Several race-related deaths force car racing authorities to look at speed and safety

FAST CARS and safety are a contradiction in terms, but the deaths of four Nascar drivers in less than a year, and of two marshals in Formula One in less than six months, have thrown the racing world into intense self-examination.

Nascar was long considered one of the safest forms of motor racing, while Formula One had lost only two drivers in nearly 20 years. Should the cars go slower? Should barriers surrounding the track better protect both spectators and competitors? Should drivers be required to wear head-harnesses? These and other questions hang in the air as Formula One prepares for the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang tomorrow.

Foremost on the sport's collective mind is the death of a track marshal at the Australian Grand Prix earlier this month. Graham Beveridge, 52, was struck in the chest by a wheel that flew loose after Jacques Villeneuve's BAR car crashed into the back of Ralf Schumacher's Williams.

Purists argue that while the dangers of automobile racing have always been obvious, the sport has gone through long periods without fatal accidents. And indeed, until the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994, Formula One had gone 12 years without a death. That weekend, Roland Ratzenberger, an Austrian driver, and Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian, were killed in separate collisions. Senna, like Dale Earnhardt, was his sport's biggest star.

After Senna's death, the International Automobile Federation (known as FIA), the sport's governing body, immediately imposed a series of safety regulations to slow the cars and make them structurally safer. The federation has continued its efforts annually since then. But times at the Australian Grand Prix this month were four seconds a lap quicker than those last year.

Max Mosley, president of the federation, said: "We don't want to jump the gun, but if Malaysia and Brazil were to confirm, as I fear, the results from Melbourne, the FIA must act quickly.

"Our principal concern is safety," he added this week when asked how FIA balanced safety against spectacle. "Whether Formula One is a spectacle or not is much more in the hands of the teams, the drivers and engineers."

But the teams can only work within the rules laid out by FIA, and these have often been criticised. The banning of slick tyres in 1998, for instance, drew fire from drivers, engineers and tyre manufacturers. Formula One tyres must have longitudinal grooves around them, four grooves on each tyre. Smooth, treadless tyres are used in just about every other form of asphalt track racing, including Nascar.

The idea was to slow the cars in cornering. But aside from offending purists, the tyres, according to Pierre Dupasquier of Michelin, simply do not do what they are supposed to, "neither on the dry nor on the wet" tracks.

One of the overriding questions is: Who really wants safe races, anyway? Villeneuve has been one of the drivers most critical of new safety rules, saying the sport has lost the appeal of danger. Mr Mosley said: "I do not believe death or injury have ever been part of the attraction of motor sport. It is significant that the number of spectators and the interest in Formula One is far greater now than in the days when it was really dangerous."

But some fans say danger is a key ingredient. "The most interesting races are the ones that take place on the most dangerous tracks: Spa, Monaco, Melbourne," said Laurent Joly, a fan. - NYT