THE reminders of how dangerous F1 car racing can be still persist 26 years after the death of a legend, writes PETER COSTER:
THE Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola was overshadowed by the death of the legendary Ayrton Senna at the same circuit 26 years ago.
The Brazilian was the greatest driver of his era, just as Lewis Hamilton, the winner of Sunday’s race, the second to be held in Italy this year because of the pandemic, is the best of his time.
Hamilton has won more races than any other driver in the 70-year history of the world championship and is within striking distance of matching Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles.
Schumacher, whose 91 victories was surpassed by Hamilton on Sunday, lies in either a coma or a seriously impaired state after a skiing accident seven years ago.
Senna, a triple world champion, was killed in the 1994 Italian Grand Prix after a mechanical failure.
That was the shadow on the track for today’s drivers, many of whom had not been born when the Brazilian master died.
It was the grimmest of reminders that motor racing is not only dangerous but has been fatal for many of its stars over the years.
One who raced that day was F1 commentator Martin Brundle who finished on the podium nine times in a 157-race career.
Sunday at Imola led him to reflect on what had happened to rob the sport of its then greatest star. It was the day after Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger crashed and died during qualifying.
There were other crashes that weekend, one involving Rubens Barrichello who credited race medical director Sid Watkins with saving his life when he also crashed during qualifying.
Watkins said he could do nothing for Senna, who was a helpless passenger in his car when a rewelded steering column broke and he ran head-on into the wall at the Tamburello corner.
Senna had always driven as if death or injury could not touch him. Brundle on Sunday voiced what many drivers of the time said among themselves, that Senna believed he was protected by God.
After the crash, Senna sat motionless in the cockpit of his Williams. The Brazilian’s head then moved, said Brundle “as his soul left his body.”
Brundle and others felt they were forced to race that weekend when it seemed disrespectful to those who had died and were injured.
The memory evoked strong emotions in Brundle 26 years after the worst weekend in Grand Prix racing and an afternoon in Melbourne that so nearly cost him his own life.
This correspondent was standing above the pit lane at the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park two years after Senna’s death.
Brundle, one of the best drivers never to win a GP, started at the rear of the grid after an engine issue.
The British driver had gained several places when Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard tangled in front of him. Brundle ploughed into the back of Coulthard’s McLaren and Herbert’s Sauber and was launched into the air.
I was to write that the Jordan performed a barrel roll through the air that would have rivalled the RAAF fighter jets performing at the Melbourne race, which had taken the place of the Adelaide Grand Prix.
Brundle somehow emerged unscathed from the wreckage and ran past me down the pit lane and climbed into the Jordan team’s spare car to con tinue the race.
He remembers the crash as if in slow motion. “You remember it frame-by-frame,” he said years later. Those moments just get etched in your mind.”
It has been the same for those who were at the Imola circuit in Italy in 1994 and again on Sunday. The winners’ trophies in the shape of the circuit were marked with the place where Senna died.
Do drivers think of death? If they do, it might be time for even the bravest of them to think of more pedestrian pursuits.
The American driver Phil Hill described a crash as like “posting a letter.” If you can, you walk away.
But when you cannot move away from the memory, it’s time to find another job.
At Imola on Sunday, there were the usual empty grandstands because of the virus. Williams, the team that was prosecuted in the Italian courts because of alleged negligence in preparing Senna’s car in 1994 was on the track.
British rising star George Russell was set to earn his first championship points suddenly found himself snapping left off the track, using too much throttle as the race restarted behind the safety car.
He wasn’t hurt unless it was from punching his leg in frustration as he sat at the side of the track after getting out of his car.
Safety has increased exponentially since Senna’s crash. Likely he would have been alive today had he not been struck by the left front wheel of his car as it broke away. Now the wheels are attached by cables.
The halo above the cockpit that was first seen on F1 cars at the Australian Grand Prix in 2018 might have deflected the flying front wheel that hit Senna.
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc was saved from almost certain death when the halo on his Sauber kept Fernando Alonso’s McLaren from decapitating him in the Belgian Grand Prix later that year.
At Imola on Sunday, the race transpired as so many have over the past seven years in which Mercedes has won the constructors’ championship.
This time, the Mercedes one-two was split by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen but his race ended when a tyre suddenly collapsed.
This left Hamilton to finish ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas with Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo third after Racing Point’s Sergio Perez was inexplicably called in for a tyre change in the closing laps of the race.Embed from Getty Images
Ricciardo celebrated with a “shoey” after forgetting to fill one of his racing boots with champagne after the Eifel Grand Pix at the Nurburgring three weeks ago.
This time, he also filled his other boot and Lewis Hamilton took a swig, gagging and appearing close to throwing up.
The champagne is cold but the boot is hot and sweaty after two hours of furious foot pumping.
It was a disappointing day for Red Bull but a disastrous one for Alex Albon who finished last after spinning towards the end of the race.
The British driver is unlikely to hold his seat next year unless he improves dramatically in the four races remaining this season.
He finished 12th in what has become the “second” Ferrari with Charles Leclerc fifth. His confidence is gone and Racing Point may regret dropping Perez next year for the former four-time world champion.
Vettel is 33 but Hamilton is 35 and Kimi Raikkonen is 41 and driving like a man possessed for Alfa Romeo.
So if age isn’t the problem, what is?
The more he tries to fathom the answer, the worse it becomes, even suggesting his Ferrari is not as fast as the one Leclerc drives.
That’s true, but sadly for Seb it’s not always because of the car.
But he has retracted that and like a true champion is now looking deep within himself.