Italian GP race analysis

The sport is still at the mercy of a flying wheel

Clearing up some inaccuracies

Eddie Jordan's view of the accident

For and against the race being stopped

The death of fire marshal Paolo Ghislimberti at Monza has come as a terrible shock, but there is no getting away from the fact that Grand Prix racing has been extremely fortunate over the past two decades. And Sunday's incident itself could have been much, much worse.

This was the first fatality involving a bystander at a GP since a mechanic was run over in the Zolder pitlane in 1981. The last time anyone died as the result of an accident on the track was at Fuji in 1977, when several onlookers were killed by Gilles Villeneuve's somersaulting Ferrari while standing in a restricted area. The same year a marshal running across the track was struck by Tom Pryce at Kyalami.

Since then there have been literally hundreds of accidents, many involving somersaulting cars and flying debris, and yet no one on the sidelines has been killed. Inevitably this laudable safety record will be overlooked in the rush to judgement that began in the aftermath of last weekend's accident. There have been a lot more fatalities in both oval racing in the USA, and in rallying.

As a journalist I have the privilege of being able to stand trackside at Grands Prix. I'm well aware of the risks involved from flying debris; 15 years ago I was standing by the marshals' post at the top of Paddock Bend at Brands Hatch when a Formula Ford took off and cleared the fence; a marshal standing 20 metres down the hill was killed.

Sometimes, especially at Monaco, you stand somewhere where you know you are very exposed. The pleasure you get from watching at a particularly challenging corner outweighs any risks, but at least after a few minutes you can move on. Marshals are in position for a whole weekend, while professional photographers spend much of their time in the line of fire.

However safe the cars become, however much the circuits are improved, the sport is still at the mercy of the flying wheel. The tethers recently introduced by the FIA have made some difference, but often the forces involved are sometimes so great that they cannot help. Yet despite the severity of his roll, three of Pedro de la Rosa's wheels stayed attached to the car, and two appeared to be held only by the tethers. The FIA and the teams should draw some satisfaction from that.

Nevertheless, in the course of Sunday's accident five wheels flew off cars. One cleared a three layer barrier just a few metres from the site of the initial collision, and struck an official who was standing in his designated position. Others flew much further, and bounced higher. Thankfully they were contained within the track; had one jumped into the spectator area to the right of the circuit, the consequences could have been catastrophic.

As it is, the fact that the accident happened in Italy means that yet again Grand Prix racing could be drawn into a lengthy legal case. It's happened before, following the fatal accidents to Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson and of course Ayrton Senna. This time several leading teams and drivers are involved, and there's the question of the role of the redesigned chicanes, which inevitably draws in the Monza authorities and the FIA.

Much has already been written and said about what happened, some of it inaccurate, so I hope I can clear up a few issues.

The pack was shuffled a bit at the start, with both Rubens Barrichello and Jacques Villeneuve - who got caught behind the Ferrari - making bad getaways. At the front everyone was fairly well behaved and managed to get through the first chicane without problems, but towards the rear of the field Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo got involved in a tangle that also delayed Pedro Diniz. In retrospect this was a blessing, because it took three cars out of the equation and hampered several others. What happened next could have been much, much worse had the pack still been closely bunched.

The initial collision has already been the course of much debate. The terrestrial pictures you saw at home do not quite tell the full story, because Barrichello's Ferrari is out of shot. On the digital channel we saw at the track it was fully visible, and thus the start of the accident is more clearly defined.

What is obvious is that Rubens was in the process of passing Jarno Trulli's Jordan on the inside, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen was right on his tail. Frentzen's left front hit the Brazilian's right rear. A fraction of a second later, as his car went out of control, Frentzen's right front hit Trulli's left rear. The three cars spun, and a totally innocent David Coulthard, already trying to turn into the corner, was also taken out.

After speaking to the drivers concerned, the stewards decreed that it was a racing accident, and no one was deemed guilty of causing an avoidable collision. We should be thankful that they reached such a conclusion, for had blame been apportioned by the FIA then the legal process would surely have become more complex.

The stewards (and therefore now the police) also had access to front-facing camera pictures from Frentzen's car, which were never shown during the digital broadcast at the track. We did however see a rear-facing view from Barrichello's car, in which the initial impact can just be made out.

"I don't really know what happened," Trulli told me. "I was just following David and I just felt I don't know how many cars coming behind me and touching me, and then I spun touched everyone else around. I haven't got a clue what happened."

Speaking before it became clear that the law would get involved, Frentzen was adamant that Rubens had braked early, while as you can read on, Rubens claimed that he was braking as late as possible as he was in the process of passing Trulli.

From eighth on the grid, Heinz-Harald had chosen to start with a light fuel load in an attempt to make up ground. The ability to brake a little later than the opposition is one of the prime advantages of such a configuration, and having got himself on the outside line at Turn One, he had already successfully passed both Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. Trulli was on a heavy load, normal for Monza where a late single-stop is the quickest strategy. There have been unconfirmed reports that Rubens also started light, but this doesn't ring true as it is not a logical strategy for someone starting on the front row.

I'm merely trying to give you some background here rather than lay the blame at anyone's feet; it was as the stewards said, a racing accident. Cars battling for position frequently come into contact, especially on the first lap, and it's an accepted part of the sport. The fact that on this occasion it happened under braking at upwards of 200mph made this particular incident so dramatic, as EJ concurred:

"It's very difficult to apportion blame," said Jordan, "from what I can see. On the first laps at a place at Monza, where you have 330-350kph, braking down to a chicane for first gear at 40kph, you are always going to have a difference of speeds when different people apply the brakes. And of course that can be affected by what fuel loads you're carrying, what brakes you're running, and how your strategy for the race is going to be. So in the first couple of laps it's always, always going to be a problem. Particularly in a place like this when you have these unforeseen strategies that people will take on board. So therefore it's a racing accident."

Suggestions that someone had hit Frentzen from behind were well wide of the mark. Indeed for some reason the next car along, the BAR of Jacques Villeneuve, had dropped back a bit, so he did not get involved. Jacques said he didn't have an explanation for why he'd lost ground, but admitted that on the approach to the chicane he could see that something might happen up ahead. The few cars immediately behind him also got through without trouble - namely Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jenson Button and Alex Wurz. Next in line were Johnny Herbert, Ricardo Zonta and Pedro de la Rosa (who like team mate Jos Verstappen had made a terrible start).

It was then that a second and totally separate accident occurred. On seeing the mess Zonta slowed, and an unsighted Pedro ran into the back of the BAR and was launched. He then bounced over the back of Herbert's Jaguar and into the gravel, where he landed on Barrichello's already stranded Ferrari. Behind him Verstappen, Marc Gene, Nick Heidfeld, Gaston Mazzacane and the delayed Diniz and Salo all got through unscathed.

As mentioned earlier, five wheels became detached during the two incidents, from the cars of Frentzen (two), plus one each from de la Rosa, Trulli and Herbert. Although there has been no official comment, Frentzen's front right was involved in the fatality. At the instant of his initial collision with Trulli it shot out to the left (or the right of the TV picture), where the unfortunate marshal was standing. His upper body was exposed above the three-layer barrier, and he was struck on the head.

The terrestrial pictures showed a brief replay of the in-car camera from Villeneuve's car, and the wheel in question can be seen just as the picture breaks up as Jacques goes under the bridge. And as he arrives at the corner the camera captures the eerie sight of a marshal's helmet rolling across the track.

A fixed closed-circuit camera viewed later by officials showed that seconds before the cars arrived Ghislimberti had moved from a spot several metres up the track. It seems that by a tragic stroke of fate the accident occurred just as he chose to stop and look up. It's been suggested that he was returning to his normal position for the start, although in contrast Max Mosley has said that he was not in the right place. Whatever the story, he certainly still had his extinguisher with him, as it can clearly be seen in the TV pictures. On the Villeneuve camera shot you also see at least one other marshal standing in roughly the same place.

Of course, all this happened in a matter of seconds. The safety car was swiftly dispatched, and I must admit at the time I was quite surprised that the race was not red-flagged. Indeed as the minutes ticked by and it became clear that somebody had been hurt, that feeling of surprise turned to anger - there seemed to be no logical reason for not stopping. "They should have stopped the race," said Trulli. "There were so many cars involved, and there was someone injured."

Cynics might suggest that TV schedules now take precedence over logic, but the whole point of the safety car is that it avoids red flags unless they are absolutely, unavoidably necessary. Sources have told me what was going on in race control tower, and when the facts are examined it becomes easier to understand why the race was not stopped.

Those in race control react both to what they can see on TV - on fixed cameras and the range of digital and terrestrial pictures - and to reports from officials at the site. The three main factors that have to be considered are as follows: Is anyone hurt? Is the circuit blocked? Is there a serious amount of debris on the track? The initial answers to all those questions were negative. It was obvious that all five drivers at the scene were OK, despite an initial scare about de la Rosa, who took a few seconds to get out.

What some people fail to appreciate is that the one thing which should not enter into the equation is either the number or the quality of the cars eliminated. If the top six cars are out on the spot, that's just tough. As it happened in this case the two main title contenders were unhindered. The fact that the crowd and TV viewers were to be instantly deprived of seven other contenders, including the entire Jordan and Jaguar teams, is neither here nor there, assuming that the other criteria are fulfilled.

Another factor which definitely came into play was this - bearing in mind all the pre-race talk about the inevitability of shunts on the first lap, why risk it happening all over again? That opinion was shared by Eddie Irvine, for one. And he could have benefited from a restart. "The same shit could have happened again. It was better to have the safety car and the field spread out."

However, in this case initial reports were not correct, and someone was indeed hurt. In the confusion it took some time for poor Ghislimberti's situation to become clear, and Prof Sid Watkins and his medical car colleague Gary Hartstein were not made aware that an official had been hurt for several minutes.

One TV shot showed Sid standing by his car as the field passes by behind the safety car - at the same time Barrichello and Coulthard realise for the first time that there will be no restart, the pair having dashed back onto the track in the hopes of getting a lift back to the pits. It seems obvious that at this stage, Sid had not been told that there was a casualty behind the barrier further up the track.

He was then called to the scene, but by the time the true seriousness of Ghislimberti's condition had been communicated to race control, the safety car had been out for several laps. The question of whether stopping the race at this point would have made any difference to his treatment is not one that we can possibly speculate upon, although I understand that the Italian media has pursued this route. One can assume that had Sid felt that a red flag would have served a useful purpose, he would have been the first man to make such a request to race control.

However, some might argue that there was a moral or ethical issue, and that with millions of TV viewers fully aware that there was a human being in such a grave situation, albeit behind the barrier and not affecting the progress of the field behind the safety car, the proper thing to do would have been to stop the race.

It's worth noting that had the race been stopped after three or four laps under the safety car, the consequences would have been confusing. Technically the event would become a two-part aggregate race, so in theory the time gaps within the safety car queue would have had to be added to the result of the second part.

What no one in race control could have foreseen was that the safety car period would drag out for 11 laps. The main reason for this was that the race could not be restarted until Watkins and Hartstein, who elected to stay with Ghislimberti, were back in position in their medical car at the pit exit. The second problem was that the chicane marshals had dumped the wrecked cars at the back of the gravel trap, where they obviously could be hit in any subsequent accident. It was made clear by race control that this was not good enough, and eventually all the cars were properly moved out of the way.

In the context of what happened, an investigation of strategy and so on among the frontrunners once the race restarted is of limited interest. But the one part of the rest of the afternoon which is worthy of some attention is the re-start. As was clearly seen in the helicopter shot, Michael Schumacher effectively came to a complete stop on the straight down to Parabolica just before the safety car departed. Drivers at the head of the queue often play games; Michael wanted both to warm up his brakes, and to get the jump on Mika Hakkinen by catching him off guard. Of course, everyone had to back up, and poor Jenson Button found himself with nowhere to go. He shot out of the pack and onto the grass, where he gave the barrier a hefty thump.

Because Jenson has less experience than some of his colleagues of such situations, it may be that officialdom decided that the incident did not bear investigation. Similar things have happened before; at Silverstone two years ago Hakkinen brought the pack almost to a halt in the stadium, and Pedro Diniz, at the back of the field, was caught out. But Monza was an extreme case. I would hope that as things calm down over the coming days, FIA officials do take another look at what Michael did. The driver in front has the right to drive as he wishes, but the line must be drawn somewhere...

Two final thoughts. Firstly, the Monza tragedy won't have done anything to help the hoopla and build-up to the US GP. There have spectator fatalities due to flying wheels on superspeedways in both CART and IRL events in the past two years, and Monza will no doubt have raised that grim possibility. At Indy a tight first corner follows that extraordinarily long straight, and it's going to be the main overtaking chance on race day. I would imagine that there could be some re-thinking going on about the siting of marshals posts, trackside access to media, and so on.

Secondly, Heinz-Harald Frentzen is an extremely sensitive and emotional individual, and the fact that he was caught in such a fatal incident, especially while battling with his own team mate, will certainly have a profound effect on him. Let's hope that, like David Coulthard after his plane crash, he can somehow use the incident in a positive way, and improve his focus on the job at hand.

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