When we think back to that darkest of weekends at Imola some twenty three years ago, we immediately mourn the loss of one of the finest Formula One drivers the world had ever seen. We remember the accident on Lap 7 of Ayrton Senna, understeering off the circuit and crashing heavily into the wall. We recall the sadness we felt, the loss of our hero, the despair of it all.
But twenty three years ago today during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix, Roland Ratzenberger lost control of his Simtek, crashed heavily and died. He’s often forgotten by many who reflect on that horrific weekend but today, we pause to remember the practical joker with the huge grin and effervescent personality, who was taken doing something that he loved.
Roland came to Formula One late in the game. He was 33 years of age when Nick Wirth and the Simtek Team gave him the chance to live his dream. Before arriving in Formula One, Ratzenberger’s resume was already overflowing with credentials. Wins at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, challenging the British Formula Three, and commanding drives in the 1987 British Touring Car Championship – where he scored a second place driving a BMW M3. He raced in Formula 3000, finishing third in the championship and then went onto race at Le Mans.
The 1990’s began with Roland racing in Japan, a country that adored his cheeky character and his trademark grin. He scored wins in the Japanese Sports Prototype series and even found time to drive in the Japanese Touring Cars. 1992 saw him return to the Formula 3000 category in Japan, and stay there until the end of the 1993 season.
1994 dawned with the fulfillment of a life long dream. A drive in Formula One. Roland and Nick Wirth signed a five race deal, partnering him with Australian driver David Brabham, son of triple world champion Sir Jack Brabham. The team, would be Simtek. A new team on the grid with big vision, but sadly not the budget to match. Roland would drive for the team for as long as he could fund his drive and he was desperately hoping that he would attract more sponsorship within the five races he could afford.
The season didn’t start well for Roland when the ’94 championship commenced at Interlagos in Brazil. Despite his best efforts, he failed to qualify the Simtek on his first outing. He fared better in the second round of the championship when the circus arrived at the Pacific Grand Prix, at Aida in Japan. Roland was lucky to have previous experience at this circuit from his Japanese racing days and managed to qualify for the race – and finish in 11th position.
Round three at Imola was another chance for Ratzenberger to show what he could do with the underpowered Simtek. The weekend began in horrific fashion, when Rubens Barrichello speared off the track, became airborne and crashed into the trackside catch fencing. Rubens was extremely lucky to walk away with a few bruises and a slight concussion. Ratzenberger and Brabham performed their normal Friday set up programme and spent the evening chatting with engineers about how they could claim the final two places on the grid, thoughts of Rubens weighing heavily on their minds.
Qualifying day. Roland had so far found it a challenge and was battling to secure the final place on the grid. The lap before his fatal accident, a small mistake saw him run wide, off circuit and damage the front wing of the car. But instead of coming into the pits for a new nosecone – or even an inspection – Roland knew that time was against him and another lap was needed. Roland powered his Simtek into top speed down the main straight, visualising his lap as he went. That final spot on the grid could be his if he could string the lap together like he knew he could.
It wasn’t to be. The high speed on the straight, coupled with the extreme downforce that was generated made the damaged front wing flex beyond capabilities. It snapped off and became wedged underneath the car. Roland could do nothing as the Simtek failed to make the Villeneuve corner and he slammed into the opposite wall at some 200 miles an hour. The Simtek exploded in a shower of carbon fibre and car parts and finally came to rest in the middle of the track, Roland’s lifeless body slumped inside of the broken monocoque. Medical aid was rushed to his assistance and once extricated, he was airlifted to hospital where it was announced that he had succumbed to his injuries. The cause of death was basilar skull fracture.
Ratzenberger was the first Formula One racing driver to lose his life at a grand prix weekend since the ’82 season, when Riccardo Paletti was tragically killed at the Canadian Grand Prix. Ratzenberger was also the first driver to die in a Formula One car since Elio de Angelis during testing in 1986. The period of mourning for Roland was short lived as the following day, lightning struck twice. Ayrton Senna da Silva left the track at high speed and died. It was the darkest of dark weekends for the sport.
Only four drivers attended the funeral of Ratzenberger. Herbert, Berger, Wendlinger and Frentzen paying their respects to the likeable but little known driver. In total, some 250 people were at the funeral as Roland Ratzenberger was laid to rest in Maxglan, Salzburg, Austria.
It’s a little known fact that the death of Roland Ratzenberger has one lasting legacy. During the drivers’ pre-race briefing, the remaining drivers agreed to reform the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. It was a unanimous decision with Senna, Berger and Schumacher elected to be the first directors. The GPDA – still in existence now – went on to push for advances in car and circuit safety in the wake of the weekend’s events and those that followed in 1994. Furthermore in 2003, the FIA passed into law the use of the HANS device, designed to prevent the type of injury suffered by Ratzenberger that led to his death.
Tomorrow, we will think about the loss of Ayrton and what he could have achieved had he still been here.
But today, I’m recalling the curly headed Austrian and that fateful day, where his dreams – and his life – were lost forever.