The death of three time Formula One World Champion, 34 year old Ayrton Senna on May 1 1994, occurred as a result of his Williams /Renault Formula 1 FW 16 crashing into a concrete barrier while he was leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari (Imola) in Italy.
During qualifying the previous day, Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the same course when his Simtek F1 crashed at Villeneuve corner. The death of the Austrian driver upset Senna.
Ironically, he spent the final morning of his life discussing the formation of a F1 Drivers’ Safety group through the FIA, to further enforce car and track safety measures.
During Sunday’s race, Senna’s car was seen to heavily bottom out then break traction twice at the rear and strike an unprotected concrete barrier at the high speed Tamburello curve. Trackside telemetry indicated he left the track at 310 km/h but was able to brake and slow the car down to 208 km/h in a little under 2 seconds before hitting the exposed concrete wall.
The impact tore the right front wheel and nose cone off, the car lifted from the front as it straightened and flicked violently round to a halt. The right front wheel shot up on impact entered the cockpit and struck Senna with such force on the right frontal area of his helmet that it pushed his head back against the headrest resulting in fatal skull fractures. A piece of upright attached to the wheel had also partially penetrated Senna’s helmet and another steering rod shard penetrating the helmet visor just above his right eye.
At the time it was not quite clear whether or not Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died instantaneously at the track or in hospital after their accidents. There were two opposing theories on the issue of whether both drivers were still ‘technically alive’ or ‘clinically dead’ and on life support machines when they were put in the helicopters that carried them to hospital.
Under Italian law, a death within the confines of the circuit would have required the cancellation of the entire race meeting. The relevant Italian legislation stipulates, that when a death takes place during a sporting event, it should be immediately halted and the area sealed off for forensic examination. Assuming both Ratzenberger and Senna had died instantly, the race organisers in order to protect their financial interests may have delayed any announcement prior to the emergency air-lift to avoid being forced to cancel the meeting. Had the meeting been called off, the owners of the Imola circuit would have lost an estimated US$6.5 million.
It is possible even if Senna was ‘brain dead’, his heart and breathing could have been artificially prolonged through a life support apparatus until his arrival at the hospital, only to be disconnected and then pronounced deceased. With his death confirmed at the hospital – and not trackside – the race meeting was able to continue. Pending the cause of the tragedy, Italian prosecutors were successful in pressing manslaughter charges ending in a guilty verdict for team Williams’ head engineer, Patrick Head.
The Italian Court of Appeal, on April 13, 2007, stated the following in the verdict: “It has been determined that the accident was caused by a steering column failure. This failure was caused by badly designed and badly executed modifications.
The responsibility of this falls on Patrick Head, culpable of omitted control”. Even after being found responsible for Senna’s accident, Patrick Head was never arrested because Italy’s statute of limitation for manslaughter is 7 years and 6 months and the final verdict was pronounced 13 years after the accident – too late for punitive measures. At the ill-fated Imola race meeting, Senna did not like the location of the steering column relative to his seating position and had repeatedly asked for it to be altered. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey agreed to Senna’s request to lengthen the FW16’s steering column, but there was no time to manufacture an alternate billeted steering shaft.
So, the existing rod was instead cut and extended by inserting a smaller diameter piece of tubing then welded together with reinforcing plates. During Head’s trial, a 600 page technical report was submitted by Professor of Engineering Enrico Lorenzini (Bologna University) and a team of specialists. The report concluded that fatigue cracks had developed through most of the steering column at the point where it had broken.
The shaft had been inadequately welded together about a third of the way down. Scratches at the crack of the steering rod, looked like the repair had been done in haste and someone had tried to file smooth the join following the welding. Lorenzini believed the part was faulty and probably cracked during the warm-up lap progressively deteriorating until the vehicle’s steering didn’t respond to the bend rendering the car uncontrollable.
During the trial, Fabrizio Nosco, the regional technical commissioner, testified that both of the vehicle’s black boxes (similar to air-craft flight recorders) were recovered intact. However in breach of FIA regulations, Charles Whiting, a FIA official, handed the black boxes to Williams before the regulating body’s own investigation into the accident could occur. Williams eventually claimed the black boxes telemetry recordings were corrupted and unreadable.
The boxes were returned a full month later for the court proceedings and their evidence was indeed proclaimed by the court as inconclusive. Had the black box information been intact, it may have settled speculation on the cause of the accident. At the conclusion of the Italian trial, Senna’s FW16, was returned to Williams and was subsequently destroyed with the car’s engine returned to Renault.
Finally in May 2011, Williams FW16 designer Adrian Newey (now Chief Technical Officer with current F1 champions’ Red Bull Racing) expressed his opinion on the accident that took Senna’s life: “The honest truth is that no one will ever know exactly what happened – There’s no doubt the steering column failed and the big question was whether it failed in the accident or did it cause the accident? It had fatigue cracks and would have failed at some point and 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… If you look at the camera shots, especially from Michael Schumacher’s following car, the car didn’t under-steer off the track. It over-steered which is not consistent with a steering column failure.
“The rear of the car stepped out and all the data suggests that happened. Ayrton then corrected that by going to 50 per cent throttle which would be consistent with trying to reduce the rear stepping out and then half a second later, he went hard on the brakes.
“The question then is why did the rear step out? 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 the right rear tyre probably picked up a puncture from debris on the track. If I was pushed into picking out a single most likely cause, that would be it.”