Formula One-Half

INDIANAPOLIS, June 22, 2004 – All that people wanted to talk about after last Sunday’s United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were safety and Ralf Schumacher, not older brother Michael who won his 78th Grand Prix here in his 203rd start over a stellar 14-year career that shows no abatement.

No, Ralf is the subject of interest and not because he will likely go to Panasonic Toyota next year in a reported deal that gives the younger Schumacher $20 million over five years. Nobody wanted to talk about Ralf’s talent or his future.

The subject is his (and every driver’s) safety and, specifically the amount of time it took to reach and extricate Ralf Schumacher from his stricken BMW Williams F1 racer after The Big One.

On the tenth lap of a 73-lap contest around the Brickyard 2.605-mile road/oval course, Ralf apparently had a left rear tire puncture (two laps after a similar problem for Fernando Alonso) at the final, 13th turn causing him to spin twice.

After executing two 360-degree twirls and impacting the retaining wall (but not the SAFER Barrier), Ralf Schumacher’s car came to rest just after the F1 pit entry on the long front straightaway.

The heavy contact scattered pieces of the car all along the straight, but it was pretty easy to see that Schumacher had survived it, as he lifted the visor on his helmet and began to look around.

There he sat amongst the scattered remnants of his race car. He sat and waited for Dr. Sid Watkins and the medical Mercedes-Benz response car used at all Formula One races to arrive and rescue him. And he waited.

Apparently, the safety vehicle was stationed at the other end of the pit straight and needed to go the full way around the circuit to reach Ralf.

While safety considerations in NASCAR – or the lack of same – have been a prime topic of conversation around the water cooler in the United States the two warring open wheel series, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League have exceptional squads well known for their abilities to reach and rescue drivers (and crewmembers) quickly and safely.

It was Dr. Terry Trammell’s belt that saved Alessandro Zanardi at EuroSpeedway Lausitz that day in September 2001, used as a tourniquet to inhibit a river of blood flowing from the Italian. Former CART physicians Trammell and Dr. Steve Olvey were on the case almost before the car stopped on that oval. Why wasn’t Sid Watkins there in a heartbeat last Sunday?

Dr. Henry Bock and his crack squad of Indy Racing League paramedics, EMTs and physicians probably allowed Kenny Brack to continue his driving career and, oh, his life as husband to Anita, Karma’s father and musician, through their own quick reaction last October.

While it is happily true Schumacher wasn’t seriously injured by this accident, why wasn’t Sid Watkins there by the time the car stopped?

It took, by several accounts more than three minutes for Watkins and Co. to arrive on the crash scene. By my own clock it took more than nine minutes from the time Schumacher crashed to extricate him from the BMW Williams.

Formula One, the FIA and Dr. Sid Watkins should be ashamed. They should be embarrassed. They are supposed to be the best in the world at conducting races but this past Sunday, these guys looked like a bunch of wankers.

The extractible F1 seat developed late last century and the HANS support collar are passive safety issues; Formula One did not do its job as a proactive (accent on active) organization intent on providing proper motor sport for more than 120,000 fans and proper protection for its competitors.

This race should have been red-flagged – it would have in Champ Car, in the Indy Racing League or even NASCAR Nextel Cup.

Along with the failure to reach an injured driver with due speed, the required clean-up of carbon fibre bits and pieces strewn across the great divide of this wide racing oval was abysmal.

The track needed to be cleared of all racing and medical support vehicles in order to be properly cleared of the carbon substance that cuts tires in a wink. This was not done.

Instead, the remaining cars played follow-the-leader, conga line with the Safety Car and meandered through the wreckage. I’m surprised there were not a number of punctures immediately following the green flag once the track was cleared and minimally swept.

There were other travesties at the fifth USGP held in Indy. After the first-turn wreck that eliminated four cars on the spot after they spewed carbon at Turn 1, the track went green (well before start/finish) and polesitter Rubens Barrichello blasted down the straight with Ferrari teammate Michael Schumacher alongside.

It sure looked like Schumi edged Rubens before the yard of bricks, but no dispute was filed. Barrichello wasn’t terribly happy with another second place finish in an event he monopolized; he looked like he wuz robbed.

Rubens tried to put a move on the German maestro later in the race but there was debris on the track, no flag to that effect and the Italian had to mow lawn instead.

For some reason I believe that if it had been Juan Pablo Montoya or some other driver putting the same start/finish move on Schumacher, they’d be sent to the doghouse, a place Montoya knows all too well since he started driving here in F1.

The announcement mid-race that Stewards of the Meeting were investigating something Montoya had done wasn’t a surprise.

When his BMW Williams failed to start on the formation grid, Montoya had 15 seconds to dash off the grid to the spare and, while Williams insisted Juan Pablo had it handled with two to spare, he also understands the futility of a protest to the FIA.

Williams were told Montoya was excluded from the event right after a pit stop, thereby negating the need to ban a third-place car and driver. The team brought him in a lap later and parked it. The many Colombians on hand were doubly devastated today.

Michael Schumacher may have won the race anyway, whether any of these other variables factored in or not. But I feel perplexed. I came to see the best at work – medical directors, race directors, safety mavens, corner workers, along with drivers and entrants. I, too, wuz robbed.

(c) 2004 Anne Proffit

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