Case Study #2, Ayrton Senna, death of a champion.
Ayrton Senna was regarded as one of the greatest drivers of the modern age of Formula One. On May 1st 1994 during the San Marino Grand Prix, the unthinkable happened and 34 year old Ayrton Senna would never race again. It was a black ending to a horror weekend, Senna's death following a lucky escape for Rubens Barichello and the death of Roland Ratzenberger.
Senna had been very successful during his ten years as a Formula One driver. He had started 161 Grand Prix' and of these, he started from poll position sixty five times, a feat unmatched by any other driver in the history of Formula One. He held three world championships and had a total of 41 wins. His driving brilliance showed in the rain especially, where Senna was in a class of his own, but it was not raining the day he died. He was not always liked, but was the most respected driver on the circuit. Senna was trying to re-form the 'Drivers Association' to give Formula One drivers more power to force safety changes. He was very concerned about the issue of safety in racing, and the death of Ratzenberger brought the danger of his sport very close to him. Nobody had died in Formula One while Senna was racing in it which may have allowed him to put his own mortality to the back of his mind. Those who knew Senna well said how he had been deeply affected by the death of Ratzenberger, and how he was not himself before the race. In a phone call to his girlfriend the night before, he indicated that he did not want to race the next day, but had to because it was his job
The weekend at Imola had not been pleasant for anybody, Senna included. On the first day of practice, Rubens Barichello, driving for the Jordan team, hit a kerb in a chicane, and launched his vehicle over a tyre barrier and straight into a debris fence. While the crash looked horrific, he escaped with a broken nose and some other minor injuries. On the first day of qualifying, little known rookie, Roland Ratzenberger was killed when his Simtek car left the track and hit a concrete barrier at around 200mph. There were also two other crashes during the race meeting as well as Senna's, that cast a question mark over the safety of the course. The race had to run its first few laps behind a safety pace car due to an incident on the starting grid. The Lotus driven by Pedro Lamy had slammed into the rear of JJ Lehto's Benetton, which had stalled on the grid. Debris flew onto the crowd, over the debris fence and injured nine spectators.
As the race restarted from behind the pace car, Senna and Schumacher drove away from the rest of the field. As the pair drove into the Tamburello curve, a flat out long left hand turn, for the first time after the start, Schumacher saw the bottom of Senna's car hit the road due to bumps on the track. He also stated later in court that Senna's car had seemed very unstable in that corner. The very next lap, Senna lost control of the car at 190mph, jumping the kerb and slamming into an unprotected concrete wall at an acute angle. See figure on right.
Senna had managed to slow the car to 130mph just before the impact, but even with the strength of the cars, this was not enough, although the safety cell in the car remained largely intact, see figure on right.
The front suspension collapsed and the front wheel and part of the suspension came around the side of the cockpit striking Senna in the head, the massive head injuries killing him, See figure on right. Medical emergency crews were on the scene within a minute and did everything possible to give the driver the best chance of survival. Even with this attention, Senna was pronounced brain dead before the end of the race.
The reason for Senna's death has never been finalised. A court case and intensive investigation failed to highlight any one overriding contributing factor for which blame could be laid. Frank Williams and two of his engineers faced manslaughter charges, as did two track employees (see S-Files in Appendix # 7). Nothing could be proved and the charges were dropped, luckily for the sport, avoiding setting a dangerous precedent.
Many factors appear to have not helped the Brazilian survive the accident, the track especially. Tamburello corner was notoriously rough, a factor Senna himself sought to remedy during pre-season testing at the track. There had been some resurfacing in places, although some say that the surface actually became worse with bumps up to 5cm high in places. Formula One cars cannot handle bumps like this for very long without sustaining damage. The suspension systems are very firm and only allow small amounts of wheel travel, a situation which would have reduced the amount of friction of the tyres with the road while traversing rough surfaces. A possibility is that there was a suspension failure due to the bumps causing the car to veer off. This has not been proven to be correct or incorrect due to the car being so badly damaged upon impact as to make positive conclusions impossible to draw.
The steering column in Senna's car had snapped and was found outside of the vehicle after the impact. This column had been cut and welded together again at the driver's request for more room in the cockpit. The prosecution in the Senna manslaughter court case tried to prove that the column had broken prior to the impact, causing the loss of control. This was also never proven, with Williams engineers saying that it broke as a result of the crash, although they did concede that it may have been partially cracked before impact, see figure on right.
Another avoidable factor in the death of Senna, was the design of the track at that point. As well as being bumpy, there was a creek very close to the track. This creek should have been redirected or the track design should have taken it into account. As it was, neither of these two options was done. The result was a need to stop cars before they went into the creek. A corner like this should have a runoff area provided, to allow time for the cars to regain control or to reduce their speed before impact. There was no room in this case between the track and the concrete barrier for any runoff. A sand trap was considered, but yet again, there was insufficient room for it to be built. Tyres were considered but never used due to their proximity to the track. For tyres to be effective at speed, a wall at least three tyres deep is required, which would have come very close to the racing surface. This is not desirable due to a slightly wayward car being caught by the tyres and thus being unable to continue. The only option available to race organisers without major reconstruction costs, was a concrete runoff area, giving traction to sliding cars, which may be able to regain control. This still left horribly unprotected unforgiving concrete wall on the outside of a very high speed corner, although Senna was able to use the concrete area to slow his vehicle a little. Tamburello Curve has since been realigned to bring the cars away from the wall earlier, and better barriers now protect errant vehicles.
Another possible factor in the cause of the accident, was the presence of a small foreign object on the track surface, seen in front of Senna supposedly just before the entrance to the fatal corner. It has been suggested that the object may have caused mechanical damage as Senna drove over it, but again there is no evidence that any damage it may have caused played any part in Senna's loss of control. The television footage of the object on the track, was later analysed and it was found that the object was actually 700m from where Senna left the circuit
The 'Black box' data recorder in the vehicle was unable to provide any information about the accident. Not only did it disappear for about a month before it could be examined, when it re-surfaced, it was smashed beyond repair, possibly with a hammer. Also missing was the last 1.7 seconds of video from Senna's on board camera. This has never been recovered, but may well hold the secret to what really happened on that tragic day.
Telemetry sent into the Williams pits from Senna's car shows Senna lifted off the power slightly just before he left the track. It has been speculated that when the car jumped over the bumps on the track on the previous lap, the partly cracked steering column may have flexed as the car skipped across the bumps. This would have unsettled the car the way Schumacher described in court. The next time he approached the corner, Senna was naturally cautious and lifted off slightly, an action that combined with the rough surface may have caused the loss of traction that sent the car off the track. This was an argument which makes sense, but which was discounted by the prosecution who accused the Williams technicians of falsifying the telemetry readings.
Regardless of the actual cause of the accident, Senna's death has brought a great deal of change into the regulations of Formula One. Many of these regulations were not implemented until the beginning of the 1998 season after extensive research by the sport's governing body, the FIA. Tracks have been made safer and more forgiving, the cars both safer and slower, although some of the new regulations are seen as dangerous by some drivers, see current practices in motorsport safety. The design of the cockpit now offers far more protection to the drivers head as well as being twice as strong as previous years. Side impact protection has been improved and the cars must show that an effort has been made to reduce the chance of a wayward front wheel hitting the driver in the event of an accident. The very next year, the engine size was decreased from 3.5 litres to 3 litres to reduce the speed of the vehicles, an engine configuration which remains today.
1994 was the first year of racing after controversial computer controlled technologies were banned. One such technology was 'active suspension'. Active suspension constantly sensed the needs of the car and adjusted the spring and damper rates accordingly for maximum traction. Another banned technology was traction control, which reduced the power to the driving wheels on loss of traction, giving the driver a far greater chance of recovering a loss of control. These technologies made the cars safer at speed, but also faster. They were banned from both a speed limiting factor and a cost factor, the smaller teams unable to afford the high development costs. Any computer controlling of the race car was also banned, the idea being to bring the racing back to the driver instead of the car. This ruling banned the practice of adjusting the tuning of the cars engine management system and suspension from the pits, based on real time information being sent back from the cars themselves. It has been calculated that if the Formula One cars had not been restricted in development from 1980, they would currently be lapping Britain's 'Silverstone' course about 20 seconds per lap faster. Theoretical average speeds would be about 320kph instead of 220kph, and top speeds would be around 480kph instead of the current 300kph. These theoretical cars would be virtually impossible to physically drive at the limit and the races would be dependent on the physical stamina of the drivers, a situation best avoided.
As for the death of Ayrton Senna, the only person who really knows what happened that day died in the accident. The truth may never be known and while it was a tragedy, the sport has become significantly safer because of his death. His yellow helmet will be missed for a long time to come.