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The nightmares over Senna that would haunt Imola's safety car driver for years

The death of Ayrton Senna at Imola 30 years ago today has been pored over in great detail in the time that has elapsed.

The Safety Car leads Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16 Renault, and Michael Schumacher, Benetton B194 Ford.

But one of the less well-known aspects of what happened on 1 May 1994, was the sense of helplessness unfolding for those inside the safety car which led the Formula 1 field early on.

Faced with an under-powered Opel Vectra that was ultimately not fast enough to be running in front of F1 machinery, safety car driver Max Angelelli and former F1 race director Charlie Whiting, who was sat alongside him, faced a situation that nobody would ever want to be in.

As events played out, they would not only feel powerless to do anything as then race leader Senna urged them to up the pace – but would be left with harrowing thoughts for years to come.

Whiting is no longer with us to recount his experience of that day but, in an extras video interview for the Mosley film that was released a few years ago, he recounted the crystal-clear memories of those moments before Senna’s accident.

“I was the observer in the safety car,” explained Whiting, who had been FIA technical delegate at the time. “[It was] one of my little duties.

“I didn't actually have an awful lot to do with the cars during the race. So, I just sat in the safety car.

“There was a startline accident, I think involving Pedro Lamy and so, they dispatched the safety car and off we went.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"Senna was leading the race and I remember it like it was yesterday. We're going into the top chicane and Senna pulled alongside the car.

"He was just like there [indicates right next to him], visor up and he was going: 'faster, faster.' I'm going: 'We can't. We can't go any faster. It's impossible.'

"The brakes were hot, you could smell the brakes, and the poor driver was doing his very, very best in this car. We came in at the end of that lap and then a lap later he [Senna] had his accident."

Underpowered and overweight

The overheating brakes and lack of engine power were something that Angelelli had feared from the moment he had turned up at Imola.

At the time, he was an official VW driver in German F3, having won the Italian title two years before. He was also well versed on the demands of his home Imola track.

He well knew that the 204 horsepower of the Opel Vectra, which weighed 1350kg, was not enough.

Speaking in a new book Senna: The truths written by Franco Nugnes, Angelelli recounts the terror he felt when he arrived at Imola and was shown the safety car.

Watch: Remembering The Legend - Ayrton Senna 30th Anniversary Tribute

“When they showed me the car, my blood ran cold,” he said. “It wasn't suitable for running in front of the F1 pack.

“I went to Charlie Whiting, [then] FIA technical delegate, and explained to him my doubts – that the car was not powerful enough and, above all, it did not have an adequate braking system for use on the track.”

Angelelli took the Opel out for some practice laps, and his concerns about what he faced grew dramatically.

“It was a real disaster,” he said. “In the two dips [into Acque Minerali and Rivazza], you needed an anchor to stop.

“At the end of just the second lap, the brakes overheated and the pedal became spongy, which lengthened braking distances. I was worried, but I saw that my fear did not trigger any reaction.”

Finding an alternative

Seriously concerned that the Opel was nowhere near good enough to be an F1 safety car, Angelelli went to the Porsche Super Cup paddock to see if they had a more suitable machine that he could use. He was told they did.

He continued: “I was proud of my choice and set about transferring the safety car lettering and the camera into the cockpit of the Porsche.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“But when everything was ready, on Saturday morning, they explained to me that I wouldn't be able to use the 911.

“I was still young and obviously didn't understand certain dynamics [within F1]. Evidently, there were commercial agreements that I didn't know about.

“For me, simply, the Opel Vectra was not suitable to become the safety car, so I had looked for a more suitable car which was the Porsche.

“Without giving me any further explanations, they told me to dismantle everything from the 911 and reassemble the Vectra. I realised that what should have been fun could turn into a nightmare.”

No crash helmet

Angelelli had no choice but to stick with the Opel, and was immediately called into action in the race after Pedro Lamy’s Lotus struck the stalled Benetton of JJ Lehto on the grid.

In fact, so immediate had been the call that Angelelli did not have time to do his overalls up nor put his crash helmet on – which is why images show him driving without head protection.

“It all happened suddenly,” he recalled. “I wasn't ready, in the sense that I hadn't put on the upper part of the fireproof suit and I hadn't yet put on the helmet which was placed on the back seat.

“The accident took me by surprise, but it was entirely my fault. Charlie Whiting received the order via radio and told me to leave: to get onto the track we had to go through the pitlane.

Cars on the grid ahead of the start. Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16 Renault, and Michael Schumacher, Benetton B194 Ford, make up the front row.

Cars on the grid ahead of the start. Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16 Renault, and Michael Schumacher, Benetton B194 Ford, make up the front row.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Charlie maintained control and dictated the orders in a calm voice. I knew him quite well because he was the race director of Macau, where I had raced for several years in F3.

“He was sitting on the right seat and was not wearing a helmet, because he had a radio headset connected to race control to carry out the instructions.

“We entered the track and slowed down, waiting for the cars to arrive behind us. With a look in the rear-view mirror, I saw Senna's Williams approaching, who was in the lead.

“I picked up speed but, well aware of the car's limitations, I didn't go looking for 100% performance, especially since I had no idea how much I would have to stay on the track before the race could restart.

“I knew that the brakes would hold for no more than a couple of laps, so I tried to be conservative when braking. When accelerating I pressed the throttle pedal with so much force that I could have made a hole in the floor.”

Car felt like it was stationary

If Angelelli had been worried about the Opel during his practice laps, it was nothing compared to the terror he felt when running ahead of F1 cars as the inadequacy of the car was dramatically exposed.

“Imola didn't challenge the Vectra when accelerating, at least until we got to the two climbs. The most critical point was at the exit from the Acque Minerali.

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

“On the run-up towards the Variante Alta, the Opel felt like it was stuck. I couldn't exceed 130 km/h.

“Senna, who was leading the group, came alongside, as he later did several times, showing me his fist and telling me to go faster. I'm reawakening memories that I hoped I'd erased from my memory: Charlie and I were the last to look Ayrton in the eye.

“The Brazilian was furious and was more than right to feel that way. His Williams was going too slow and the tyres would have lost pressure and temperature.

“Whiting remained silent and didn't ask me to go faster. He was aware that the Vectra didn't have enough power and, in the meantime, all the warning lights had come on the dashboard.

“Braking downhill for Rivazza, I had to be gentle so the speed was... ridiculous. After three laps, despite all my precautions, I ended up wide and going over the kerb, onto the grass and with two wheels in the gravel trap.

“At that point I got worried and said to Charlie: ‘Look, there are no brakes anymore! I can do one more lap and we then have to return to the pits because I can't do anymore: it's dangerous. How would we look if the safety car went off the track?’”

Whiting communicated the message to race control but the order came back that the safety car had to stay out.

“I continued, but I went slower and slower,” added Angelelli. “It got embarrassing. This is nothing personal against the Vectra, but that car shouldn't have been in front of the F1 pack.

“At the end of lap four, they finally gave us the order to return to the pitlane so that the race could restart. I parked the Opel at its bay and turned off the engine, and it would never turn back on again. The car was dead.

“When, two laps later, Ayrton's accident occurred, they immediately stopped the race with the red flag, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to move.”

Haunted by Senna's fury

The television images of Senna waving his arms several times at the safety car to speed up inevitably triggered many to think that its slowness was a contributory factor to the Brazilian's subsequent accident. And indeed that was a thought that haunted Angelelli himself.

The Safety Car leads Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16 Renault, and Michael Schumacher, Benetton B194 Ford.

The Safety Car leads Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16 Renault, and Michael Schumacher, Benetton B194 Ford.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“I'll tell you what I experienced: for years I felt remorse for the accident,” he said. “I thought that his tyres had lost pressure and that caused the car to strike the Tamburello bumps – then maybe something had broken before it left the track.

“The accident had occurred at the beginning of the third lap after the restart, therefore the seventh of the race, and it wasn't clear to me if at that point the tyres should have returned to the right pressure and temperature to guarantee good grip.

“To remove my doubts, after the race I called Gianni Morbidelli, who was driving for Footwork. ‘Don't worry,’ he told me. ‘We did Tamburello flat out straight away and the hitting on the ground didn't create a big problem in the control of the car.’”

The influence of Angelelli on the events of that day would later be put under legal crosshairs amid the investigation and court case that followed Senna’s death.

“I hoped there would be no reaction but, instead, I had to defend myself,” he said. “I was summoned by Williams' lawyers.

“I had the feeling that it was an attempt to divert attention from what had happened into a manipulation of the role of the safety car – that it had been too slow and had caused a loss of pressure in the tyres which had caused the Williams to go off the track.”

He added: “All I can say is that in a difficult situation, I extracted 100% of the potential from the car. First, I tried to maintain braking and then maintain the pace allowed by the vehicle.”

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Healing the wounds

The safety car speed was duly ruled out as a contributing factor to the Senna crash, but that did not stop the emotions of that day affecting Angelelli for years to come.

Coincidentally, David Brown, who was Senna’s race engineer at Williams in 1994, would go on to work with Angelelli in IMSA.

Despite the shared memories of the events of Imola, the pair never discussed what happened that day.

“It's a topic we've never addressed,” added Angelelli. “Thirty years have passed now. Maybe I don't remember all the details of that cursed day, but I remember the deep emotions and the scars that it left me.

“Seeing the greatest driver in history come alongside me and make his fist to tell me to go faster made me feel tiny. I wanted to disappear, never to have been born.

“For me it was terrible: it seemed that he was speaking to me from the cockpit of the Williams, so clear was the message he was sending me.

“I left the racetrack feeling almost guilty. It was terrible. Morbidelli's words were comforting, but they did not put my conscience at peace.

“But after three decades, the deep wounds of the soul have slowly healed.”

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