Returns In Formula

My first hint that something was wrong came Sunday afternoon when I logged on to
the BBS (bulletin board service, a central computer acting as a host for other
users to exchange messages) for auto racing. Someone posted a short but gripping
note, "I think I just witnessed the death of Ayrton Senna," he said.

My eyes widened as I exclaimed "what," in shock and dismay. A few
hours later, the facts became clearer. Senna had crashed on the sixth lap of the

San Marino Grand Prix while leading the race. It happened at a section called
"Tamburello" - a gentle bend taken at top speed, about 186 miles per
hour. His car had suddenly veered off the course and crashed into a solid
concrete wall. Senna was already considered one of the top drivers in grand prix
racing history. He had more pole positions than any other driver did and only

Alain Prost who retired last year surpassed his total wins. Incredible intensity
and deep concentration characterized his driving. Mistakes from him were rare.

It was shocking that he would have a serious crash, even more inconceivable that
he would be in mortal danger. On the BBS, all of us were experiencing a sense of
loss and were having a difficult time finding solace among outsiders to the
sport of auto racing. Crashes like Senna\'s tend to bring out the worst critics
who insist that those who want only to see crashes watch-racing events. And so
we turned to each other expressing first our anger, then sadness and finally a
candid assessment of the sport and how it could be made safer. This was the
second death of the weekend as another lesser-known driver was killed during a
practice session before the race. The modern formula one or grand prix car is a
masterpiece of engineering and contemporary design. The top teams to develop the
cars to their maximum potential spend incredible sums of money. Their shape is
wind tunnel tested. Exotic materials like carbon fiber along with chemical
additives for optimizing the gasoline are just a few of the important
technologies used. Telemetry logged into a computer (like an airplane\'s
"black box" flight recorder) can tell the mechanics and designers
exactly how a car can be optimized for a particular track. In fact computer
technology has played an even greater role in the last two years through the
development of real-time enhancements. These "driver aids" as they
have been called include: active suspension, engine management along with
semiautomatic transmission, and traction control. Of course, along with the
technological advancements has come a steady increase in speed. More
importantly, this steady increase has led to a greater potential for serious
harm in an accident. Details of Senna\'s crash serve to illustrate some of the
dangers that grand prix racing must overcome if it is to survive. At the section
where Senna went off the track, there are some bumps, which (according to other
drivers) were disruptive and may have caused a mechanical failure, resulting in
the veering of the car. Earlier in the year (during preseason testing) Senna
himself had pointed out the danger of these bumps and had requested that the
surface be smoothed out. This was supposedly done but the result was even worse!

Reports indicate the bumps were perhaps 2 inches high-an incredible hurdle to a
modern F1 car. Also there is the wall where the crash occurred. On most tracks
there are large runoff areas with sand traps that have proved effective in
slowing down out-of-control cars. Stacked tire walls have also helped soften
areas of possible impact. However, at Tamburello none of these techniques were
employed. There is a small river that runs near the course at this point; hence
the placement of a large concrete wall at an acute angle only a few yards from
the pavement but in front of the river. A sandpit was contemplated but there was
inadequate room. Finally, a patch of concrete was added over the grass to help a
car gain some control and perhaps avoid the wall if it went off course. The
driversí head has also become increasingly vulnerable as the speeds have
increased. Senna was killed by a piece of his car\'s suspension that had broken
off during the collision and impacted his forehead. Roland Ratzenberger, the
driver who was killed in practice, also suffered a fatal head injury. But
perhaps the greatest problem is beyond the scope of a technical discussion. It
is a factor, which lies outside the control of any designer, engineer, mechanic,
or driver.