x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Safety first on mean streets of Monaco

The race has the lowest average speed on the circuit but it is still a high-risk event, writes Gary Meenaghan from Monte Carlo.

Safety engineers oversee the removal of Pastor Maldonado's Williams car from the track in Monte Carlo. Robert Pratta / Reuters
Safety engineers oversee the removal of Pastor Maldonado's Williams car from the track in Monte Carlo. Robert Pratta / Reuters

Every ticket ever sold for a Formula One grand prix carries the printed message prominently upon it: "Motorsports can be dangerous; participation is at your own risk".

In a sport such as Formula One, safety is paramount, but on the streets of Monte Carlo – closed for high-speed racing by day, open to the public by night – it is for ever questioned.

Michael Schumacher – fastest in today's qualifying session – earlier this week spoke of the irony that his sport spends much energy promoting road safety yet races on a circuit widely accepted to be dangerously high-risk.

The fact Monaco has the slowest average speed of all circuits on the calendar is largely irrelevant courtesy of the unique and unforgiving set-up that, with minimal run-off areas, allows almost no margin for error.

Ross Brawn, Schumacher's team principal at Mercedes-GP, told The National the risk of racing in Monte Carlo is justifiable.

"Monaco is a unique race, but there have also been big efforts made here to make it as safe as possible," he said.

"We all know that motor racing can't be 100 per cent safe, there is always some risk, but I think the developments in the cars, the technology in the cars [and] the technology at the circuits is always progressing well.

"Each year, it gets safer. There is risk and that risk probably varies at different circuits, but I don't think it's a situation that means we shouldn't race there. It's a manageable risk."

With a total distance of 260.52km, the Monaco Grand Prix is the only event on the 20-race Formula One calendar that does not run to the governing body's mandated 305km minimum distance.

However, a shorter distance does not result in less safety provisions. Every year since the creation of the principality's street circuit in 1929, changes have been gradually implemented to improve driver – and spectator – safety.

This year, with construction of the track beginning three months ago, a laser study of the road surface was undertaken with the results leading to, according to circuit officials, "a planing of the road from the tunnel to the chicane by up to 20cm at certain points".

The track was also resurfaced with an abrasive coating to reduce speed on each of the three exits from the circuit, at Sainte Devote, Mirabeau and the Port Chicane.

This was countered by widening the pit-lane exit by 10 metres to allow cars to return to that track at greater speed.

In terms of safety provisions, 33km of security rails have been erected, accompanied by 20,000 square-metres of chicken-wire fencing and 649km of TecPro soft-polythene barriers.

The number of barriers has been increased since last year, prompted by an accident during 2011 qualifying that left Sauber rookie Sergio Perez unconscious.

The Mexican, who was forced to miss the following race with concussion, returns to race at Monaco today and is pleased to see his shunt was not in vain: The barrier he careered into on exiting the tunnel has been pushed back 14.6 metres to lessen the impact and chances of serious injury.

"It's important we consider every accident we have, to learn from experience in that respect. It's a positive change and important we keep working on the safety for all of us," he said.

"You are very tight to the wall here, which is not really a very nice feeling, but it's Monaco and that's why this track is so special. It's my favourite track and I always believe here a driver can make a difference."

Today, Perez experienced the negative way in which a driver can make a difference. Pastor Maldonado, the Williams driver who won the Spanish Grand Prix earlier this month, appeared to turn in on his rival as the two competed in the final practice session before qualifying.

The Venezuelan was handed a 10-place grid penalty for tomorrow's race. Perez later suffered an issue with his front-left suspension and crashed out of qualifying. It is unclear whether the two incidents were related, but Perez believes it was no coincidence.

"I don't know what Pastor was trying to do; if he was angry with me, I don't know, but it was completely unnecessary what he did," Perez said, adding Maldonado deserved his penalty.

"It is just the way it goes at this track. If you have a small problem like I had in qualifying, the first thing you find is a wall."

Maldonado dismissed suggestions the accident was retaliation for an earlier incident, describing the collision as "really nothing". He conceded that perhaps he was over-aggressive, but added he could not understand why he had been given such a harsh penalty.

Moments after Formula One qualifying finished, the second GP2 race of the weekend started, only to be red-flagged after two separate first-lap incidents, including one multi-car wreck.

By the end of the race, the Circuit de Monaco's unforgiving nature was there for all to see: only 12 of the 26 cars that began the race made it past the chequered flag. It is understood nobody was injured.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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