Witnesses Give First Evidence in Senna Trial

IMOLA, Italy (Mar 11, 1997 – 14:13 EST)

Witnesses gave evidence for the first time Tuesday, as the trial resumed into the death of Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Six men have been charged with manslaughter after the fatal crash — Senna’s team owner Frank Williams, his technical director Patrick Head and chief designer Adrian Newey, along with three race officials.

As the trial continued, state prosecutor Maurizio Passarini sought to convince magistrate Antonio Costanzo that Senna’s modified steering column had failed under the stress, causing him to veer off the Tamburello curve. But Oreste Dominioni, the lawyer who is defending Williams and has denied the steering broke before the crash, blamed the track’s asphalt surface and said it had not been fully investigated.

Roberto Landi, who is representing Federico Bendinelli, head of the SAGIS company who runs the race circuit, intervened and said that the enquiry had ruled out problems with the asphalt.

Among the witnesses called on Tuesday were Mario Casoni, who drove one of the emergency vehicles to the scene of the crash. Casoni said he had noticed the “abnormal” state of Senna’s steering column, which had been “uprooted” and was dangling from the cockpit. Dominioni pounced on the fact that in 1994 Casoni had said the column was lying on the ground. Casoni replied that he had made a mistake in his statement given to a police officer at the time.

Another witness, Stefano Stefanini, in charge of the accident unit with Bologna traffic police, described the crash scene and the state of the triple world champion’s Williams-Renault car. Stefanini said a metal plate had been added to the rear suspension, which had apparently cracked during off-season testing at Le Castellet in France.

Passarini said of the testimony: “I called him not because I want to show that the rear suspension caused the accident, but to show that the cars are highly sophisticated, and yet when there’s a problem, it gets solved with a metal plate.” Passarini’s case is based on the prosecutor’s belief that work on Senna’s steering column to shorten it had been poorly carried out.

In a separate move, Passarini apparently sought to clear Senna’s tyres of any blame for the crash, calling on Stefanini to give lap times. In the sixth lap of the re-started race, with the car full of petrol, Senna clocked 1min 24.887sec. “It was a very good time,” said Stefanini, adding that only two drivers managed to better it — Senna’s teammate Damon Hill and future world champion Michael Schumacher — and that at the end of the race.

Passarini did not explain his move. But it was widely seen as preventing a possible defence bid to blame the condition of Senna’s tyres, a fall in temperature and therefore adherence having been an issue in the months immediately after the accident.

Dominioni brought into question the track surface, citing amateur video footage taken on March 9, 1994 during a private practice session at Imola. In the footage, Senna is seen talking to clerk of the course Giorgio Poggi, now one of the accused, about the Tamburello curve. Stefanini said Senna was complaining that the asphalt surface dipped in certain places, and that work to rectify that was carried out the following day. However, Stefanini acknowledged under questioning by Dominioni that none of the track officials was interviewed about the episode, only the head of the company who had carried out the remedial work.

Returning to the race, traffic police superintendent Marcello Gentili was asked about the trajectory taken by Senna’s car and signs of braking on its way to the concrete wall at Tamburello. Gentili said there was a 21cm angle between the track and the trackside and there were intermittent signs of braking. The prosecution case also rests on its assertion that an angle between the asphalt and the trackside prevented Senna’s car from braking properly.

The accused, of whom only Bendinelli was present on Tuesday, face between six months and five years in jail if convicted. The trial continues with first witness accounts on Wednesday.

(c) 1997 Agence France-Presse – 12/3/97.