Anatomy of a shunt

The first corner crash in Austria changed the complexion of the race, and opened up the title battle. Adam Cooper watched from the sidelines as the dramatic events unfolded

Anatomy of a shunt

In general the drivers have been pretty well behaved on the opening lap of Grands Prix this year. Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella tangled on the way into the first corner at the Nurburgring, and Jenson Button and Pedro de la Rosa triggered a traffic jam at the Monaco hairpin (albeit after the race was already red-flagged due to a computer error!), but that's pretty much been it. The carnage we saw in Austria was very much on the cards, if only because of the law of averages. Just as it was about time the pole man won the race, so we were due a shunt at the sharp end of the field.

Austria has a quite a long run down to the first corner, or should I say up, because the turn is at the top of a hill. The gradient means that drivers are used to braking relatively late, because gravity gives them a little help. The corner is incredibly tight, taken in second gear, so it does require a lot of slowing down. Anyone who tries to take the inside line has to take account of the fact that it is bound to be dusty and slippery. In other words, getting round in one piece is quite a tricky operation.

This was the fourth GP on the A1-Ring. Somehow the field got through the first corner unscathed in both 1997 and '99, but in '98 Tora Takagi tried the inside, didn't appreciate how dusty it was, locked up and slid into the barrier on the right. He sent Johnny Herbert, Esteban Tuero and Shinji Nakano into the gravel, although all three managed to escape.

Oddly enough the second corner has seen more action. In '98 an optimistic Pedro Diniz tangled with Arrows team-mate Mika Salo, while David Coulthard, who'd qualified badly, spun in avoidance. Then last year DC tipped team-mate Mika Hakkinen into a spin, and Salo hit Herbert in the ensuing confusion.

Fate decreed that this time around the innocent victims of previous incidents got a lucky break; Salo and Herbert were perhaps owed a favour by the A1-Ring, and both gained a lot of places.

I always watch Austria from the inside of the first corner, and I was convinced that something would happen. Not only because Michael Schumacher was back in fourth place and would be keen to make progress, but because the BARs of Ricardo Zonta and Jacques Villeneuve - noted for their fast starts - were right behind. That's where I figured the trouble might occur.

I wish I'd put money on it!

Michael was on the right side of the grid, and he stuck to it on the rush to the first corner. The McLarens were out of his reach, but he urgently needed to get past Rubens Barrichello. The last thing the Brazilian can afford to do is hit Michael, and Schumacher knows that. As with Eddie Irvine in the past, his team-mate has no choice but to give him room.

What's more, in this case Ferrari, had a pre-arranged plan; Rubens was apparently under orders to let Michael past, because the German was on a light, two-stop fuel load and needed to have a clear shot at the McLarens.

The problem appears to have occurred because Michael didn't get away particularly well, which made it harder for Rubens to position himself in such a way that Schumacher could get by, but no one else could. When the field got to the first corner, Michael was on the slower, tight line, Rubens was trying to let him through, and everyone got bunched up.

As Michael turned in, he was tapped from behind by Ricardo Zonta, and Barrichello was simultaneously nudged by Trulli. Rubens went across the gravel, and as Michael spun to a halt on the outside kerb - facing the wrong way - he was hit head-on by Trulli. It was very similar to Buenos Aires 1997, when Rubens (then at Stewart) tapped Michael into a spin, and then met him for a second nose-to-nose impact.

"I saw the video from above the car," Zonta explained after meeting the stewards. "You can see Schumacher went to the very inside of the corner, and he didn't have the line for the corner. Then he slowed down a lot to turn and make the corner. And Rubens slowed down a lot, because he was outside. Me and Trulli hit both Ferraris at the same time - you can see it was not only my fault, because Trulli hit as well. I just went on the gravel and lost some time selecting first gear. The stewards hadn't seen that video before, and when I was there they looked at it and they saw Trulli hitting Rubens, and they saw that both Ferraris slowed down too much for the first corner."

"I didn't see exactly what happened," said Jarno. "Zonta was behind me. Barrichello didn't close the door, then Michael went through, and Zonta probably went through as well. I was on the outside, and when I came to finish the corner I just found the way blocked."

While this was going on, a separate accident was happening behind, thanks to Diniz, the man who precipitated the 1998 second corner shunt. He pulled to the inside and hit Fisichella, who was turned sharp right into the barrier. "He was much too quick in the braking point," said Giancarlo.

Pedro then carried on and drove hard into the side of team-mate Salo. Mika, seeing the carnage ahead, had lifted, but Pedro would have hit him in any case: "I saw the others so I obviously slowed down not to hit them, to make the corner," said Mika. "My team-mate came, wheels locked and half the car on the grass, and hit me straight in the sidepod. Then I hit Trulli with my front wheel."

Mika continued, but Pedro spun. Meanwhile, having bounced off the barrier, Fisichella's Benetton came to a halt just beyond the Michael/Jarno wreckage. Some cars managed to duck through on the inside - notably Verstappen (who tagged his nose on someone), de la Rosa, Herbert, Button and Gene, but most drivers went for the outside line, and found themselves chugging through the gravel, losing all momentum. Despite being quite a long way back on the grid Ralf Schumacher spun to a halt near the stationary cars of Fisichella and Diniz. As the dust settled, Ralf and Pedro both found first gear and blasted off in pursuit of the pack, leaving just Michael, Trulli and Fisichella behind.

The question race director Charlie Whiting had to answer was whether or not to stop the race, with three cars stuck at the first corner. With a lap time of around 75 seconds - the shortest of the season - he didn't have much leeway. Of course the three stranded drivers and their teams hoped, or even assumed, that a red flag was coming.

However, since the advent of the safety car, aborts for first lap incidents have been rare. The last three were Canada 1998 (Wurz somersault), Spa 1998 (multiple pile-up down the hill) and Silverstone 1999 (Schumacher crash), and all three were eminently justifiable. In many other cases, Whiting has employed the safety car - even at the Nurburgring last year, when Diniz flipped his Sauber and could well have been injured. However, the car was well off the track.

Last weekend the track was not blocked, and all three cars were to the outside, albeit only just off the racing line. Had Diniz and Ralf Schumacher not left the scene with their damaged cars, a red flag would probably have resulted, because they had both come to a halt in the middle of the track.

Whiting quickly concluded that the incident did not justify an abort, and that should give food for thought to those who complain endlessly that the FIA favours Ferrari. The opportunity was there to give Michael (and Rubens) a second chance, and it was not taken. However cynics might point out that this time McLaren needed a favour, to keep the title battle nice and tight...

Often in such situations drivers employ a little gamesmanship, take their time to alight, and make it harder for the marshals to remove the cars in time. Trulli was out of his car almost instantly, and after a glance behind he headed off down the pitlane on foot. Fisichella was a little slower to emerge, and for a few seconds it seemed that the marshals were concerned that he had been hurt, until he made his exit and jogged back down the pitlane. Meanwhile Michael - who had done well to keep his engine running - stuck his car into first, turned left, and drove a few metres back onto the track, before switching off and climbing out. A blatant attempt to force a stoppage? Judge for yourself...

He then walked over the inside of the corner, and took off his helmet. No sooner had he done so than Mika Hakkinen led the pack through the accident scene, an event which told Schumacher in no uncertain terms that the race was not being stopped.

"I thought there would probably have been a re-start," said Trulli. Fisichella was even more adamant, although his argument was weak: "I'm very disappointed because they didn't give the red flag to stop the race. There was Michael Schumacher, Fisichella and Trulli there, and it was dangerous."

Michael's face carried that glum expression we saw in Adelaide a few years back - before he realised that Damon Hill was also out and the title was his. This time, there was no sudden change of emotions. He got a pat on the back from a sympathetic lady marshal, before following Trulli and Fisichella down the pit exit road, knowing his afternoon was over.

Ironically he had actually started in the spare car, whose handling he preferred, so he would have had to switch back to his less favoured race car if there had been a stoppage.

The marshals did a tremendous job to clear the wreckage. The crane on the inside of the corner swung Fisichella's car out of the way in an instant, while the Jordan and Ferrari were carried to the outside by tractors. Next time round the track went green, proving that the decision not to stop was the right one.

It was interesting to note that after all the recent fuss about aggressive driving, the stewards quickly found a couple of scapegoats, and Diniz and Zonta were both called in for stop and go penalties. Ricardo was perhaps a little unlucky, for he certainly didn't pull the kind of kamikaze move we saw from Diniz, or from Trulli in Montreal last year. There's strong evidence that the Ferrari drivers at least contributed to their own downfall by trying to sort out their team tactics in front of the pack.

Meanwhile Diniz said that another car had forced him to swerve into Fisichella, but that didn't seem like the sort of excuse which would stand up in court.

Penalties for this kind of driving offence have only rarely been handed out in the course of a race, not least because the culprits are themselves usually out on the spot, but it does send a message to the drivers that they are being watched. But will it ever happen to someone who's fighting for the lead - or indeed the title? The fallout would be quite something...

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