For an updated version with contributions from David Brabham, Johnny Herbert, Mika Salo and Andrew Gilbert-Scott, check out ‘Remembering Roland‘
(April 30th, 2014)
When Roland Ratzenberger hit the wall at Villeneuve corner at Imola on April 30th 1994, Formula 1 was left face to face with its first competitive fatality since Ricardo Paletti at Montreal nearly twelve years earlier.
The sudden brutality of the accident fractured the base of Ratzenberger’s skull, sending shockwaves through an already nervous sport.
Only the previous day, the then inexperienced Rubens Barrichello crashed heavily 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 following the exit of Tamburello while on the approach into Villeneuve, depriving the Simtek of all front-end downforce. With sickening thud, Ratzenberger had careered off the track and 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 as 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 just a few seconds, but it was all that was needed to buckle the carbon-fibre tub, rendering the chassis compromised… And then a cold nothing feeling as the car slid to a halt at the base of Tosa.
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 twenties, when he found 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.
Forays into Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships allowed the keen Austrian to build a reputation as a competent, likeable and hard working driver; if not necessarily the most formidable challenger in a given field.
With a couple of years racing behind him, Ratzenberger decided to enter the famous Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. Instantly hooking up with the circuit, the Austrian only needed two attempts to take a win at the race – claiming second at his first attempt and then winning in 1986. 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, even gaining minor fame when his Children’s TV near-namesake Roland Rat invited the driver onto TV-am for a guest appearance.
On track results were proving harder to come by 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.
When the 1990s 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 disappeared in the motor racing minefield that is Japan, Ratzenberger occasionally “asked” journalists to ensure stories of his eastern exploits would make motorsport news back in Europe. Despite being thousands of miles away, Roland was still busy keeping himself in the European frame.
Eventually, the then 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 the relationship with the sport’s top tier did not have the most rewarding of starts.
The Simtek S941 arrived very late, having to be completely reworked following the late ban of active suspension at the end of 1993, leaving designer Nick Wirth to hastily 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. And then Imola…
On Sunday May 1st 1994, a sport still in shock due to Ratzenberger’s violent crash would be badly rocked by the death of one of the most respected ans 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 sadly cast Ratzenberger’s accident further and further into the background.
Things would not get better Formula 1 – an accident at Monaco two weeks later left Karl Wendlinger in a coma and a few days later, Pedro 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 left foot, although there were greater worries initially as the nose box of the Simtek had been virtually wiped off the front of the car, leaving Montermini’s feet dangling limply from the car
Following this spate of horrific accidents, Formula 1 would return to some level of normality at the Canadian Grand Prix.
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 CART and David Coulthard would emerge from his reserve driver role to star at William – both would drive in Senna’s place at various points in the season.
For 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 over-funded and under-talented pilots such as Jean-Marc Gounon, Domenico Schiattarella and the woeful Taki Inoue. By the middle of the 1995 season, Simtek had disappeared from Formula 1.
On a personal level, I have always known that motor racing could be dangerous, but Ratzenberger’s crash was the first time motorsport’s cruellest hand had been played before my eyes.
No one else expected the next death to be so soon. The following morning, Roland’s face was everywhere – the newspapers, television shows, magazines that had never mentioned or heard of him declared themselves experts over night and in typical fashion, his memory was quickly tossed aside following Senna’s fatal crash.
Ratzenberger’s accident did have one lasting legacy – the next 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.
Ratzenberger was a modern gentleman driver, although not one 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 quiet, warm, enthusiastic, intelligent and immensely popular; definitely not one of the corporate bodies 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.