Take Safety Seriously

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During the fourth round of the 1992 European F3000 Championship at Enna, series leader Rubens Barrichello, who had been suffering from spongy brakes since the start, was negotiating the second part of the Sicilian circuit’s first chicane for the 20th time when the middle pedal failed to produce any discernible retardation. The Brazilian unsurprisingly spun off, which is not exactly a novelty at Enna, where the baking heat often melts the tarmac and makes the track surface unnavigable for any driver who strays a couple of centimetres off-line, irrespective of whether or not he has any brakes.

On this occasion, the fragmented track surface was not to blame. It was the sort of thing that can happen to any racing driver, in any car, at any time. The incident sticks in the mind, however, for what might — but for a slice of fortune no more than four or five feet wide — have happened.

As Barrichello rotated, he smashed into a truck that was attempting to extricate Giuseppe Bugatti’s crashed Reynard from the tyre wall. Had he submarined under the truck, an already grim year for the sport would have gained one extra tragic statistic. As it was, the Brazilian, still facing backwards, struck the truck’s front wheel, the impact splitting his helmet in two (although his only discernible injury was a bruised back muscle). Needless to say, he was not amused, though he related the incident with impressive nonchalance later on. The rear end of his car, needless to say, had been completely obliterated, its floor and gearbox casing shattered into tiny fragments.

The response of the marshals on the scene was typical of the Enna breed: chaotic, and riddled with panic. The driver of the smitten truck immediately tried to drive away, dragging Bugatti’s Reynard out of the tyres and inverting it as it did so. (This also happened at Enna in 1988, during a bid to retrieve Michel TroIle’s Lola from a gravel trap. That time, poor Trolle was still inside the car…) On this occasion, extra damage was inflicted to the tune of several thousand pounds. Who pays for that?

How much longer can such incompetence be tolerated? Motor racing possesses risks enough as it is, and the participants accept that. There have occasionally been calls for the Isle of Man TT races to be banned on the grounds of safety, but none of the riders who enters does so expecting to have an easy time of it. The difference here is that the perils are a constant. The cottages, lamp posts and other similarly solid landmarks which line the course do not wander around from lap to lap to present fresh hazards. If a trail of oil should be dropped, its presence will be indicated by an experienced marshal. Every available precautionary measure is taken.

Such is not the case at Enna. Not only is the condition of the track surface variable from lap to lap, but you are never quite sure where you will find marshals, nor how they will behave when pressed into service. They often wander across the circuit, and appear to take pride in leaving it until as late as possible before trotting clear of the car that’s bearing down on them. Perhaps none of them knows about the 1977 South African GP and poor Tom Pryce.

The flag signalling in Sicily is shambolic. Course cars came onto the track on a couple of occasions, and one of the drivers being transported within reported that it was more white knuckle than it was white flag, with only an uncertainly held, stationary warning being given, at precisely the point where the course car left the circuit in any case…

There also appears to be ignorance of correct flag signalling procedure. Yellow flags are waved willy-nilly as soon as a car spins, but the individuals doing the waving seem to think it necessary to stand a couple of feet onto the circuit to do so (preferably having run across the track on a couple of occasions beforehand, as this enhances the dramatic effect). After the scene of the incident, no green flag is shown. If taken literally, this means that no overtaking can take place anywhere on the circuit. Once the wreckage has been cleared, someone may proffer a green flag for a lap or two in a bid to make everyone understand that the carnage has been swept away, not necessarily the same way up as it had been when it originally landed.

Prior to the F3000 race in Enna, Giovanni Gulinelli, leader of the Formula 2000 (Italy’s version of Formula 3 Class B) event, crashed out at the final chicane. The two cranes at the scene being either incapable or unwilling to remove the remains, a marshal ambled across the track and wedged a yellow flag into the Dallara’s roll-hoop, where it fluttered meaninglessly for the rest of the race (simultaneously depriving the marshalling post of a useful accessory). Come the main race, one marshal at the first chicane left a girlfriend, dressed in civvies, to look after the yellow flag, as he wandered off to get a drink. Maybe he reasoned that, with half the field already out, its potential usefulness was reduced. She found it made a reasonable alternative to a shooting stick for half a dozen laps.

To lose Enna from the F3000 calendar would, in many ways, be a shame. From a social point of view, it is a weekend that everyone enjoys. The town of Enna, sitting on top of a mountain about 15 minutes drive from Lake Pergusa, around which the circuit runs, is charmingly unspoilt, and offers superb views of the Sicilian plain from the terraces of superb pasta restaurants.

But quality cuisine and the gentle pace of everyday life can no longer be sufficient reasons to justify Enna’s perennial inclusion on the international racing calendar. The track surface problem can be cured: indeed, it hasn’t been too bad for the past two seasons.

The marshalling cannot be tolerated, however. If ever there was a case for the introduction of a trained body of professional marshals, Enna 1992 was it.

Lessons in motor racing are usually learned pretty quickly. Take the case of Avon, which suffered a spate of exploding front left tyres in the corresponding 1991 fixture, the first time that its radial control rubber had been exposed to such heavy loadings in such high temperatures. By the next race, at Hockenheim, where carcasses faced similar stress, Avon had solved the problem. The Melksharn company went to Sicily in confident frame of mind this year, and the weekend passed without a hitch. Enna has had years to improve its marshalling standards, yet no remedial action is ever apparent.

It is rare that the grim topic of mortality is discussed in motor racing paddocks, for obvious reasons. At Enna, however, one experienced F3000 entrant opined that it was purely a matter of good fortune that there has been no fatality at the venue in recent years (in addition to the aforementioned hazards, there is a long, flat-in-top sweep, traversed at around 180 mph. which has no run-off area). One hopes that it won’t take such a thing before anything is done. This year, we were very lucky. S A