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Death of Senna: Seismic - and sinister?

2014-05-01 12:46

THE LAST RACE: Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna adjusts a rearview mirror in the pits on May 1 May 1994 before the start of the San Marino Grand Prix. He would be killed on Lap 7 in the Tamburello sweep. image: AFP


Fabrizio Nosco. Remember the name.

Then also remember that Formula 1  is – bar one notable exception – a British-based sport.

That one exception is Ferrari, of course. In a game dominated by British teams, British interest and British bigwigs, the Prancing Horse flies the flag not only for Italy but for The rest of The world as well.

For, if a British F1 team ain’t your favourite, it has to be the Scuderia. Renault, Honda, Sauber and even Minardi might have had their fans, I guess, but not too many go gaga about Zakspeed, Larrousse, Osella or Forti Corse.

So Ferrari it is whose burden it is to provide the yin to the Brit sphere’s yang. And a big yang it is, demanding a big Maranellian counter-balance.

Too big?

Perhaps. Ferrari is floundering, as of late – especially in the face of the Götterdämmerung inflicted by Austrian and German-owned teams over the last half a decade. But hey, even Benz and Red Bull are based in Britain, and not only the teams: Merc’s mighty F1 engines likewise spring from Brixworth, Northamptonshire.


Yet the Scuderia has its allies born from the Latin world. The three biggest and most revered names in the game all ring with the sound of samba: add to Ferrari’s those of Senna and Fangio.

Together, they constitute the very pinnacle of what the game is all about, the holy trinity of F1.

Most of the rest, though, originate from the island of the Good Queen herself: McLaren, Williams, Lotus, Lola, Cooper, Climax, Cosworth, Brabham, Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley, Colin Chapman, Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, Patrick Head, Ross Brawn, Ken Tyrrell, Harvey Postlethwaite, John Barnard, Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark...

The list goes on and on and somewhere in this fiefdom’s roll of honour you’ll encounter the names of Adrian Newey and Charlie Whiting.

They’re two very important people in modern F1, Newey and Whiting; Newey as the sport’s foremost car designer over the last 20  years; Whiting as International Automobile Federation  Formula 1 race director, head of the F1 Technical Department, F1’s safety delegate and F1’s permanent starter.

That’s a mouthful. Charlie has been around. He’s got influence. And he uses it, believe you me, when it suits him and his brotherhood.

But titles and position and status are not the only reasons why Newey and Whiting figure so prominently in F1. They’re also central to the most seismic story that’s ever hit automotive racing: the death of Ayrton Senna.


Newey first. He designed the Williams FW16 that veered off track in Imola’s flat-out Tamburello sweep on May 1 1994, after which Senna hit the wall and died.

It was a troubled car, the FW16, a far cry from the race-winning steeds that Newey himself had delivered to Mansell and Prost in the preceding years to respectively win the 1992 and 1993 F1 titles, almost at a canter.

The FW14B and FW15C had been equipped with active suspension, among other technologically sophisticated tools; the FW16 not. For 1994 electronic aids – including traction control – were banned.
So, the FW16 was difficult to drive. Both Hill and Senna had complained about the car’s tendency to instantly swop ends, whilst vacillating between understeer and oversteer, profoundly so in slower corners.

But there were other problems as well. During the passively sprung FW16’s first test in early 1994, at Estoril, Senna made no bones about his disappointment. On his very first lap in the new car he already rattled off a string of problems to his engineer, David Brown.

Senna concluded at the end of the test: “I have a very negative feeling about driving the car on the limit. I didn’t have a single run or even a single lap that I felt comfortable or reasonably confident. The car is difficult to control; it feels all wrong.”

He then talked to his old nemesis, Alain Prost, about the previous year’s Williams, which Prost had stroked to the title, and was not that surprised when Prost said that the FW15C was much more difficult to drive than people had generally assumed, especially with rear-end instability under heavy braking in low-downforce trim.

In his talks with Senna, Prost described the handling of his championship winning car as “odd”.

The FW16, by all accounts, was far, far worse.

A bad start to the season duly followed, the Brazilian spinning out in his home GP at Interlagos whilst chasing down Schumacher in a Benetton that, for all the world, seemed to be carrying illegal traction control, after which Senna was punted off in the first corner of the Pacific GP at Aida in Japan.

This is what Newey had to say about Williams’s 1994 kick-off: “To be honest, we made a bloody awful cock-up. The rear-end grip problem was purely a set-up problem. We were learning about springs and dampers all over again after concentrating on active suspension for two years, whereas most people had been away (from passive suspension) for just one year. We also had a rather silly aerodynamic problem – basically the front wing was too low – but the wing was raised for Imola.

“Our car, nevertheless, was on pole for the first three races, but we had Ayrton to thank for that. No other driver would have achieved this, with the FW16. In Ayrton’s opinion, he was also racing against an illegal car. At Imola, he asked me what Williams could possibly do about that. My answer was that we found the problem during an intensive aero test with Damon Hill at Nogaro, and that they would both be racing a far better car once Imola had been done and dusted.”

Only this very week Newey has divulged the upshot of that Nogaro test to the German car magazine, auto, motor & sport: “It confirmed that the car’s side pods were too long, which meant that the aero were split from the diffuser when the nose of the car dipped and the side-pods got too close to the track.”

Interesting. Yet, the emphasis on why Senna’s FW16 suddenly veered off-track remains focused – from the Newey/Williams perspective – on a sudden loss of downforce at the rear of the car.

It is obvious why.

The legal consequences in Italy, firstly, could have been devastating to all concerned, if the prosecution would have been able to show that Senna’s death was the result of malpractice, whether through (bad) design, misconduct or negligence.

It would also be very difficult to live with the knowledge that your car, your design, your workmanship or your creation has taken the life of a driver, let alone the best that had ever walked this earth.

Williams, understandably, went into denial, and Newey, in particular, has been haunted by the death of Senna in one of his cars, a sentiment that the ace designer has expressed on numerous occasions over the years. In 2011 he admitted that “the little (bit of) hair” he had left, all fell out in the aftermath of Senna’s demise.

“Ayrton’s death changed me physically. It was dreadful, they were dark weeks. The honest truth is that no one will ever know exactly what happened. There’s no doubt the steering column failed. The big question was whether it failed in the accident, or did it cause the accident?”


Now, consider this: Newey and Patrick Head had agreed to Senna’s request to lengthen the FW16′s steering column, but there was no time before the Imola race to manufacture a longer steering shaft. The existing shaft was cut instead and extended by inserting a smaller-diameter piece of tubing, welded together with reinforcing plates.

Newey again: “It had fatigue cracks and would have failed at some point. There is no question that its design was very poor. However, all the evidence suggests the car did not go off the track as a result of steering column failure.”

Ahem. That’s an interesting viewpoint. All the evidence, according to prosecutor Maurizio Passarini in the manslaughter case against Frank Williams and five others, pointed exactly to the opposite: that the steering failed when the column sheared at the welding point.

So, let’s examine...

Newey and Williams contend that Senna’s car hit a bump and then oversteered as it lost downforce at the back. Senna corrected via counter-steer but, as he turned into the slide and also lifted off the throttle as he did so, the front tyres suddenly found grip and pitched the car straight off the track.

Newey backs up his view by pointing to camera evidence, especially from Michael Schumacher’s car (which followed Senna’s), to suggest that the FW16 didn’t understeer off the track, but oversteered.

That’s a slightly contentious view, as you have to read things into the behaviour of Senna’s car that is not really evident on the visuals from Schumacher’s car. Newey’s view does fit, though, with a very controversial video produced by NatGeo (National Geographic) on how the Senna crash happened.

The first question to ask, however, is why Senna’s car would have oversteered in a corner that had been taken flat out, hundreds of times before, in the Brazilian’s life? And if the car did oversteer, ever so slightly, why Senna would not have been able to catch it, as he also has been able to do hundreds of times before, as a matter of routine?

Ah! The Newey/NatGeo explanation is at the ready: tyre pressures were down after the F1 field had been circulating for five laps behind an extremely slow Opel Vectra Safety Car that was deployed on Lap 1  after the awful crash between Lamy and Lehto at the start of the race.

The ride height of Senna’s Williams was therefore too low for the bumpy re-surfaced sections in Tamburello; hence the shower of sparks from underneath his car, indicating that Senna’s Williams had been running too close to the ground, virtually on the metal skid plates, which would have closed off the aero underneath the FW16, starving the rear end of  accelerative air which was so necessary to suck the car to the ground, which then resulted in a loss of grip with oversteer as a consequence.

Or, the Williams apologists would argue, if this particular argument is negated by the fact that the cars had been racing for a full lap before Senna left the track, meaning that the tyres had ample time to get up to temperature and that, over and above this, a far bigger shower of sparks emanated from Senna’s skid plates on Lap 6 than on Lap 7 – meaning that the accident should have happened a lap earlier than it did – well, then the argument can always fall back on the possibility of Senna having sustained a puncture via the Lamy/Lehto debris.

Newey again, in 2011: “The car bottomed much harder on that second lap, which again appears to be unusual because the tyre pressure should have come up by then – which leaves you expecting that the right rear tyre probably picked up a puncture from debris. If I was pushed into picking out a single most likely cause, that would be it."

And yes, Newey would have had an excellent chance of being spot on – if his first statement (that the car had bottomed much harder on the second lap) was correct. But we have the video material and it is evident from the shower of sparks that the car bottomed much harder on Lap 6 than on Lap 7.

The NatGeo video, nevertheless, has the audacity to ask the following: “What was it, then, that caused Senna’s car to scrape along the ground, on that day?”

On that day? On that day and that day only? Is this what NatGeo and Williams were trying to imply, that sparks emanating from a scraping bottom were unusual in the F1 cars of the day?


It’s therefore easy to conclude that the NatGeo video – stating Williams’s case – was a flat-out PR attempt to manipulate laymen’s science for the benefit of the team: to pacify others and to pacify themselves.

Which, again, is understandable.


But here’s the low point: a shot of the steering wheel moving around – by many centimetres, both vertically and horizontally – in the cockpit of a Williams FW16 similar to Senna’s. In this dubious exercise of utter deception the rudder – clearly not properly fixed to the steering arms and/or wheels – was physically manhandled by David Coulthard with the simple aim to prove that a fixed point on the steering wheel of a F1 car does not necessarily describe a constant radius, i.e. does not follow a perfect arc, around the hub, as the wheel is turned.

And you know what: the video is right; a fixed dot on the wheel does not, in fact, describe a perfect circle. The stresses and strains exerted at the kind of speeds attained in corners such as Tamburello are enough to flex the steering column by a bit – but here’s the rub: only minutely, with an off-set of two to three millimetres at the most.

Yet the “yellow button tracking analysis” done in 1997 by CINECA shows the movement of Senna’s steering wheel during the final seconds in Tamburello was absolutely abnormal. A reference point on the on-board camera shots (the yellow button in question) is seen to move several centimetres in its own plane, due to the steering wheel moving up and down, indicating a fully or partially buckled or severed or sheared steering column.

“I was shocked when I saw this tape,” Michele Alboreto reported at the time. “It shows that the flexing movement of Senna’s steering wheel was two to three centimetres. No steering wheel moves a few centimetres.”

This evidence by Alboreto (who nearly won the F1 Driver’s title himself in 1985 with Ferrari) was in direct contrast to the claims in the NatGeo video and directly refuted Coulthard’s written statement to the court in which he claimed the amount of movement seen on the steering wheel of Senna’s car just before it veered off track was normal.

On hearing this, Alboreto simply said of the youngster: “Coulthard has the prospect of a long career in F1.”

The proof of the pudding is in loads of other in-car video footage taken of Senna in the Williams during testing as well as the two races prior to Imola. Not once does that yellow button on the steering wheel describe anything other than a near-perfect circular path, at a constant radius from the hub of the rudder, give or take a millimetre or two.


Coulthard was not the only Williams driver caught in a trap. In court, Damon Hill came across as equally vague, effusive and obedient to His Master’s Voice.

Like Oscar Pistorius, he couldn’t remember a thing when it mattered even in the least, like whether or not his 1993 Williams had power steering – but he could remember that the 1994 car did have it and that Patrick Head had asked him to switch it off (which drivers could do from inside the cockpit) just before the re-start of the race.

Why would Head have requested this? Did he have a suspicion at the time that Senna’s accident had been as a result of a steering malfunction?

Hill didn’t know, he testified, as he never asked. He just followed instructions.

Ahem? Maybe Damon robotically followed instructions during court proceedings as well, with his ad nauseam repeats of “I can’t remember”.

And Coulthard, did he himself venture to explain to the world that the rudder on a racing car can move around like the joy stick in an aeroplane’s cockpit? Or did he also follow His Master’s Voice to secure that “long career in F1”?

For it is utter nonsense, this claim that the steering wheel can move around by centimetres. When last did you have it moving around in your car? And what would you do if it happened?

Well, park the vehicle as soon as possible – which is exactly what Senna tried to do, once he no longer had control over the direction of his steed.

Proof of the disconnect lies in the tracking of that yellow button. And proof of Senna’s intent to lessen the impact arrived via telemetry which showed that he had braked the car from 310 km/h to 218 km/h in the short distance traversed by the Williams from the moment it had straightened out, until the moment it hit the wall.

It is clear, therefore, that Senna had the reflexes to take the necessary pedal action to minimise the impact of the impending crash. So, would you now like to convince me that he didn’t have the savvy, or the instinct, or the reflexes, to try to steer the car out of trouble?

Of course he tried. Senna had the fastest reflexes of thousands of sportsmen and women tested by a professor at an American university, the name of which I have forgotten. But I’ll find the newspaper clip again, one day, and bring you up to speed on the detail; Senna’s advantage over the second-best placed was quite astounding.  

So much, then, about Newey’s claim that all evidence point to things such as ride height, oversteer, a sudden loss of downforce and a deflated tyre . . .

Prosecutor Passarini certainly didn’t agree, and I don’t, either. In fact all the evidence points to steering failure, including the following observation which nobody, to my knowledge, has yet pointed out.


Look at Senna's in-car footage and you’ll notice that the approach to Tamburello includes a short straight. As he bears down on the corner, the wheels of Senna’s car are therefore pointing straight ahead.

Note at this point the position of the gloved index finger of his left hand; it is just visible in the corner of the cockpit.

Then Tamburello looms and Senna starts to turn left, pulling the gloved finger downwards and out of the on-board shot, where it remains for as long as the Williams is negotiating the curve.

Now, let’s consider the oversteer theory, which has it that the tail of the car stepped out and Senna steered into the slide, after which the front tyres suddenly gripped whilst pointing in the wrong direction, only to spear the car off the track.

If true, one should have seen that same index finger of the left hand coming out of the bottom of the cockpit shot, shooting straight up as Senna flicked the wheel to the right to counter the slide, and then pull it down again, to correct his line once more.

But none of this happened. Senna’s left hand never appears in shot again. He therefore never steered into the slide.

Yet the rear of the FW16 would have spun ever more outwards and the nose would have pointed ever more inwards – in other words, the Williams would have gone into a spin – if Senna had failed to steer into the slide, once the car had started to oversteer.

The only logical conclusion is that oversteer was never on the menu.

The very opposite happened, in fact: the nose of the car suddenly pointed outwards – which is inexplicable, unless you accept that the steering failed, at which point the car automatically reverted to the most stable of positions, which was to travel onwards in a straight line, given its wide-tracked design and low centre of gravity.

And more: as the car suddenly veered right, now with the wheels pointing dead ahead again, one would have expected to see Senna’s index finger in the same corner of the shot as it was when the car had been pointing straight ahead before entering Tamburello.

But no, it’s not there. It is still out of shot, indicating that Senna was still pulling down on the left hand side of the wheel, trying to steer the FW16 back in the direction of the track.

Even his helmet, tilting severely to the left at the point where the car snaps to the right, indicates either that Senna was leaning his head – as he always did – in the intended direction of travel, or that his helmet had violently been thrown sidewards in a direction that the driver had clearly not anticipated.

The big question is: what happened to the position of the helmet between that moment, when the car swerved right, and the moment of impact? Did Senna’s head go back to an upright position, or did he keep on leaning it to the left?


We can’t really tell, because (1) the track shot is from far away and unclear (although, if anything, it does look as if Senna’s head remains bent over to the left, as if he was trying to steer the car in that direction) and (2) the on-board shot stopped at that very exact point, 12.8sec into Senna’s last lap.

Or it stopped, at least in the version of the on-board shot that was unearthed by Brazil’s Roberto Cabrini, working for TV Globo.

The crash, on the other hand, only occurred 14.2sec into the lap, so the crucial 1.4sec of the episode – after the Williams suddenly changed direction, until it hit the wall – was never taped.

Or so we were led to believe, initially.

However, the tape sent to Italian authorities ends only 0.9sec before impact – meaning an extra 0.5sec of footage, compared to the video unearthed by Cabrini – which leads one to believe that the full 14.2sec  had, at one point, been available, but that the tape that eventually survived had been tampered with.

This, in any case, was prosecutor Passarini’s view. Other burning questions raised by him were of the image cutting from Senna’s car to 14sec of indistinct pictures full of greyish lines, as seen from Berger’s car.

The producers said they just happened to cut away from Senna’s car at that very moment, because there was nothing of interest ahead of him, as he was leading.

However, the shot from Berger’s car showed an empty track as well.

All of this added up to a very suspicious state of affairs. Was the accident initially recorded from Senna’s on-board camera? And, if so, what happened to that video material?

Which leads us to the FW16’s two black boxes. If the available visual evidence was not sufficient to establish the cause of the crash, would the boxes be able to enlighten us?


Enter Charlie Whiting.

Or let’s start at the beginning of this sinister little episode, when two Williams mechanics appeared at the parc ferme garage and asked to see the wreck of Senna’s car, barely 10 minutes after it had been brought in from the crash site.

In accordance with FIA rules, regional technical commissioner Fabrizio Nosco – remember the name? – politely turned them away.

Soon after, though, Whiting – in his capacity as FIA technical delegate – arrived with two more Williams mechanics and told Nosco that he had permission from John Corsmit, the FIA security chief on the day, to enter and remove the FW16’s black boxes – a Renault engine box and a Williams chassis box – so that Williams could tap data as to the cause of the crash, in order for the team to decide whether it would be safe to send Damon Hill out for the re-start.

“I’ve seen thousands of these devices and habitually removed them for checks,” Nosco later testified. “The two boxes on Senna’s car were intact, even though they had some scratches. I removed them and handed them over.”

Charlie’s been around. He’s got influence. He’s an integral part of F1’s British brotherhood, the inner circle comprising Bernie’s and Max’s and Ron’s and Frank’s and their ilk. Charlie gets what he wants, and he gets what they want. The boxes were not seen by Italian investigators for another month. And, when handed back, they looked destroyed, as if by hammer, perhaps.

“The Williams box was totally unreadable when we got it back,” engineer Marco Spiga told the court.

So, if both boxes seemed to have been completely intact when Nosco handed them over, but were, in fact, unreadable straight away – when Williams sought to extract vital data needed at that moment – why weren’t they returned to Nosco again, on the day, or to the authorities, for that matter?

Many other people testified during the Senna trials – Italian names, mostly, for the prosecution, many of them ex-Ferrari; and British names, mostly, for the defence. And it ran, in different instalments, over a period of 10 years from the time that Frank Williams and five others were charged with manslaughter in 1997, to the last sitting of the Italian Supreme Court.

The prosecution’s case was that the steering on Senna’s car had failed; Williams denied this by arguing that there had been an ordinary problem (oversteer) which destiny had turned into a fatal one, while contending that there was no blame to be attached to either the track or the driver.


In the end, the Italian courts more or less reached the right conclusions. On December 16 1997 Judge Antonio Constanzo concluded in a 381-page ruling that steering column failure was the probable cause of Senna’s accident. However, there was no proof of negligence on the part of Head or Newey, or that they had designed the modifications in the first place.

On November 22 1999 an appeal court upheld the acquittals, rejecting a request from prosecutors to give one-year suspended sentences to Head and Newey.

In January 2003 the Italian Supreme Court reopened the case, ruling that “material errors” had been made. The case was referred to the Bologna court of appeal. On May 27 2005; this court fully acquitted Newey and the case against Head was “timed out” under a statute of limitations.

Not a word, it seems, has been said in all of this about whoever extended and welded that steering shaft in Senna’s car. For, by golly, they’re guilty as sin, not so? And come on, Williams Engineering must know who it was.

Instead, on April 13 2007, the Italian Supreme Court rejected a request for the acquittal of Patrick Head, ruling him responsible for “badly designed and badly executed modifications”, adding that the consequences were “foreseeable and preventable”.

And so it would have been – prevented – if Italian legislation stipulating that a sporting event should immediately be cancelled in the event death had been upheld in the case of Roland Ratzenberger’s demise the day before Senna’s death; Ayrton should never have died - on two different counts.

But this is the crux of the matter, as expressed by Michele Alboreto, since departed as well: “You don’t go off in Tamburello unless there is a mechanical failure. I hope this trial will come to the defence of a man, a great driver, who is no longer with us.

“Shortly after his death I heard ridiculous stories – that the crash was caused by Ayrton fainting or because he was thinking about his fiancee.

“Senna deserves the recognition that he was not to blame for his own death. I don't want to see anyone go to prison but his memory must be protected and I find it annoying when people attempt to defend positions which are indefensible.”

Amen to that, I say.


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