Byline: DAVID SMITH
THERE are growing fears that Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix could be marred by a serious accident caused by cars stalling on the starting grid.
Concerns have been mounting for the safety of the 22 drivers taking part in the seventh round of the world championship after four cars - the McLaren of title contender Mika Hakkinen, the Jordans of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli, and the Sauber of Nick Heidfeld - were left stranded at the start in Austria.
Three of the failures were attributed to problems with the new electronic 'launch control' systems which teams have been permitted to fit to their cars since the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona last month.
Launch control is at the forefront of the latest advances in Formula One technology. As the red lights go out to signal the start of a Grand Prix, special sensors enable the launch control system to limit time-wasting wheel-spin and operate the clutch.
All the driver has to do is slam his accelerator pedal to the floor and steer clear of other cars accelerating around him.
Unfortunately, the complicated electronics needed to operate launch control are so new that unreliability is now a major concern.
In Austria, there were some heart-stopping moments as drivers racing away from the start were forced to swerve suddenly to avoid ramming into the back of stationary rivals.
"It was like sitting in an armchair in the middle lane of a motorway with your back to the traffic," said an alarmed Frentzen.
Fortunately, the pit straight in Austria was sufficiently wide to enable cars to take evasive action. What wor-
ries Frentzen's team-mate, Trulli, is that the startline in Monaco is considerably narrower and on a curve, so that drivers starting at the back of the grid are unable to see if the car sitting on pole position has stalled.
"It is going to be very dangerous if anyone stalls on the grid," said the Italian. "Austria was the first time I have ever stalled on the grid and I was not comfortable sitting there like that."
Patrick Head, the technical chief of Williams, gave a graphic description of what could happen on Sunday.
He said: "If a car stalls on the second row of the grid and several cars scatter to get round it, a car on the fifth row could be doing 100mph by the time its driver realises that he cannot stop in time to avoid the stationary machine in front of him."
A similar scenario claimed the life of Formula One driver Riccardo Paletti at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1982.
The Ferrari of Didier Pironi, which had stalled at the front of the grid as a result of an unusually long wait for the signal to start the race, was rammed into at 115mph by Paletti's rapidly accelerating Osella, causing the young Italian to sustain fatal injuries.
It is understood that Max Mosley, president of motor sport's governing body FIA, has advised teams to switch off their launch control systems if they are worried about reliability.
The dilemma facing the FIA is they cannot enforce a total ban on safety grounds because it has proved impossible to check that teams are not using illegal electronics in the quest for a race-winning advantage.