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Formula 1

Remembering Roland Ratzenberger - Formula 1's Forgotten Tragedy

Posted on May 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM

The first of May 2014 marked the 20-year anniversary of the death of three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna. He lost his life tragically at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. A day earlier during qualifying, rookie driver Roland Ratzenberger also lost his life tragically, however his death is often overshadowed by that of Senna’s.


Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1960, Ratzenberger began his racing career is 1983 in German Formula Ford. After his success in Formula Ford, he graduated to British Formula 3 and also raced in sports car and touring car championships. In 1994 at 33 years old, Ratzenberger achieved a lifelong dream when he finally secured a drive in Formula 1, joining David Brabham at the Simtek team. Ratzenberger was a pay driver, so instead of being paid by the team he acquired his own funding to ensure his drive in the first five races of the season. But he still needed 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 too many F1 team bosses being impressed by someone trying to demonstrate their driving skills in a Ford Fiesta hire car, but he terrified the life out of me!”


Ratzenberger’s Formula 1 race debut came at the 1994 season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix and was anti-climatic with the Austrian failing to qualify. Three weeks later at the Pacific Grand Prix in Japan he finished 11th; the last driver to finish in a race that saw fifteen retirements, including his teammate Brabham. It was not an ideal start to the rookie’s Formula 1 career, but the ever-smiling Ratzenberger was grateful for the opportunity and determined to make the most of it.


Competing in only his third Formula 1 Grand Prix at San Marino in Imola Italy, Ratzenberger went off track during the second qualifying session causing damage to his front wing. He was determined to secure the last spot on the grid and continued driving. As he exited the Tamburello corner, the same corner that would claim the life of Senna the next day, the wing broke off and lodged under his car and Ratzenberger slammed head-on into a concrete wall at the Villeneuve Curve at 314.9 kph.


Official race doctor, Professor Sid Watkins, and the medical team arrived at the accident scene to find Ratzenberger slumped at the wheel of his car. Fellow drivers looked on in shock as silence fell across the circuit and Senna rushed to the crash site. Despite the medical personnel’s best efforts, they could not resuscitate Ratzenberger and the 33-year-old was airlifted to the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna where he was pronounced dead on arrival.


Senna was deeply distressed by the Austrian’s death and, during the customary drivers’ briefing the next day, he led the reformation of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association which saw Senna join Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger as its first directors. The Association would go on to lobby 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 shattered car, marshals found the Austrian flag which Senna planned to unfurl after the race, in honour of Ratzenberger.


Senna’s funeral was broadcast to a television audience with an estimated three million mourners lining the streets of his hometown, while only four Formula 1 drivers attended Ratzenberger’s funeral. Then FIA President Max Mosley said “Ratzenberger’s death would have been a very big thing except Senna’s came the next day.” Mosley even made the decision to attend Ratzenberger’s funeral instead of Senna’s as he “felt somebody needed to support him and his family.” Close friend Johnny Herbert also attended along with fellow drivers 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 example decided not to go to either Ayrton or Roland’s funerals. I decided it was important to pay my respects to a guy I don’t think had a single enemy.”


Roland Ratzenberger may be the forgotten tragedy of that fateful weekend in Imola, but his lasting legacy is that his death put in motion changes that ultimately have made Formula 1 safer than ever. He can rest in peace knowing his death was not in vain.


Roland Ratzenberger

4 July 1960 – 30 April 1994

Rest in Peace


Categories: Formula 1 Features

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