May 3, 2014
May 1, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna. He tragically lost his life at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. A day earlier during qualifying, rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger also tragically lost his life, however his death is often overshadowed by Senna’s.
Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1960, Ratzenberger began his sports career in 1983 in German Formula Ford. Following his success in Formula Ford, he graduated from British Formula 3 and also competed in sports car and touring car championships. In 1994, at age 33, Ratzenberger achieved a lifelong dream when he finally landed a unit in Formula 1, joining David Brabham on the Simtek team. Ratzenberger was a paid driver, so instead of being paid by the team, he bought his own funds to ensure his driving in the first five races of the season. But he had yet to convince Simtek team owner and technical director Nick Wirth of his abilities which, as Wirth reflected, Ratzenberger did in a unique way:
“I can’t imagine many F1 team bosses being impressed by someone trying to show off their driving skills in a Ford Fiesta rental car, but it terrified me!”
Ratzenberger’s debut in the Formula 1 race came at the opening Brazilian Grand Prix of the 1994 season and was anti-climatic, as the Austrian did not qualify. Three weeks later, at the Japanese Pacific Grand Prix, he finished 11th; the last driver to finish in a race that saw fifteen retirements, including his teammate Brabham. It wasn’t an ideal start to a Formula 1 rookie career, but the ever-smiling Ratzenberger was grateful for the opportunity and determined to make the most of it.
In his third Formula 1 Grand Prix at San Marino in Imola, Italy, Ratzenberger went off the track during the second qualifying session causing damage to his front wing. He was determined to secure last place on the grid and continued driving. As he exited the corner of Tamburello, the same corner that would claim Senna’s life the next day, the wing broke off and lodged under his car and Ratzenberger crashed head-on into a concrete wall at the Villeneuve curve at 314 , 9 kilometers per hour.
The official race doctor, Professor Sid Watkins, and the medical team arrived at the crash site and found Ratzenberger slumped behind the wheel of his car. The fellow drivers looked on in shock as silence fell on the circuit and Senna rushed to the crash site. Despite the best efforts of the medical staff, they were unable to resuscitate Ratzenberger and the 33-year-old was airlifted to Maggiore Hospital in Bologna, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.
Senna was deeply shocked by the Austrian’s death and, during the usual drivers briefing the next day, led the reform of the Grand Prix Drivers Association which saw Senna join Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger as its first directors. The Association would continue to push for improved safety in Formula 1 after the events in Imola.
Sadly, Formula 1 would lose another driver 24 hours later when Senna crashed into an unprotected concrete barrier. In the cockpit of his wrecked car, deputies found the Austrian flag Senna planned to display after the race, in honor of Ratzenberger.
Senna’s funeral was broadcast to a television audience with roughly three million mourners on the streets of his hometown, while only four Formula 1 drivers attended Ratzenberger’s funeral. Then FIA President Max Mosley said that “Ratzenberger’s death would have been something very important, except that Senna’s happened the next day.” Mosley even made the decision to attend Ratzenberger’s funeral instead of Senna’s because “he felt that someone needed to support him and his family.” His close friend Johnny Herbert also attended along with fellow MCs Gerhard Berger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger, but Herbert understood that “no one really knew him, but people also had different ways of dealing with things. Eddie Irvine, for For example, he decided not to go to either Ayrton’s or Roland’s funerals. I decided it was important to pay my respects to a guy who I don’t think had a single enemy. “
Roland Ratzenberger may be the forgotten tragedy of that fateful weekend at Imola, but his enduring legacy is that his death set in motion changes that have ultimately made Formula 1 safer than ever. You can rest in peace knowing that his death was not in vain.
July 4, 1960 – April 30, 1994
Rest in peace