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Death Returns In Formula


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Death Returns In Formula Essay, Research Paper

My first hint that something was wrong came Sunday afternoon when I logged on to

the BBS (bulletin board service, a central computer acting as a host for other

users to exchange messages) for auto racing. Someone posted a short but gripping

note, "I think I just witnessed the death of Ayrton Senna," he said.

My eyes widened as I exclaimed "what," in shock and dismay. A few

hours later, the facts became clearer. Senna had crashed on the sixth lap of the

San Marino Grand Prix while leading the race. It happened at a section called

"Tamburello" – a gentle bend taken at top speed, about 186 miles per

hour. His car had suddenly veered off the course and crashed into a solid

concrete wall. Senna was already considered one of the top drivers in grand prix

racing history. He had more pole positions than any other driver did and only

Alain Prost who retired last year surpassed his total wins. Incredible intensity

and deep concentration characterized his driving. Mistakes from him were rare.

It was shocking that he would have a serious crash, even more inconceivable that

he would be in mortal danger. On the BBS, all of us were experiencing a sense of

loss and were having a difficult time finding solace among outsiders to the

sport of auto racing. Crashes like Senna’s tend to bring out the worst critics

who insist that those who want only to see crashes watch-racing events. And so

we turned to each other expressing first our anger, then sadness and finally a

candid assessment of the sport and how it could be made safer. This was the

second death of the weekend as another lesser-known driver was killed during a

practice session before the race. The modern formula one or grand prix car is a

masterpiece of engineering and contemporary design. The top teams to develop the

cars to their maximum potential spend incredible sums of money. Their shape is

wind tunnel tested. Exotic materials like carbon fiber along with chemical

additives for optimizing the gasoline are just a few of the important

technologies used. Telemetry logged into a computer (like an airplane’s

"black box" flight recorder) can tell the mechanics and designers

exactly how a car can be optimized for a particular track. In fact computer

technology has played an even greater role in the last two years through the

development of real-time enhancements. These "driver aids" as they

have been called include: active suspension, engine management along with

semiautomatic transmission, and traction control. Of course, along with the

technological advancements has come a steady increase in speed. More

importantly, this steady increase has led to a greater potential for serious

harm in an accident. Details of Senna’s crash serve to illustrate some of the

dangers that grand prix racing must overcome if it is to survive. At the section

where Senna went off the track, there are some bumps, which (according to other

drivers) were disruptive and may have caused a mechanical failure, resulting in

the veering of the car. Earlier in the year (during preseason testing) Senna

himself had pointed out the danger of these bumps and had requested that the

surface be smoothed out. This was supposedly done but the result was even worse!

Reports indicate the bumps were perhaps 2 inches high-an incredible hurdle to a

modern F1 car. Also there is the wall where the crash occurred. On most tracks

there are large runoff areas with sand traps that have proved effective in

slowing down out-of-control cars. Stacked tire walls have also helped soften

areas of possible impact. However, at Tamburello none of these techniques were

employed. There is a small river that runs near the course at this point; hence

the placement of a large concrete wall at an acute angle only a few yards from

the pavement but in front of the river. A sandpit was contemplated but there was

inadequate room. Finally, a patch of concrete was added over the grass to help a

car gain some control and perhaps avoid the wall if it went off course. The

drivers? head has also become increasingly vulnerable as the speeds have

increased. Senna was killed by a piece of his car’s suspension that had broken

off during the collision and impacted his forehead. Roland Ratzenberger, the

driver who was killed in practice, also suffered a fatal head injury. But

perhaps the greatest problem is beyond the scope of a technical discussion. It

is a factor, which lies outside the control of any designer, engineer, mechanic,

or driver. To illustrate, at the beginning of the year, FISA (the governing body

of grand prix formula one racing) began enforcing a new set of rules which

banned the use of most of the driver aiding computer technology. It was thought

that driver ability was playing a much lesser role than it ever had, resulting

in less competition and increased cost. But in fact, had active suspension been

permitted at the San Marino race, Sennas’ car would have been able to negotiate

the bumps at Tamburello much more easily and a mechanical breakage would

probably not have occurred. It has also been argued that the wall at Tamburello

makes the track unsafe and that a grand prix race should not be held there. In

fact, many tracks in the US have been denied a race for similar reasons. Yet the

promoters of San Marino seem to have a strong influence and their voices have

thus far held sway. Meanwhile, the technology of formula one cars continues to

improve while the drivers cope with greater speed and frequently greater danger.

And so the deeper problem begins to surface: can a governing body, subjected to

political forces, safely and effectively guide the progress of formula one

technology? Since that fateful weekend at San Marino, immediate and long-term

rules changes are being contemplated by FISA. That they will be effective in

improving safety remains to be seen. But even if they are, crashes will not be

totally avoidable. And the critics will continue to say that racing fans are

blood mongers who want only to see horrendous accidents. That there will be more

death is also a possibility. But many people die even as they walk down the

street, drive a car, or ride in a plane. Yes, the danger will always be present,

separating the great drivers from the reckless and the mere finishers. After

that tragic weekend, Niki Lauda, the retired grand prix champion was quoted as

saying; "God lifted his hand from formula one racing momentarily this

weekend after having protected it for ten years." To those of us who admire

the drivers and thrill at the delicate beauty of a formula one car as it

fleetingly dances along the path of the worlds race tracks, we can only pray

that the benevolent hand of protection will return and restore the relative

safety of the past ten years.

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