THE Senna Files


1997 Oct 30 - Nov 28 : NewSfile #9

Senna trial: The final countdown

On May 1 1994 Ayrton Senna was leading the San Marino GP when suddenly his car veered inexplicably off the track. The Williams-Renault crossed over both the grass and concrete run-off strips before finally impacting with the concrete wall on the Tamburello curve.

Generally acknowledged to be the greatest racing driver of all time Ayrton Senna was now dead.

Autopsy reports stated that a piece of the Williams' front suspension, broken off during the impact with the wall, caused a fatal blow to Senna's forehead. The piece was never officially identified.

Italian law necessitated an official investigation into the cause of Senna's fatal crash. The world waited. In 1996 charges were finally brought against six people by the Italian justice department.

State prosecutor, Maurizio Passarini, contended that a substandard modification had been made to the steering column in Senna's Williams. The column then suffered from metal fatigue brought about by poor workmanship. This suspect modification finally led to a total failure of Senna's steering column as he entered the Tamburello at over 190 mph.

Unable to steer due to a useless steering wheel and unable to brake sufficiently due to the design of the track surfaces, the track edge acting like a launching ramp, even Senna's skills could not save him from, what proved to be, a fatal impact with the Tamburello wall.

Passarini brought charges against Frank Williams, Williams team boss. Patrick Head, Williams technical director. Adrian Newey, Williams chief designer. Federico Bendinelli, director of Sagis, the company which held the Imola race. The FIA representative at the race, Roland Bruynseraede, and circuit manager Georgio Poggi.

The Senna trial began on February 20 1997.

The S Files

Senna not guilty

1997 November 7

On the day that heralded F1 race fixing allegations in the world's press against the Williams and McLaren teams, Maurizio Passarini, after nine months of legal action into the death of Ayrton Senna, gave his closing statement to the court at Imola.

The state prosecutor began with a recall of the events leading to the fatal crash, again focusing on the steering column modifications made by Williams. He referred to the events of that tragic 'Imola' weekend, the death during qualifying of Roland Ratzenberger, the initial accident at the start, the deployment of the safety car and the race restart.

Passarini said that driver error must be excluded. Two investigations from independent laboratories arrived at the same conclusions. The steering column had signs of fatigue for 3/4 of the circumference and for 40% of the section.

Reference was made to the testimony given by defence witness McLaren driver David Coulthard regarding the normality of the 2cm of oscillations shown on a Williams' steering column.

Almost certainly with a view to undermining comments made earlier by Frank Williams, Passarini made a point of highlighting the fact that after the race restart, Senna clocked what would prove to be the third fastest lap of the race.

In March Stefano Stefanini, the head of Bologna's traffic accident unit, testified that Senna with a fully loaded car clocked 1min 24.887sec, only two drivers bettered it - and that was at the end of the race.

Last week, after his appearance in court, Frank Williams speculated that a loss of tyre pressure, due to the cooling of the tyres whilst following the safety car, could have caused Senna's loss of control.

Passarini also introduced the multi-media evidence showing the behaviour of the car, telemetry information and Senna's last moments at the wheel.

The 'black box' mystery

The state prosecutor also made it clear that he was unhappy with some aspects of the defence, for example the contents of the black box data recorder that was installed in Senna's Williams-Renault. This box was said to have been smashed during the accident and therefore the vital information it contained, was lost.

In March Fabrizio Nosco, the engineer who removed the two black boxes from Senna's car after the crash, testified that "apart from a few scratches both boxes looked to be intact."

Passarini said that Senna's data recorder contained 20 memory chips, but only two were damaged. The two being those whose data would have been retained even when the power supply failed.

"It must be a coincidence, but it makes you wonder if someone was very jealous regarding its contents," he said.

F1, lies and videotape

In a surprise move the state prosecutor announced that certain officials from the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) are to be investigated over alleged false testimonies. The investigation will be carried out by the attorney's office in Bologna.

Passarini has, in the past, commented about the problems encountered by the prosecution in obtaining the final footage from Senna's in-car camera. He claimed that the responses given by the FOCA employees were 'disconcerting or downright comic, if not tragic.'

Bernie Ecclestone, at one time thought to be called as a witness, is not directly concerned with this investigation.

Passarini did indicate however that letters received by the legal authorities from Ecclestone would be examined to see if there was a separate case to answer.

This could relate to the film taken from Senna's on-board camera. The Williams team were provided with the footage within a week of Senna's death whereas it took over 6 months for Passarini's office to obtain the tape.

"This is typical of the disdain with which the Formula One world has treated this enquiry," Passarini said.

Another FOCA employee, public relations executive Francesco Longanesi Cattani, may also face investigation.

Later Passarini told reporters that those primarily involved were Alan Woolard FOCA TV director, Eddie Baker FOCA TV producer and Andrew James FOCA video switcher. These three individuals were manning the control truck on May 1 1994 and were responsible for working the video camera on Senna's car.

In order to allow the enquiry to commence, Passarini has asked for their testimonies to be forwarded to the attorney's office.

Head of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) Max Mosley and the FOCA maintain that the last second of Senna's crash was never filmed as the coverage was switched to another car.

Passarini has always contended that the footage supplied from Senna's in-car camera was incomplete because it stopped nine tenths of a second before Senna's fatal impact. He said that nine minutes had been spent following Senna's Williams and therefore it was comical to believe that it was 'sheer coincidence' that FOCA's TV staff decided to switch shots 0.9 seconds prior to impact.

He did not believe the testimonies given by the FOCA television employees who maintained that the car camera was switched from Senna's vehicle to that of Gerhard Berger's by chance. A moment later Ayrton Senna was dead.

The state prosecutor maintains that the camera was still running at the time of the crash and believes the missing footage would have proved his case: that the steering column snapped whilst Senna was still on the track.

Four out of six cleared

In an apparent U-turn Passarini recommended that all charges against Frank Williams, Roland Bruynseraede, Federico Bendinelli and Giorgio Poggi be dropped.

As both Frank Williams and Federico Bendinelli merely dealt with the administrative side of the business they could not be held directly responsible for the crash which took the life of Ayrton Senna, said Passarini.

Although safety standards at Tamburello were questionable, Poggi and Bruynseraede did not commit any crime. Senna was killed not by his car's impact with the Tamburello wall but because a piece of suspension pierced his helmet causing fatal head injuries. The question now is whether, if his car had been travelling at a lower speed, Senna would still have died. As this issue is in doubt, charges against Georgio Poggi and Roland Bruynseraede should be dropped, declared the state prosecutor.

Also a lawyer, Federico Bendinelli said afterwards: "I was convinced the circuit bore no responsibility for what happened, and neither did Frank Williams. His position was the same as mine. I was calm and confident from the start."

Head and Newey guilty

Passarini said however that both Patrick Head and Adrian Newey should be convicted as they were both ultimately responsible for the design changes made to Senna's car. The fact that Senna asked for modifications doesn't reduce the responsibility of the accused. A recommendation was made that the court should award one-year suspended sentences to both defendants. The maximum sentence is five years.

"Newey and Head designed the steering column modifications badly and especially did not check how the plan was put into execution," Passarini said.

Adrian Newey left Williams earlier this year to join McLaren.

It is high unlikely that the presiding judge, Antonio Costanzo, will go against Passarini's recommendations although under Italian law he is fully entitled to do so.

Giovanni Calcaterra, a lawyer retained by the Senna family said: "I can't take a positive or negative position regarding the prosecution's summing up. Now it's for the sentence to give an exhaustive answer as to what happened to Senna."

The court sessions continue with the summing up of the defence cases on November 11-12-14-18.

The prosecution replies will be heard on November 21.

The last court session is due to be held on November 26, with the final ruling due mid December.

The S Files

Defence: closing statements

1997 November 19

Tuesday November 11 heralded the start of the summing up sessions by the various defence lawyers.

Lawyer Manrico Bonetti, nephew of track director Georgio Poggi, said that after a long career, which started in 1973 as a track inspector, Poggi was due to retire after the Imola race on May 1 1994. He maintained that Poggi was a scrupulous executive and there was a limit to his responsibilities. He asked therefore for a full acquittal.

On Wednesday November 12, Roland Bruynseraede's lawyer, Causo, said that the prosecution had a team of experts whose personalities had strongly conditioned the investigation.

He argued that if the prosecution's case were to be believed then the Imola track was in breach of the regulations and would have to be demolished and rebuilt.

Landi, representing Sagis, concluded that Bendinelli and Poggi have had operational roles since 1980. Then the jobs to the circuit, requested and designed by Nosetto, were already approved and under construction. Their activities have always been subject to scrutiny by the FIA.

Adrian Newey

Thursday November 14 brought Adrian Newey's defence lawyers Lanzi and Stortoni into action. They argued that Newey was not directly involved with the alterations to Senna's steering column.

The prosecution, they maintained, should have taken into account the actions of the two technicians who were responsible for the steering modifications, namely Young and Fisher.

Stortoni said that the prosecution feels that although Newey had not worked on the modifications directly he was ultimately responsible. But, there is no proof that Newey ordered that job. So much so that when Williams held an internal investigation over the cause of the accident he (Newey) wasn't even asked to attend, he said.

The job on the Williams was divided into sections and certainly a co-ordinator existed. But there must be the principle of trust between professionals, the principal excludes the examination by the chief designer.

Our orientation accepts the connected risk to the activity of motor racing, said Stortoni.

Patrick Head

The final session for the defence came on November 18 with closing statements from Head's lawyers, Dominioni and Gandossi.

Dominioni's strategy was to try and dissect the prosecution's case. He launched his lengthy attack, against the prosecution's technical advisors, saying that Passarini had never asked them whether a lack of stability in Senna's car, caused by the track surface, could have caused the fatal crash.

Dominioni told the court: "Passarini's reconstruction of the incident which cost the life of Ayrton Senna has no basis in proof, it is unfounded and those accused must be cleared."

He said that the steering column of Senna's was the same as Damon Hill's, both having been designed prior to the start of the 1994 racing season.

From the testimony of Allgass, one of the prosecution's experts, it emerged that he (Allgass) couldn't say whether a part constructed with the safety equal to a coefficient of 1 could have broken, said Dominioni.

The fatigue on the piece denounced by the prosecution should have been revealed at 350 thousand cycles (a cycle is any fit application which provokes wear on the part); but the steering column, inspected after the first two GP's of that season, had experienced 27 thousand cycles, a value clearly lower than the safety limit.

The question then is: when and why, because up to the last control check with the penetrating liquids this had not been highlighted.

"Unfortunately, in life exists the unpredictable, the unforeseen event and the inexplicable," he said.

There are contradictions within the prosecution's case, above all those of Forghieri over the pressures of the tyres. The experts tell of two undulations, that then become one and at the end three, but they don't mention the more important one at the time of 11"24 that caused the problem with Senna's car, as shown by the telemetry.

On the fundamental point of the tyre pressure, the experts called by the prosecution have relied on presumptive evaluations and not actual data. Goodyear disagree with Forghieri. The reconstructions done by the prosecution are wrong. The temporal logic and dynamics of the incident, that began at the time of 11"24 in consequence of a violent collision on the track, caused one swerve of the car, and resultant oversteer as Senna tried to correct.

Here the prosecution maintain that the steering column broke because the Williams veered to the right, and in the 60 metres off the track Senna didn't try to steer. Not because the wheels didn't react to the steering, but because Senna with great clarity kept the wheels straight to achieve the best possible braking.

It is useless to compare the Friday session times with those of the accident because conditions were unequal. As Senna's on-board camera was not of fixed rigidity the film cannot be relied upon due to optical illusions.

Alboreto accused Coulthard of not speaking the truth regarding the oscillations of the Williams' steering wheel, he is in turn unreliable and prejudiced.

I therefore ask for the acquittal of Williams and Head for they have not committed any crime. The incident didn't occur through the breaking of the steering column.

Dominioni said that the cause of Senna's fatal loss of control was still unknown. He reiterated the theory given by Frank Williams, who earlier had stated that Ayrton Senna's crash could have been the result of a combination of cold tyres and the uneven track surface.

The response of the prosecution to the summing up of the defence case will be heard on November 21, followed by the defence response to that on November 26.

The S Files

It's almost over

1997 November 28

Maurizio Passarini replied to the defences' closing statements at the penultimate session of the Senna trial held on November 21.

The state prosecutor told the court that the Tamburello curve, even though subjected to alterations in 1989, was still a very dangerous place which exposed the cars to a strong mechanical stress. The modifications previously undertaken should have encompassed the elevating of the shoulder by 30-40cm to conform to the regulations.

Passarini disproved the objections raised by the Williams defence by saying that it was untrue that the prosecution's experts had not considered the theory of instability, which in 1 out of 50 cases could account for a car leaving the track.

All aspects of the track had been examined he said, and everyone was aware that the underside of the car had been subjected to violent contact with the ground.

The state prosecutor maintained that Williams' reconstruction of the incident must be discounted. He claimed that their data was disproved by the telemetry, which did not show that Senna, whilst trying to correct an over-steer problem, had under-steered.

In fact quite the opposite, what impressed about Senna's car was the factor that with the diminution of the lateral acceleration, the torsion applied to the steering column reached zero which signified that Senna had abandoned using the steering.

Passarini said that this was not to achieve an optimum braking level however, but because, at this point, the steering column broke. If the steering column was performing normally then this should have been shown by the telemetry.

It is permissible to have doubts over when and where Senna's steering column was modified, he said, but pointless to say that the steering column on Hill's car was of the same standard. It is not a valid defence to say that this breaking is considered an unpredictable phenomenon and that there is not a causal link between the incident and the death of the driver.

The breaking of the steering column was the main cause, without this the car would not have left the track. Because of the senior positions held by Head and Newey at Williams, they cannot claim to be exempt from the responsibilities of quality control.

Adrian Newey's lawyer brought the day's proceedings to its conclusion arguing that the main point of their defence was unassailable.

The end

The nine month trial into Ayrton Senna's death drew to a close on November 26 1997.

State prosecutor, Maurizio Passarini, again repeated his request for Adrian Newey and Patrick Head to be found guilty of manslaughter, having now dropped charges against Federico Bendinelli, Giorgio Poggi, Roland Bruynseraede and Frank Williams.

Asking for the acquittal of their respective clients, the various lawyers for the six accused gave their final statements.

Judge Antonio Costanzo retired to consider the verdict which should be announced at 13.30 GMT on December 16 1997.

The S Files