When Roland Ratzenberger crashed brutally during qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, Formula One was forced to face mortality for the first time in eight years, but the death the following day of Ayrton Senna cast a shadow over Ratzenberger’s tragedy.
Twenty years on, Ratzenberger’s memory breathes, as does his legacy. Leigh O’Gorman spoke to the drivers who raced against and knew him, as they remember Roland Ratzenberger – Formula One’s forgotten man.
“It is hard to describe.” Considering for a moment, the words of Mika Salo – a former Ferrari Formula One driver – stumble for a moment. “He was a nice guy; he wanted to have a lot of fun. He was very passionate about racing for most of his life – anything to just to be racing.”
An early Saturday afternoon during the second qualifying session of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and Ratzenberger is on it.
Behind the wheel of the Nick Wirth designed Simtek, the 33-year-old pitched his Ford-powered machine through Imola’s historic sweeps – too hard in fact. A mistake on his previous lap, rendered Ratzenberger’s front wing weakened and subject to the extreme forces of gravity at high speed.
Robbed of turn in control, the Simtek ran straight on at the quick Villeneuve Corner at approximately 196 mph. Hitting the wall almost front on, Ratzenberger’s chassis absorbed the tremendous forces of the collision, with its occupant receiving what would quickly prove to be fatal injuries.
The following day, the face of the tragic Austrian filled the back pages of newspaper sport sections, only for his image to virtually disappear when Senna crashed during the race.
Roland Ratzenberger: a now distant figure lost during a horrific weekend of destruction.
Rise through the ranks
July 4th, 1960. The day after Sir Jack Brabham enjoyed his first of three French Grand Prix successes, Roland Ratzenberger was born in the Austria city of Salzburg.
In some areas shy and in others a boisterous, Ratzenberger’s early years almost seem unremarkable. His parents – Rudolf and Margrit – gave their son a relatively simple middle-class upbringing, within the confines of what could be best described as a standard civil service environment.
As years passed, the young Ratzenberger grew obsessed with motorsport and most things mechanised. His eagerness to toy with machinery and rising determination to compete led the young man to enter soapbox derbies and by his mid-teens, Ratzenberger had joined Salzburg’s kart racing club.
Come the early-1980s, he made his first foray into the sport in German Formula Ford; however his relatively modest background meant budgets remained tight. Meanwhile, Ratzenberger did his best to ensure interested parties remained so by knocking at least two years off of his age…
Occasional budgetary set backs did little to hold Ratzenberger and he finished as runner-up to Stefan Neuberger in the 1985 German Formula Ford 1600 series. A move to England to compete in the famed Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch came in 1985, yet unlike some of the monied entrants to the race, Ratzenberger’s appearance was rather more humble.
“Roland was probably the last driver that I can remember that would turn up in a transit van, with a trailer and a Formula Ford on the back,” notes three-time Grand Prix victor and former rival Johnny Herbert. “He would be the guy that would mechanic it, refuel it, start it up, warm it up, get kitted up, get in it and get out and race.”
A non-finish in 1985 did not deter the Salzburg man and he returned a year later to take the competition by the scruff of the neck. Herbert – who had by this stage moved to Formula 3 – remembers the race. “When I started, when Damon [Hill] started, Mark Blundell – we were all there. He won the Festival, which was a big thing at that time,” notes the 49-year-old. “He had that natural racing instinct […] and was very good at visualising what was going on.”
Japan and emerging versatility
Ratzenberger’s Formula Ford success failed to open the doors necessary for him to move up the ladder to Formula One. Slow progress in Formula 3 and touring cars hampered efforts, but a spell in the British F3000 championship was more promising; however opportunities were sluggish to emerge.
Now approaching 30, Ratzenberger decided to look east, specifically Japan, crossing over in 1989. During a break in his Formula One career, Herbert also moved to the Far East where he chanced upon his former rival. “I met up with him in Japan in 1990 and he was racing for Toyota,” remembers Herbert. “He was always their main man. He was in the SARD [team] and was bloody good at that, he was really competitive and really mighty in qualifying.”
“The first time that I came across [him] was when I did British F3000 and he was around,” recalls ex-racer Andrew Gilbert-Scott. As the 1990s dawned, Ratzenberger moved to Japan in an attempt to keep his career alive and was followed a year later by Gilbert-Scott, a graduate of Eddie Jordan’s racing stable. He continues, “It was a special kind of time. It was an attractive place to go, the prize money was good and you were a professional driver.”
Versatility being a virtue, both Ratzenberger and Gilbert-Scott competed in Japanese F3000, Touring Cars and the All-Japan Prototype Championship, with the pair becoming teammates at Stellar International Racing through 1992 and ’93. As Gilbert-Scott notes, “The touring cars were fun things to do and in Japan, the racing drivers tended to do quite a few categories – Roland was also doing Group C [prototypes] at that time with Toyota.”
Yet despite his moderate success, Ratzenberger’s supercharged motivation occasionally led to frustrations. “He had quite a fiery temper if things weren’t quite going his way; he could get upset quite quickly. Everything he did was kind of flat out. He wasn’t shy and was tremendously good value, but put him in a competitive situation and the fire would really rage.”
It was with the SARD Toyota team in 1993 that Ratzenberger achieved his biggest success when he, along with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka, won the C2 Class at Le Mans.
Finally Formula One and Simtek
Unexpectedly, Ratzenberger arrived in Formula One at the beginning of 1994 with the new Simtek squad, after securing a five-race stint on the back of $500,000 worth of sponsorship from live music agent Barbara Behlau.
However, according to his Simtek teammate and future sportscar legend David Brabham, all was not well. “It was pretty difficult for Simtek because the car that they had designed […] didn’t reach the expectations. Money was such a scarce thing, the team couldn’t develop, but both Roland and I got on with it.”
While Brabham was familiar with the team, Ratzenberger was not. The Austrian failed to qualify for the opener in Brazil and was off Brabham’s pace in Japan. “It took him a little while to get used to the car. It wasn’t until the day before his accident that I drove his car in practice and the team said ‘could you jump in the car and give us some feedback?’ I came in within three laps and said ‘the brakes are horrible, they just don’t work’, so they changed the brakes and then his pace picked up.”
At the third round at Imola, Ratzenberger was confident, but toward the halfway point of the second qualifying session, he ran hard over the kerbs at the Variante Bassa corner. Remembering the incident, Brabham notes, “When he went off, he didn’t come in. He did some zig-zags to check the tyres and the car and he went off to do another lap, but unfortunately he never came around again…”
Such was the force of Ratzenberger’s eventual crash at Villeneuve, that a hole was punched in the car. The Austrian was pronounced dead at Maggiore Hospital in Bologna a short while later – a victim of a basilar skull fracture – becoming Formula One’s first fatality since 1986.
Distraught, Simtek carried on and the next day, Brabham raced. “I had never dealt with a situation like that before. I remember sitting with the team and they said ‘if you want to race, it is entirely up to you’. It helped everybody focus on something; I just thought ‘I’ve got to race for the team’, because I felt it was the only way we were going to get through it.”
There is little doubt that Senna’s death the following altered motorsport forever, however Brabham insists that Ratzenberger’s fatality could also have forced changes. “There’s always something to take out of it. [Imola] changed the sport in many ways, particularly in terms of safety; not just for the cars, but also for drivers.”
In the ensuing grief, the loss of Senna was palpable, but for those inside motorsport, Ratzenberger’s death hit hard. Rather than dwell upon sorrow, Herbert and Salo look upon those days with some fondness.
“We had a lot of fun. He was very serious about racing, but we always had a lot of fun and we did a lot of things together,” says Salo. Herbert finishes: “He was a real, real gentleman. It’s nice having those memories about him, because he was a decent fun loving guy, who thoroughly enjoyed and was immersed in racing itself. Bless him.”