Williams appeared to accept responsibility for Rubens Barrichello’s accident in Monaco when Sam Michael explained in a team press statement on Monday that the Brazilian driver had suffered a suspension breakage.
“Rubens had a rear suspension failure,” said Michael. “We have a good idea which part is suspect, but to be completely sure, we need to await the results of materials tests back at the factory.”
The team hasn’t made the obvious suggestion – in public at least – that Rubens had touched a barrier. Sam confirmed to me by email this morning that in such instances the team has to take the view that there may be an engineering issue to address, unless it has clear proof that there was an outside issue, such as contact.
But could there have been another contributing factor? After the race I asked Tonio Liuzzi, who was right behind the Williams, what he had seen.
“I was behind Rubens,” said the Italian. “It was pretty weird. I saw already two times before he was going really close the left guardrail and there was something lifting from the ground, then once I saw this thing lifting completely and I saw Rubens flying into the wall. I thought he touched the left wall, this is what appeared to me.
“Something was lifting from the ground when a car was going that close to the left wall. He was always going really close to the left wall and there was this thing on the floor.”
Check out the onboard shot below for a view of what he saw. As was reported at the time, the race’s third safety car was caused by a loose drain cover, but that was located close to where the crashed Williams ended up, on the way to Casino Square. It was close to but not on the racing line, but FIA sources suspect a car may have run wide and pulled it a few centimetres clear of the track surface. It was removed, rather than replaced, under the safety car.
But was there another loose cover further down the hill towards Ste Devote? On Sunday night I told Patrick Head and Frank Williams what Tonio had observed, and on Monday before leaving Monaco I wandered down to the scene of the accident.
Sure enough, there was a drain cover – followed by a grill with alarmingly exposed sharp edges – pretty much where Liuzzi had suggested. Although on foot it’s hard to ascertain exactly where the racing line goes through that section, it certainly seemed possible that it could be run over by someone shaving the barriers.
Despite showing signs of once being welded shut, as is normal practice for street races, the cover was loose and could be picked up. If it did get sucked up by the Williams, it would be easy to imagine it causing a puncture or rim failure. Whether it could also have somehow triggered the sort of suspension breakage that the team has apparently detected is harder to judge.
The FIA knows nothing about a problem with a drain cover in that area during the race, and admittedly it seems unlikely that it could have popped up and sent a car into the wall and dropped neatly back into place without any marshals seeing it.
It’s possible that it could have been replaced while the Rubens wreck was being cleared up, but if a marshal did observe a problem, the message didn’t get through to race control. The fact that an issue was later reported just a few hundred feet further up the road seems to be something of a bizarre co-incidence. Unless the Monagasque workman who did the pre-race welding on that hill was having a bad day! Having said that my FIA source says that the superb Monaco marshals do check things like drain and manhole covers every morning.
After reading an earlier version of this story, Williams has asked for Liuzzi and Barrichello on-board footage from FOM. Even if the team concludes that there was no link, it is nevertheless worrying that the cover could have worked loose. And it seems highly unlikely that it could have been deliberately unsealed by the authorities by 10am on Monday, which is when I saw it.
And one little aside on another piece of very expensive debris. Karun Chandhok quite literally collected the Barrichello steering wheel, because it remained under his HRT until falling off at the exit of the tunnel, which must have given the marshal who saw it and picked it up quite a fright. Especially when the car it fell off carried on…