May 1st 1994 will forever be remembered for the untimely death of Ayrton Senna at the Imola race track. That weekend was also marked by that Friday’s near fatal accident of Rubens Barrichello. Then in Saturday qualifying came the death of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger – the first F1 weekend death for 12 years.
Although Roland’s name is synonymous with the trio of events culminating with the death of the sport’s most talismanic driver, his racing and F1 achievements are otherwise largely forgotten.
Thousands attended Senna’s funeral – the world watched as a nation mourned. The day after, on May 6th 1994, a mere 250 attended the service for Roland Ratzenberger before his cremation. From the F1 world, FIA President Max Mosley attended and was condemned by many as he had therefore been unable to attend Senna’s funeral. Also in attendance for Ratzenberger were Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger along with Roland’s SARD Le Mans 24 hour RaceTeam.
So who was Roland Ratzenberger, the driver whose name is only remembered in the sport as his death was so close to Senna’s?
Niki Lauda said of him, ‘Roland Ratzenberger had a dream and in making it come true, he knew it meant taking risks.’
He was a F1 rookie, and the fateful Imola weekend that would claim his life was, unbelievably, only his 3rd Formula One race. However, the Austrian was an experienced racer, having been fighting to get into F1 and competing in junior and endurance formulae for some 11 years. His break with the new Simtek team in ’94, signed in March of that year, had been negotiated by the Monaco based sports manager Barbara Behlau.
For his all important F1 debut season, Roland only had funding for 5 races so was looking to impress to extend his contract. Mechanical problems at his first race in Interlagos had left him failing to qualify, but he had managed a respectable 11th at the Aida track in Japan. So, the pressure was on at Imola, a fact Roland was well aware of, often declaring himself younger than he actually was, to make himself more attractive to teams and potential sponsors.
Roland was born in Salzburg, Austria 4th July 1960 and began racing in 1983 (relatively late in age) in German Formula Ford. He was successful in this series in 1985 – and in other formulae as his career progressed. Like other drivers of this era, he was often competing in more than one series in the same year. Over the 11 years before entering F1, he had driven in British Formula 3, the WTC, F3, British Formula 3000, Le Mans 24 hours ( each year from 1990) and the Daytona 24 hours. He had relocated to Japan to compete in the Sports Prototype Championship and Japanese Touring Car Championship. However, he was determined to make it into F1.
It was while he was racing in Japanese Formula 3000 series that he became involved in racing safety issues. During a 1992 race at Fuji, he was first on the scene at a fellow competitor’s crash site. Anthony Reid’s impact was so forceful that it had ripped his crash helmet off. Ratzenberger was shocked and outraged at what he perceived to be the unhelpfulness of the race marshals. As a result, he paired up with a Japanese journalist to write a magazine article highlighting the deficiency of safety standards at the track.
In the UK he had become an unlikely popular media figure, due to the similarity of his name to a ‘cult’ TV puppet figure called ‘Roland Rat’. Almost inevitably, their names were linked and Ratzenberger showed his playful side and sense of humour playing along with the joke – even appearing with the puppet figure.
Although he has just competed in two F1 races before Imola, he was relatively well known from his years in the junior and endurance formulae. He was described as a cheerful and likeable figure in the paddock, and was starting to enjoy the trappings of his hard fought success. Just 48 hours before his death, he was proudly showing off his new Porsche road car to his family at the airport.
His death shocked the whole F1 community – coming just 24 hours after the intervention of Professor Sid Watkins saved Rubens Barrichello from swallowing his tongue, so saving his life, post accident. After Roland’s fatal crash, pit lane crews were described as ‘being a white as sheets’ with everyone being very emotional. Williams mechanics were hugging Jordan mechanics, as the F1 world absorbed the first on track driver death for 12 years, the first since Riccardo Paletti at Montreal in 1982. Within hours ‘RR’ pin badges and stickers arrived in the paddock.
The Simtek team ran the rest of the season with ‘For Roland’ on the air box. Eddie Irvine took his ’94 SARD Le Mans seat and drove with Roland’s name on the car out of respect.
As for the accident itself, it happened just yards from where the next day, Ayrton would have his fatal crash. In qualifying, Roland ran over the kerb at the Acque Minerali Chicane and it is believed the impact damaged his front wing. However, possibly due to the pressure to impress and maximise qualifying opportunities, Roland continued on another flying lap, but was unable to control the car at the Villeneuve curve when the front wing detached and went under the car. He hit the unyielding concrete barrier opposite the apex at some 200 mph.
The survival cell of his car was largely undamaged, but Roland had sustained a basal skull fracture with the force of the ‘head on’ impact. He was initially taken by ambulance to the circuit medical centre, then airlifted to the Maggiore hospital in Bologna and was later pronounced dead of multiple injuries. He had lethal injuries, including a ‘transection of the aorta and basal skull fracture’. These are typical crash injuries – it is not just the crash impact, but additionally the sudden deceleration that causes injuries to internal organs.A HANS device, made mandatory in F1 in 2003, would have significantly increased the chances of Roland’s survival.
This tragic weekend in 1994 led to huge changes in F1. Although much work had been undertaken in safety, the sport had arguably become complacent with no F1 driver deaths for 12 years. One serious accident and 2 deaths in one weekend certainly made the sport sit up and think. The Grand Prix Drivers Association, which had done so much to improve the sport’s safety in the 1970’s was reformed. Knee jerk reactions saw temporary chicanes installed in Montreal, Catalunya & even in the middle of Eau Rouge at Spa. Long-term solutions saw tyres being made thinner for use later that season, new tracks such as Bahrain were designed with significant run off areas – track layouts have changed significantly as a result – as have design of cars and equipment in order to protect drivers.
To date, there have been accidents, but no further F1 driver on track deaths since that 1994 weekend. Roland may not have have won the F1 races he dreamt of, but his name will be forever linked with the ethos of modern F1 ,and improving on track safety for future generations of drivers.