Safety dominates discussion as F1 heads to Monza

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Safety discussions are dominating Formula One as the series heads to the Italian Grand Prix after a scary near-miss over the weekend.

Championship leader Fernando Alonso of Ferrari nearly had his head clipped when Romain Grosjean’s Lotus flew over him in a wild, multi-car accident at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix.

Grosjean went for a small gap and clipped Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. That sent both cars spinning and Grosjean’s Lotus went airborne over Alonso’s Ferrari, which then took out Sergio Perez’s Sauber.

“The risk was large and seeing another car flying over one of ours, just a few centimeters from his helmet, made us feel like our hearts were in our throats for a few dozen seconds,” Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said.

Grosjean was banned for one race and will be replaced by Jerome D’Ambrosio at Lotus this weekend. Alonso said immediately afterward that he “felt a train coming with a big, big hit,” while Hamilton briefly confronted Grosjean after the accident.

Alonso said Tuesday that he felt no ill will toward Grosjean.

“We’ve spoken about it,” Alonso said in an online chat with Ferrari fans. “I have a good relationship with him. We were teammates at Renault and after the accident he sent me an SMS saying he was sorry and that he hadn’t calculated the distance well.”

Yet the close call has brought up a fresh round of chatter about safety in the open-cockpit series. Ideas being debated run from some sort of cage around drivers’ heads to adding rear-wheel bumpers to employing running starts. Others have called for a penalty system in which two warnings for reckless driving would bar drivers from the next race.

There has not been a fatality in Formula One since Brazilian great Ayrton Senna died following a crash at San Marino in 1994, but safety concerns continue to come up. In 2009, Renault was suspended from the European Grand Prix after Alonso’s right front wheel came off and bounced wildly down the track during the Hungarian GP. That same year, Felipe Massa of Ferrari was badly hurt after being struck in the helmet by a stray part from another car and slamming into a protective tire barrier at high speed during qualifying.

Alonso said he is against running starts.

“You would carry even more speed into the first corner and you would also lose one of the best moments in F1, where you’ve got to calculate the risk, be very alert and make decisions,” the Spanish driver said. “It’s too big a part of the show.”

For Alonso, the Italian GP represents a chance to bounce back and pad his 24-point lead over Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel. A year ago at Monza, Alonso shot up from fourth to first at the first chicane but he was soon overtaken by Vettel, who cruised to victory.

This year is different, with no car thus far proving to be clearly the fastest. That could change at Monza, where average speeds are 250 kph (155 mph) and top speeds get up to 340 kph (210 mph), making it the fastest circuit on the calendar.

McLaren-Mercedes’ Jenson Button led from start to finish in Spa and has finished second at Monza for the past three years.

“I head to Monza absolutely full of motivation after a fantastic result in Spa,” Button said. “It was the perfect weekend for me. It’s not only put me back in contention for the drivers’ championship, but it’s shown that we have a car that can definitely fight for the constructors’ title.”

Button is sixth in the drivers’ standings, 63 points behind Alonso, and McLaren is second to Red Bull in the constructors’ standings, 54 points back.

“Monza is one of the greatest circuits in the world and our car seems to be particularly well suited to high-speed circuits, so I’m optimistic that we’ll be competitive again this weekend,” Button said.

Built in 1922 in a royal park north of Milan, Monza is one of F1’s iconic circuits. The Italian GP is one of only four races to have survived from the first year of F1 in 1950, and the crumbling banking that formed part of the original Monza layout was still adjacent to the modern track.

“For me, there’s something about Formula One’s older circuits that’s very special,” Hamilton said. “Despite each being very different, the newer tracks all seem to have the same character and the same sort of rhythm, but the older circuits are very different.

“They feel like the land has shaped and influenced them rather than the other way around. I like that _ it means you never fall into any particular comfort zone and you’re always pushing the car one way or the other to get the best from any lap.”

Alonso won with Ferrari at Monza in 2010, having taken his first victory at the track in 2007 with McLaren-Mercedes.

“It’s always special and the expectations are very high,” Alonso said. “From a driver’s point of view it’s a strange circuit, though. There are only five curves and two chicanes, which don’t give you much of a chance to make an impact. It’s not difficult for a driver but you need a very fast car on the straights.”

Meanwhile, Ma Qing Hua is slated to become the first Chinese driver to take part in an F1 weekend when he replaces Narain Karthikeyan at HRT for the first practice session.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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