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On This Day: The forgotten man - Roland Ratzenberger // Paying tribute to the fallen at San Marino, 1994

Published by Leigh O'Gorman

The Class of '94. Roland Ratzenberger stands on the back row beside David Brabham.
The Class of '94. Roland Ratzenberger stands on the back row beside David Brabham.Credit: Williams F1

When Roland Ratzenberger hit the wall at Villeneuve corner at Imola on April 30th 1994, Formula 1 was left to face its first competitive fatality since Ricardo Paletti at Montreal twelve years earlier. The sudden brutality of the accident fractured the base of Ratzenberger’s skull and sent shockwaves through an already nervous sport – Rubens Barrichello having crashed heavily the previous day at Variante Bassa, knocking him unconscious and breaking his nose.

The Austrian driver was taking his Nick Wirth designed Simtek machine out for a qualifying run, when he ran over a kerb hard during his warm-up lap, damaging the mountings of his front wing in the process. Travelling at approximately 190 mph, Ratzenberger’s front wing came apart approaching the corner, depriving the Simtek of all front-end downforce and with a sickening thud, hit the concrete wall head on.

Hollywood would desperately like to tell us that these large accidents happen in slow motion and that soft music rings in the background, dispersing the severe energy of the crash and the mangled machine as it falls gently, caressing the ground below.

Real life is not so unassuming. There was only ferocity, destruction and then the torn remains. It took a few seconds – it was all that was needed and no one should ever be reminded of the cold feeling when the car slid to a halt at the base of Tosa; the carbon-fibre tub buckled and the chassis compromised.

Born on the fourth of July

On July 4th 1960, the United States celebrated Independence Day and had just added the Hawaiian star to the national flag, confirming the presence of a 50th state; while thousands of miles away in the city of Salzburg Austria, Roland Ratzenberger was born.

Ratzenberger was a relatively late starter in motor racing and was only getting his stride in his early-mid twenties when he himself in German Formula Ford in 1983. Fearing that his age could potentially get in his way, Ratzenberger would often inform teams that he was two years younger than he actually was, to make him more attractive to owners and sponsors alike and it was a tactic that worked fairly often. With forays into Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships, he built himself a reputation as a likeable and hard working; if not the most formidable challenger in a given field.

With a couple of years racing behind him, Ratzenberger decided this was the best opportunity to enter the famous Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. The Austrian only needed two attempts to take a win at the race - claiming second at his first attempt and then winning in 1986 and it was enough to see Ratzenberger move up to British Formula 3.

Ratzenberger would become a popular figure during his brief time in Formula 3, as the Austrian gained minor fame when his children’s TV namesake Roland Rat invited the driver onto TV-am for a guest appearance.

It was not enough to push the Austrian on and two years in the Formula 3 Championship only brought rewards of a pair of 12th places overall. Roland would then spend the next few years, moving between British Formula 3000, the World Touring Car Championships and the British Touring Car Championships. As his thirtieth birthday approach, Ratzenberger’s Formula 1 dream was all but extinct.

Even though he was thousands of miles away, Roland was keeping himself in the European frame

When the 1990's started, it seemed as if Ratzenberger had nicely settled into a career of sportscar racing. Five attempts at the Le Mans 24 Hour Race had resulted in a best finish of fifth overall for SARD Racing in their Toyota 93 C-V, while also tackling the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship for the same squad. His stints in the Far East would see Ratzenberger join Formula Nippon for the 1992-93 seasons, finishing 7th and 11th respectively and picking up a pole position and a victory at Suzuka in the process. However, where some drivers would disappear completely in the motor racing minefield that is Japan, Ratzenberger occasionally “asked” journalists to ensure stories of his eastern exploits would make motorsports news back in Europe – even though he was thousands of miles away, Roland was keeping himself in the European frame.

The 33-year-old was signed by Simtek Racing in a five race deal to compete in the 1994 Formula 1 World Championship – against all odds, the Austrian had achieved his dream; however it did not have a good beginning. The Simtek S941 arrived very late, having to be completely reworked once active suspension was banned at the end of the 1993 season, leaving Wirth to produce a fairly basic and overweight car twinned with a Ford engine that was low on power. Come the first race of the season, Ratzenberger failed to qualify.

As the Grand Prix circus ventured to Aida for the second race of the year, Ratzenberger excelled at a circuit he knew well from his Formula Nippon days. The Austrian would line up last on the grid, some 1.8 seconds slower than his teammate David Brabham, but would bring the car home in 11th place, albeit some five laps down on eventual race winner, Michael Schumacher. Then there was Imola.

Imola

The following day, a sport still in shock due to Ratzenberger’s violent crash, would be badly rocked by the death of one of the most respected and finest names in the history of motor racing, Ayrton Senna. Add to that, a horrific start-line crash between JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy that resulted in a dozen spectators being hurt by debris and a flying wheel and an accident in the pitlane involving Michele Alboreto’s Minardi that injured several mechanics all served to cast Ratzenberger’s crash further and further into the background. Sadly, many that think of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix often do not remember that Roland Ratzenberger too paid the ultimate price.

Things would not get better in Formula 1 – an accident at Monaco two weeks later left Karl Wendlinger in a coma and a few days later, Lamy would break both legs and an arm at a testing crash at Silverstone. At Barcelona, just over a week later, Ratzenberger’s replacement at Simtek – Andrea Montermini – would also suffer a violent crash, injuring his feet; initially there were greater worries as the nose box was wiped off the front of the car, leaving Montermini’s feet dangling limply from the car. Following this spate of accidents, Formula 1 would return to some level of normality.

The 1994 Formula 1 season has gone down in history as one of the most exciting, yet tragic in the history of the sport

The 1994 Formula 1 season has gone down in history as one of the most exciting, yet tragic in the history of the sport, but Roland would not live to see it. The rest of the year was filled with brilliant drives, controversies and fantastic developments. Nigel Mansell would make a historic return from Indycar and David Coulthard would emerge from his reserve driver role – both would drive in Senna’s place at various points in the season.

At Simtek, money continued to be tight and the heavily damaged chassis’ would only increase the cost and the pressure on the owners of the fledgling squad. Following Montermini’s brief drive for the team, Simtek propped up their second seat with drives from Jean-Marc Gounon, Domenico Schiattarella and the woeful Taki Inoue. By the middle of the 1995 season, Simtek had disappeared from Formula 1.

Quiet and unassuming

On a personal level, I always knew racing could be dangerous, but Ratzenberger’s crash was the first fatality I had ever seen. Neither I nor anyone else expected the next one to be so soon. The following morning, Roland’s face was everywhere – all the newspaper’s, television shows, magazines that had never mentioned or heard of him declared themselves experts over night and in typical fashion, he was cast aside following Senna’s fatal crash. Ratzenberger’s accident did have one lasting legacy though; the following morning Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Gerhart Berger reformed the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) with the aim of kick-starting the drive for safety in the sport.

At Monaco, the Austrian flag was placed alongside Senna’s Brazilian flag on the grid and the Simtek ran with a tribute on its airbox for the rest of the season. Ratzenberger was also due to compete at his sixth Le Mans 24 Hours that summer for Toyota, but his place was taken in the end by Formula Nippon compatriot Eddie Irvine; yet Roland’s name stayed firmly on the door of the car – it came home in second place.

Sometimes in a busy, high-content media driven world, it’s easy to forget that Roland wasn’t just a racing driver – he was a person. Quiet and unassuming, Ratzenberger was a modern gentleman driver, although he was not backed by hoards of cash and sponsorship. Partnerships with ATS tyres, Barbara Behlau and other small entities during his career pushed him along and he worked hard to achieve some fairly commendable results.

By all accounts, Roland was warm, enthusiastic, intelligent and immensely popular; he was more a person than a racing driver and was most definitely not a corporate body that compete in the series today. He had achieved his dream of getting to Formula 1 and was tragically killed before he could fully reap the rewards.

Roland would have been 50 today.




  • really, really well written post leigh. thank you.

  • really, really well written post leigh. thank you.

    Happy to oblige. Every one wrote something about Senna's 50th birthday a few months and I felt someone needed to write something for Roland.

  • Every one wrote something about Senna's 50th birthday a few months and I felt someone needed to write something for Roland.

    i had no idea, and it is a perfect piece.

  • i had no idea, and it is a perfect piece.

    Thanks.

    What I found odd when I was researching the finer details is how eerily similar Wirth's situation at Simtek was, compared to how he re-entered F1 with Virgin now - not forgetting Glock's rather scary front wing failure in testing in February.

  • The italic bit didn't become a sidebar thingy.

    Roland's death will not be forgotten. Many forget that it was Roland's death, not Ayrton's, that triggered the revival of the GPDA. Ayrton was the initial director, but he only had the role for less than a day.

  • The italic bit didn't become a sidebar thingy.

    This is for Mr/Mrs C when they see this. For editing. :)

  • This is for Mr/Mrs C when they see this. For editing. :)

    Ahhh... t'was confuzzled there for a moment

    :)

  • A very good story. This was the second season I followed F1, the first full season, so this was my first time seeing Imola, and I had missed some of the qualifying until then. First the news, and shots, of Barrichello, then watching that qualifying that killed Ratzenberger. It was a harsh lesson on just how dangerous my new-found hobby could be. So sad, but I had to know how the survivors managed after and kept watching.

    I found this a nice article about it as well, although I liked yours even better:

    sports.espn.go.co…/story?id=1787902

  • ...the Austrian gained minor fame when his Children’s TV namesake Roland Rat invited the driver onto TV-am for a guest appearance.

    Never knew that! That's odd but sort of fantastic, would love to see video of it. It may have been treated as a novelty by the showrunners, but can you imagine drivers in the lower Formulae getting that sort of exposure nowadays?

    I've got a copy of the Daily Mirror from May 2nd, 1994 upstairs; just had a flick through and, while such a tabloid isn't exactly an admirable news source, Ratzenberger's death is only referred to in a small paragraph followed by a similar sized one on Barrichello's Friday crash. He's reduced to a footnote and that really does add another element to his tragedy.

  • Before Max banned the practise in those days it was common for the winning driver to stop on the track after a race and be given his national flag which he would wwave on his lap back to the pits. When Senna was removed from his car after his accident an Austrian flag was found in the cockpit. It was clear he planned to wave it from his cockpit after the race. Senna may have been hard as nails on the track but he was also a thoughtful man.

    It is incredible how often a lesser known driver's accident is forgotten because a bigger name had one around the same time. Ricarfo Paletti is mentioned in the post but his death is generally ignored because it closely followed Gilles Villeneuve's. He hit the back of Didier Pironi's stalled Ferrari at Montreal. Pironi had been at the front of the grid and Paletti at the back so by the time he crashed he was travelling at over 150mph with all the cars in front dodging round the stranded Ferrari he was unsighted and crashed. Pironi himslef was involved in a huge accident that trashed his legs at Hockenheim so Paletti tends to be forgotten.

    Recently we have seen the same thing with Felipe Massa and Henry Surtees. In years to come Massa's accident will be remembered and discussed and Henry's will be largely forgotten and only occasionally remembered because of his famous father.

  • Really excellent piece, brought back a lot of memories and emotions.

    I remember the weekend well, at least I thought I did until you mentioned all the other details and injuries that happened, and the subsequent accidents in following weeks. Memory is indeed selective!

  • A brilliant piece, very well written and so respectable to Roland. Thank you.

    Although I was only 14 at the time, Roland's death really struck me. I pinned the article from that evening's newspaper on my bedroom wall, above my bed. The article was obviously rushed, and details were scarce but I'll always remember the tiny black & white picture above it. Poor Roland. Watching the race the next day, I was shook the instant Ayrton went into the wall. I just had this terrible feeling. I watched the aftermath for as long as I could but I couldn't hang around for the restart or indeed the news, as I was crewing in a local dinghy regatta that afternoon. Needless to say, I was very quiet on the water and I just knew it was going to be bad. I can understand how Roland's death was overshadowed, F1 had just lost one of its greatest heros, but it was Roland's death that really got to me. It was my first experience of death in sport. I'll never forget that weekend. I'm so glad safety in motor racing has improved so much, I just wish motorcycle road racing would learn from this. Only two days ago did another rider give his life for his sport in my local road race, the Skerries 100. RIP to all the fallen, may your deaths not be in vain. Thanks again for such an emotive piece.

  • Hi Joeymac,

    No problem - I know what you mean regarding the motor cycle road racing. This years TT had another few knocks and there have been fatalities amongst friends of the family in recent years. It's always shocking.

  • Thanks Leigh, this was a really good post. Nice to see Roland get some attention.

  • Great article.

    Should do the man proud.

    Its a shame his death was overshadowed by Senna's but you can see how it happened.

  • I came looking for something to remember Roland Ratzenberger by, and this piece came up first. Thank you for leaving this very moving and well judged piece here

    Rest in peace, Roland - you are not forgotten.

  • I had the pleasure (indeed it was a pleasure) meeting with Roland towards the end of 1986 when I discussed with him driving F3 in the German Championship. We had just finished a fairly successful year with Bernd Schneider and already signed Frank Biela for the next season. Roland had support from Rick Gorne and my team was, due to the fact that Cees van de Grint was in charge of engineering, so much so that Reynard Racing Cars was able to grab a nice piece of the market.

    Roland made it immediately clear that he wanted to drive in the British F3 Championship and we left it that if he wouldn’t be able to find a drive that we would talk again. Some month later he rung and explained his situation with the words “I’m going to sign a deal I don’t want to do”. The only other driver I have had dealings with and who had a similar attitude was Gilles de Ferran.

    So Roland signed with Robert Synge’s team and what a lousy he had. It was best illustrated by the Christmas card he mailed that had a cartoon like picture of his F3 entering a corner on fire, referring to an incident that happened to him that season.

    We incidentally met again at Laguna Seca towards the end of 1994 when he raced in Japan. During CART qualifying we walked about half the track watching the proceedings. Clearly we had the same objective, namely racing the following year in the US. I can still exactly remember the spot where we stood (the downhill area halfway the Corkscrew and the 90 degree left hand corner leading towards the start/finish) when he told me he was working on an F1 deal.

    I was somewhat gobsmacked as I had not expected that. But I suppose that’s the way Roland was if he trusted someone. We left it at that and I promised to take him out for dinner in London when he had time. That dinner regrettably never took place. The next thing I saw of him was on TV that fatal Saturday afternoon.

    Your words were extremely well chosen. He was not just a racing driver – he was a person. And ago one at that. And totally straight in his business dealing. Surely most who met him will remember Roland fondly. Let’s wish his family well on this bitter day.

    Jerome van der Ploeg

  • Hi Jerome

    Thanks for that - a wonderful insight about Roland.

  • Thanks for that - a wonderful insight about Roland.

    I agree, Leigh. What would have been if Roland decided to follow his gut and sign with you... Thank you, Jerome.

  • Jerome, thanks so much for sharing.

  • Just finished watching the Senna film so it was nice to find this well written piece about the forgotten driver.

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