Lotus. The charge against Poggi therefore implies that Passarini believes that wreckage on the road somehow played a role in the accident.
Poggi's decision to use a Safety Car - made in association with race director Bruynseraede - was in accordance with the FIA Sporting Regulations at the time which stated that the clerk of the course could employ a Safety Car if "the circumstances are not such as to necessitate stopping the race". Their decision seems to be have been justified given the fact that photographs after the Lamy/ Lehto crash show very little wreckage on the track, most of it having been launched by the force and angle of the impact off the track and into the crowd. None of the drivers reported any damage from wreckage during the four laps before the Safety Car was withdrawn, despite the fact that they came past the accident scene at racing speed at the end of the first lap. An incident car was parked on the track behind the wreck of Lehto's Benetton and so drivers had to take a wide line around the scene.
The five have all been charged under Article 589 of the Italian penal code, which covers "omocidio colposo". Literally translated this means culpable homicide. It is a not considered to be a very serious offense in Italian law and although the maximum prison sentence is five years most cases end up with suspended sentences of less than a year. Any judgment is open to appeal.
A guilty verdict may not seem very serious, but it could open the way for lawsuits for damage from the Senna family, should it decide to take action. Such a case could be heard anywhere in the world and damage awards in American courts, for example, have been astronomical.
As long ago as 1984 a judge in Providence, Rhode Island, ruled that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company should pay Eden Donohue, the widow of F1 racer Mark Donohue - who was killed in an accident in Austria in 1975 - a total of $20m in damages. Goodyear decided against an appeal and settled out of court, paying Mrs. Donohue $9.6m.
But the threat of a damages case is only one of the problems facing Grand Prix racing as a result of the charges. Grand Prix team bosses are concluding that they do not want to race in a country where an accident can lead to criminal charges - and they cannot get insurance to cover the possibility. If a solution cannot be found this will lead to problems for the two GrandsÊPrix on Italian soil.
In addition FIA President Max Mosley says that there could be problems holding international events in Italy as a result of the charges because of "the difficulty the FIA now faces in persuading international officials and international competitors to take part in Italian events".
Mosley said that the F1 World Championship would not be affected by the court cases as "this is a uniquely Italian problem requiring a uniquely Italian solution."
The FIA has, however, asked the Automobile Club of Italy to look at ways of solving the problem by campaigning for the laws to be changed. ACI President Rosario Alessi is a well-connected lawyer in Rome and one of the vice-presidents is PieroÊFusaro of the FIAT Group, which owns Ferrari.