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JANUARY 29, 1996

Williams and Head to stand trial?

THERE are increasing suggestions that Frank Williams, Patrick Head, other members of the Williams team and officials from the Bologna-based SAGIS SpA company - which runs Imola and promotes the San Marino Grand Prix - are to be charged by the Italian authorities in connection with the death of Ayrton Senna at the track on May 1, 1994. If this is the case, they will have to stand trial in Imola.

The charges which might be brought against them are likely to be some form of manslaughter or involuntary homicide. Such cases are not new in Italy. Team Lotus had problems in the early 1970s with the Italian authorities as a result of Jochen Rindt's death at Monza in 1970, and in February 1981, Riccardo Patrese was charged with manslaughter by the Italian authorities for his involvement in the accident at Monza in September 1978 which led to the death of Ronnie Peterson.

The charges relating to Senna's death - if they happen - will be the result of the report by investigating magistrate MaurizioƊPassarini - who is rumored to have concluded that the crash was caused by the failure of the steering column, which had been cut and rewelded after Senna asked for it to be moved to give him better vision of the dashboard.

If this is the official conclusion Williams will almost certainly contest the findings. The team is very unhappy that the Italians have never allowed Williams engineers to inspect the car to deduce what caused the crash. To date, Williams's access to the chassis has been limited to a very brief inspection of the wreck by Patrick Head on the evening of the accident. Head refuses to say what he thinks caused the crash, but we have heard stories of the monocoque being damaged in such a way that could only have been done by the car hitting bumps in the road with enormous force - sufficient to throw the car out of control.

The Italian experts appear to be divided on whether the steering failed before the crash or was broken in the impact with the wall.

The announcement of the charges, however, may be delayed still further because there is likely to be considerable back room negotiation going on as the Italian sporting authorities do not wish to risk losing international racing events in Italy. Charges against Williams could result in F1 teams refusing to race in Italy in case there is an accident.

The FIA has in the past shown itself to be willing to take on the Italian authorities. The FIA canceled the 1994 Italian Grand Prix because the organizers at Monza could not overcome environmental protests caused by the need to cut down trees to increase run-off areas. The race was only saved after the intervention of the then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. We believe that the FIA has already warned the Automobile Club of Italy that it may take action if Williams runs into legal trouble over the Senna accident.

It should perhaps be noted that the FIA Formula 1 Commission - the most powerful decision-making body in Grand Prix racing - includes among its 13 members, Federico Bendenelli, the leading light of SAGIS and a man likely to be charged alongside Williams if the Passarini Report concludes that the SAGIS must share part of the blame. Frank Williams is also a member, as are four other team bosses: Ron Dennis, Jean Todt, Flavio Briatore and Giancarlo Minardi.