The Senna Files


1997 Jan 1 - Feb 19: NewSfile #3

Williams will attend trial

1997 January 5

Frank Williams said today that he will appear before Italian judges next month to face a manslaughter charge arising out of the death of Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

Although the hearing could be heard in his absence, the wheelchair-bound head of the Williams team said he would be present.

"I will be there and I will be defending my company and myself, why should I not go? I know one is not obliged to but I think it is correct to represent the company. It is my job."

Williams said he had made his own decision and had not "even asked the lawyer if it is the right thing to do."

He said the waiting had not been a strain. "It has been a worry. It is not the same thing. You have to understand that the law in Italy is above everything else and you have to respect the law."

"A death at a race track in Italy has to be investigated and I am participating very willingly in that investigation. I am planning to go there on the 19th and I know what to expect. It is only a small magistrates court."

He added that the inquiry and the case had "been hanging around for 30 months."

Williams would not say whether Patrick Head, technical director, or Adrian Newey, design director, would attend the court. He also declined to talk about details of the case which is expected to be heard on February 20 at Imola.

Williams and five others have been charged with manslaughter.

An experts' report, compiled by the Italian investigators into the crash, has been alleged to have revealed that faulty modifications to the steering column of Senna's car led to the fatal accident.

Williams and his team have denied this allegation strenuously but have not had access to the wrecked car since the accident.

The S Files


1997 January 07

"Tamburello," said Keke Rosberg, at the time of the disaster, "was a heart-in-the-mouth corner, a place where you feared something would go wrong, because it was flat out, and the run-off area was nothing."

"But it was not a difficult corner - you just turned in, and hung on. It was never a place where a driver, yet alone one of Ayrton's ability, would go off because of a mistake."

Michael Schumacher, who was following Ayrton, implied after the crash that he did not believe it was caused by steering failure.

He said after the race: "On the lap after the restart (the safety car was brought out to allow time to clear the debris), Ayrton's car was bottoming badly over the bumps."

"On the lap of the crash, it was even worse. The car seemed to come off a bump oddly and then head off. The skid plates touched the ground, the car got sideways and he lost it."

The S Files

Allegations to answer...

1997 January 7

According to the summons Williams will be charged with the allegation that to make the resultant steering column modification, it replaced one section of the column with a tube of smaller diameter.

The prosecution will allege that :

  • Williams did not adequately evaluate the force to which the modification would be subjected;
  • the joint between the sections was of inadequate radius;
  • the material used in the smaller piece was different and inferior to the original;
  • tool marks were left on the modified piece, reducing its resistance to stress;
  • the piece of reduced diameter was at the point subject to the greatest stresses.

Patrick Head was quoted as saying last year:

"The steering column had been checked after Senna was involved in an accident at the start of the race preceding Imola and found to be undamaged and free of cracks."

Excerpts © 1997 Autosport magazine

Williams to take the stand

1997 January 7

Frank Williams and the two other senior members of his team who have been accused of manslaughter will all travel to Italy to defend themselves in court later this year - but Williams' lawyer Roberto Causo claims that the chances of them going to jail are extremely slim.

The Italian charge of culpable homicide is far less serious than the UK equivalent of manslaughter. The former is brought if anyone has been judged to be careless or negligent in any way if a person dies.

But legal sources say it is almost unheard of for defendants to get a custodial sentence unless there is adjudged to be a high degree of negligence.

The maximum sentence carried by the charge is five years and the minimum one, although mitigating circumstances can reduce it by 60%. A penalty of more than two years cannot be suspended.

What Williams is accused of: that a modification to the steering column on Senna's Williams FW16 was poorly designed and implemented, causing it to fatigue and then break as he rounded the 190mph Tamburello corner - will likely be regarded as an error or miscalculation.

"In Italy," Causo said, "every (fatal) road accident finishes with an action like this. And this is a road accident, technically speaking."

The fact that Senna knew the risk he was taking by driving a F1 car will reduce the degree of negligence for which Williams can be held responsible, and Senna's request for the steering to be modified will weigh heavily in Williams favour.

The preliminary hearing which Causo predicted would not end until October, will be adjudicated by a pretore - a senior magistrate - in front of whom the prosecution and defence will present witnesses.

Causo said Williams will ask to have proper access to Senna's car for the first time since the accident, and will request that another experts report be written by parties appointed by the proctor with Williams' assistance. If the magistrate denies them that chance then they will appeal.

The team is likely to claim that the steering did not fail and both Head and Newey will present evidence in their defence.

If Williams is found guilty, Causo said, "It will go to the Court of Appeal in Bologna - which would take another couple of years and if Williams loses again it will take the case to the Italian Supreme Court."

The length of the trial is extremely unpredictable, and the case, which will be heard in three stages, may not finish for a least five years. The court will have a tough time deciding guilt. There is no TV footage, and the court will have to choose between two submissions of conflicting and highly complicated technical evidence.

TV rights holder FOCA claims that a film taken from the on-car camera of Senna's Williams of the events leading up to the accident cuts off before the car leaves the track.

Excerpts © 1997 Autosport magazine

Court of petty thieves awaits Williams and the world!

1997 January 12

The courtroom might have been from Dickens' London. An oak-panelled wall with a high backed leather chair commands the 23ft x 50ft room, as it has done for almost 200 years.

For the past two centuries, miscreants from Imola have been arraigned here charged with a variety of crimes ranging from petty theft to more recently drug and traffic offences. I was shown handwritten documents of a trial heard in this court in April 1806.

Yet this is the place where Frank Williams will be brought in his wheelchair next month and deny having any responsibility for the death of Ayrton Senna.

And Williams, like the minor criminals summoned here down the ages, will be required to deliver his defence to a robed magistrate sat underneath a crucifix and the gold embossed legend: La Legge E Uguale Per Tutti. Williams, fluent in Italian, will not need to be told that this means, The law is the same for all.

To prove the sincerity of the claim, one of the last defendants to pass through the court was a young man sentenced to three months in jail for possession of drugs.

But through nearly 200 years of dispensing anonymous justice to small-time thieves, liars and those violating the Italian Highway Code, no one would have imagined that this little courtroom, accessible through a narrow cobbled courtyard and two flights of stairs, would one day bear witness to a case of such global magnitude.

Who would have imagined that the reigning Formula One world champion Damon Hill would give evidence for the defence from behind the arc of light-stained desks assembled before the magistrates raised bench, or that the ultimate racing driver of his generation, twice world champion Michael Schumacher, would testify for the defence in this courtroom?


But this is the likelihood as solicitor Peter Goodman composes the strategy for the defence of his clients, Williams, the team patriarch, and his top designers, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey, before the case begins in 39 days.

And some solemnly warn that the trial of the Williams Three - and the other three defendants charged in connection with the death of Senna at the circuit a couple of miles from this magistrates court in the centre of this ancient city - puts in jeopardy the very future of Grand Prix racing in Italy.

Should they be condemned in court, how many Formula One personnel will feel comfortable about risking the force of Italian law in the event of another fatal accident here at Imola, or at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza?

Maurizio Passarini, the prosecuting magistrate who has brought the case to court, explains he is merely a slave to the law.

"If I am the most unpopular man in Italy, I am sorry," he says, when I visited him in his office in the Palace of Justice in central Bologna, "But this is the law. In Italy, the prosecutor has to investigate any fatal accident and act accordingly." Passarini, 39, a small, shy, bespectacled man, with two pipes amid the paperwork, on his desk, once followed Ferrari legends, Niki Lauda and Gilles Villeneuve. "I don't have the time for motor racing these days," he says coyly.

An earnest lawyer, he will keep his counsel for the court. "I won't talk about the accused until the trial, that is the proper place," he suggests. Yet we know his case against Williams will allege that modifications to the steering column on Senna's car were a cause of his crash at the 190 mph Tamburello curve during the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1 1994.

Goodman said: "We will try to do a straightforward English criminal job, which is to produce doubt on the strength of the prosecution case against us. The steering column didn't break before the accident, that's it in a nutshell." Williams, Head and Newey will attend the first day, when first the prosecution, then the defence, outline their cases. The length of the trial is totally unpredictable.

I understand that Goodman plans to request as a witness Hill, who last September was told by Williams that he was surplus to requirements, but who was driving on that fateful afternoon an identical Williams-Renault to the one in which Senna lost his life. There is also hope that Ferrari star Schumacher will meet Goodman. Schumacher, driving then for Benetton, was placed immediately behind Senna before the Brazilian crashed. Other drivers who have had accidents at the same corner include Gerhard Berger, Nelson Piquet, Riccardo Patrese and Michele Alboreto, and Goodman added cryptically: "We may need to speak to one or more drivers"' Goodman must submit his list of witnesses by February 17.


There will also be a concerted attempt in the days ahead to persuade Passarini to allow Head to examine Senna's car, which remains behind locked doors of the Polizia Stradale in Bologna.

For 15 years, Goodman was a criminal lawyer. His most celebrated case was an appearance for the defence in the trial of Graham Young, known in the media as the St. Albans Poisoner, whose villainous behaviour was later the subject of a film; and Goodman chuckles when he remembers that he twice prosecuted a singer called PJ Proby, a man more renowned for the minimal cut of his trousers than his voice.

But for the past 10 years, he has acted for Williams and he will be assisted in structuring the defence with Williams in-house lawyer Stephen Greenway. Goodman will be instructing Italian advocate Roberto Causo, based in Rome and a man with years experience in motor racing, and an Italian professor of law, to present the case in court.

It is the reputation, rather than the liberty, of Williams, Head and Newey that is at stake. The offence carries a suspended prison sentence of between six months and five years and applies to the other three defendants in the trial, Federico Bendinelli, the race organiser, Giorgio Poggi, circuit boss, and Roland Bruynseraede, the race director.

The courtroom here has room, you are told, for 100 people in the public sector. There will be twice that many media representatives from around the world and the one guarantee ahead of this sensational trial is the prospect of scenes of pandemonium never envisaged back in 1806.

© 1997 Malcolm Folley / Associated Newspapers

Venue changed - Williams appoint new lawyer

1997 February 10

It is reported that Williams are no longer employing Italian advocate Roberto Causo in order to avoid the defence of the six accused being compromised by split loyalties.

Williams' solicitor Peter Goodman has evidently assigned Italian lawyer Oreste Dominioni to represent the Formula One team in Italy.

Roberto Causo will continue to represent Roland Bruynseraede (race director), Federico Bendinelli (race organiser), and circuit boss Giorgio Poggi.

Judge Antonio Costanzo (36) has declared the 19th century magistrates court in Imola to be inappropriate for the proceedings as it measures just 23ft x 50ft.

The trial will now be held half a mile from the original courtroom on the first floor of a city administration building.

Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher are reported to be witnesses for the defence.

The S Files

Williams 3 not present at trial opening

1997 February 12

In a change to the original plans the Williams 3 (Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey) have been advised by their legal team not to attend the opening of the trial on Thursday February 20.

Frank Williams had previously said that he would be going to Imola for the trial opening because he felt it was right for him to be seen to be representing his team.

After the trial starts it will continue on isolated days thereafter. The next likely day of activity is expected to be February 28. It is anticipated the duration of the trial will last at least six months.

The S Files

Blue speck in the death of Senna

1997 February 17

Four days before the trial a photograph has emerged appearing to show a small blue object laying on the Imola track in front of Senna's Williams-Renault.

The British Sunday Times newspaper suggests that the colour of the fragment could mean it was a piece of a Benetton car which had crashed earlier.

The picture was taken by French photographer Paul-Henri Cahier who said he had not sold the photo but had passed it on to both Renault and the Williams team.

When the newspaper learnt of the pictures Cahier agreed to publication. It is unclear why the photo (taken from 600 yards before the point where Senna left the track) has only just emerged but it is extremely likely that it will be used in the defence of Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey.

The Sunday Times suggest that Senna swerved to avoid the apparent debris, lost control when the car hit a bump and skidded off the track.

They maintain that the car was vulnerable to such a response because the tyre pressures were low at the time of the crash.

The newspaper said studies of other pictures taken by Cahier appeared to show the apparent debris was flicked up into the air and off the track when Senna's car went over or very near to it.

Bizarre theory

The Sunday Times also offered an alternative and even more bizarre theory for the crash and asks: "Is it possible that Senna blacked out."

They refer to the in-car video and the position of Senna's helmet suddenly dominating the mirror completely, as if he is leaning sharply to the left. Saying this action would be a natural reaction to the car jumping violently away from him, that it was instinct for him to lean into the corner.

They continue with the suggestion that "this sudden movement may have indicated a deeper problem, something personal to Senna".

Evidently an unidentified close friend of Senna's consulted an unidentified medium who implied that the crash had been caused by Senna and not the car.

The medium spoke about the driver's inability to breathe. The close friend mentioned this to a colleague who knew Senna personally (having worked with him for a time), and who stated that once Senna had spoken privately to him about his breathing habits.

It is claimed that sometimes when Senna was under pressure, he would hold his breath for the opening lap of a race believing this action heightened his senses and exaggerated his feel for the car.

The S Files

Debris theory ignored as Williams stay silent

1997 February 17

Legal sources in Italy are saying the prosecution of Williams will still focus on Senna's modified steering column despite the allegations in a British newspaper yesterday that track 'debris' could have caused the accident.

Bologna's public prosecutor Maurizio Passarini has built his case around technical evidence which points to the steering modifications made to Senna's car being the cause of the crash. The suggestions made in the British Sunday Times newspaper yesterday could have shifted blame from the Williams 3 towards the Imola track management officials also facing trial.

A second photo taken as Senna had passed the debris, and as yet unpublished, is said to show that the position of the fragment had moved therefore suggesting some form of contact.

The other outlandish theory offered in the same article was that Senna blacked out because he was holding his breath.

The Williams team are presently refusing to say whether or not the published photograph would be used as evidence in their defence.

The S Files

Senna photo irrelevant

1997 February 17

Commenting on the supposed new photographic evidence published in the British newspaper The Sunday Times, Maurizio Passarini said today that "the photographic document made no difference, even admitting that it is reliable, and does not shift by one millimetre the conviction of the prosecution which has identified the snapping of the steering column as the cause of Senna's accident."

The newspaper alleged the photo could clear the Williams team of fault in the death of Ayrton Senna.

Thursday's proceedings are expected to be purely technical and witnesses are not expected to give evidence until March.

The S Files


1997 February 18

Will Italy lose 34 motor racing events if Frank Williams and/or others are convicted of manslaughter over the death of Ayrton Senna?

FIA president Max Mosley is declining to outline what exactly he has in mind but has hinted that the world governing body would take action if the accused are found guilty.

A logical move could be withdrawing approval for the 34 events currently held in Italy.

This would include the San Marino Grand Prix in which Ayrton Senna died when his Williams-Renault careered off the track at Imola on May 1 1994.

Shortly after the indictment of the Williams 3, Flavio Briatore, head of the Benetton team, said he would be unwilling to race in Italy if Williams were to be convicted.

He was backed some days later by Ken Tyrell.

The 1997 San Marino Grand Prix, due to take place on April 27, is not threatened for the Italian justice system is known to be notoriously slow.

Appeal processes after the trial could last for as long as seven years.

The S Files

Possible debris NOT on fatal curve!

1997 February 18

The supposed new photographic evidence trumpeted in the Sunday Times newspaper this weekend was nothing new said Sagis the company that runs the Imola circuit.

The photos and also video footage showing the debris were handed over to the Italian magistrature immediately after the crash.

Sagis, whose managing director Federico Bendinelli is one of the defendants in the trial, also stressed that the photo published in the Sunday Times magazine did not show the part of the circuit leading into the fatal curve, but was taken "some 700m from the Tamburello bend".

In presenting the new photo the newspaper alleged it could clear the Williams team of fault in the death of Ayrton Senna.

Senna's family said today that they had no comment to make on the photo nor the Sunday Times' report which also suggested that Senna may have fainted due to an alleged breathing trick.

The S Files