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Trial opens over death of Ayrton Senna

February 20, 1997

IMOLA, Italy (AP) _ The trial stemming from the death of race car star Ayrton Senna opened Thursday in a case that could determine the future of auto racing in Italy.

Senna, the three-time Formula One champion, died of head injuries in 1994 when his car smashed into a concrete wall during the early laps of the San Marino Grand Prix.

This is the first time Formula One executive have been brought to trial in Europe for a racing accident. The governing body of auto racing could ban races in Italy if there are convictions.

On trial are Frank Williams, head of the vaunted Williams-Renault team for which Senna raced, team technical director Patrick Head, designer Adrian Newey, race organizer Federico Bendinelli, race director Roland Bruynseraede and circuit manager Giorgio Poggi.

Prosecutors contend a poorly welded steering column caused the crash. The column was shortened to allow Senna a better view of his instrument panel. The defense will argue the damage to the column was a consequence, not a cause, of the accident.

Bruynseraede, Bendinelli and Poggi were charged on the grounds there was not enough room for cars to stop at the corner of the track at which Senna crashed at close to 200 mph.

``The prosecutor’s theory that the track’s condition played a role in the Senna crash is absolutely groundless,″ Bendinelli said.

The defendants face up to five years in prison if convicted, but possible appeals could last years.

On Thursday, Bendinelli was the only defendant in the courtroom, which has been converted from a social club ballroom to accommodate the media. The opening day was marked by numerous procedural objections from the defense.

The defense challenged the investigative procedures of prosecutor Maurizio Passarini and argued that tests on the wrecked car should be thrown out because two defendants were not present during the appraisals.

Judge Antonio Costanzo put off arguments until the trial resumes Feb. 28. He said witnesses likely will testify April 24-29, when Formula One figures are present for the Grand Prix race in Imola on April 27.

The prosecutor said he planned to call as witnesses Damon Hill, the reigning world champion; Bernie Ecclestone, head of the Formula One constructors association; and Michael Schumacher, Ferrari’s No. 1 driver.

Hill, who was Senna’s teammate at Williams in 1994, told BBC radio he questions the wisdom of the trial.

``I’m obviously concerned, like everybody, that nobody at Williams is found to be responsible for the death of Ayrton Senna,″ he said.

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