Rubens Barrichello, Jordan, Imola, 1994

Today in 1994: Barrichello survives horror crash as F1’s darkest weekend begins

1994 San Marino Grand Prix flashback: Friday

Rubens Barrichello, Jordan, Imola, 1994Twenty years ago today the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend opened at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, 40 miles north-west of the tiny republic which lent its name to Italy’s second round of the world championship.

As the fiercely partisan Italian crowd flocked to the stands, paddock intrigue was centred on their beloved Ferraris, following the discovery of an illegal traction control device on their cars at the Pacific Grand Prix two weeks earlier.

But F1’s latest political row was soon forgotten. What unfolded over the following days was one of the direst weekends in the sport’s history.

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend would forever be remembered for the deaths of two drivers from opposite ends of the grid: the little-known Austrian racer Roland Ratzenberger, who arrived at the track with a single race start to his name, and Brazil’s heroic three-times world champion Ayrton Senna.

Years of living dangerously

Taken in isolation, each of the five serious crashes which occurred during the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix were serious enough to force the sport to re-evaluate its safety measures. But the two fatalities deeply shocked a generation of F1 fans who had grown used to seeing drivers survive ferocious accidents.

And it was the death of Senna which shook the sport to its very foundations. On live television, minutes after an explosive start-line crash, the sport’s most famous driver was fatally injured in an accident which appeared to be no worse than similar incidents which some of his fellow drivers had survived.

Until the deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna, the possibility a driver might be killed at the wheel of a Formula One car had come to seem very unlikely. Over a decade had passed since a driver last perished at a race weekend.

Heavy frontal impacts claimed the lives of Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti in 1982. Since then cars had been redesigned to better withstand such crashes.

Elio de Angelis died in an accident four years later, but the cause pointed to shortcomings in safety standards at tests. Much the same could be said of the circumstances in which Philippe Streiff was left paralysed after a testing crash at Rio de Janeiro in 1989.

Meanwhile other drivers had survived accidents of appalling ferocity. Not long after Streiff’s accident an inferno consumed Gerhard Berger’s car at Imola, but the marshals swiftly doused the flames and he was back racing within a few weeks.

The rapid attention of Professor Sid Watkins saved Martin Donnelly’s life after a horrendous crash at Jerez in 1990. Senna, who was becoming increasingly preoccupied with safety matters, made an appearance at the scene of the accident where Donnelly had been thrown from his car, still attached to his seat.

Two years later, when Erik Comas hit the barriers hard at Blanchimont in Spa, Senna was one of the first drivers to arrive. He parked up and ran to the scene to tend to Comas, who had been knocked unconscious by his front-right wheel, and switch off his engine as a safety precaution.

Spa was the scene of another crash a year later. Alessandro Zanardi’s Lotus hammered into the Armco barrier at Eau Rouge when his active suspension failed. It was seemingly another indication that F1 cars were tough enough to protect their drivers in the most extreme of accidents.

At the beginning of 1994 two drivers from the top three teams suffered crashes which injured them badly enough to keep them from racing.

Benetton’s JJ Lehto was making his return to racing at Imola after injuring his neck in a testing accident. Meanwhile at Ferrari Jean Alesi was absent from his second race in a row after also sustaining a neck injury.

If these accidents had been taken as signs F1 cars could withstand anything, that illusion was about to be shattered. But before that, the sport was about to get one more warning.


Rubens Barrichello could scarcely have been more pleased with how the 1994 season had started. His fourth place at home in Brazil earned Jordan as many points as they managed during the whole of 1993.

The next time out in Japan he went one better, earning his – and Jordan’s – first ever podium finish in F1. Barrichello held the upper hand over team mate Eddie Irvine too, who had taken himself out of contention by collecting a controversial three-race ban at the opening round.

So it was a beaming Barrichello, full of confidence, who set out on the Imola circuit during the first of two qualifying sessions on Friday. The Jordan 194 felt good underneath him, so much so that heading into the Variante Bassa on his second lap he was travelling 15kph faster than he had the lap before.

The car got off-line and hit a steep kerb. Acting like a ramp, it flung the Jordan shoulder-high. Instinctively, Barrichello raised both hands to cover his face as the car struck the top of a tyre barrier.

From cornering at 223kph the car decelerated with violent force, then hit the ground with its nose and rolled over, coming to a rest on its side. On the pit wall a horrified Eddie Jordan feared his driver had been killed.

Marshals sprinted to the scene and within moments had turned the car the right way up. Barrichello’s head slammed alarmingly against the cockpit side as they did, and concerns for his condition worsened further as it became apparent the right-hand side of the car had been heavily damaged.

Sid Watkins and the medical team arrived on the scene shortly afterwards. They found Barrichello unconscious and struggling to breathe due to blood flowing from a cut on his face. Watkins swiftly inserted an airway and as Barrichello was recovered to the circuit’s medical centre his condition was visibly improving.

The session having been red-flagged, Eddie Jordan arrived at the medical centre to find Senna already at the side of his recovering countryman. As qualifying resumed Senna returned to his Williams garage, pursued by a flock of reporters.

“He’s alright,” said Senna, the first person Barrichello saw after he regained consciousness. “He is shocked of course, but he is alright.”

The sense of shock lingered. Endless slow-motion replays revealed how close Barrichello’s Jordan had come to clearing the tyre wall and reaching the fence which separated the track from the crowd.

The session restarted after a 20-minute delay, and a semblance of normality returned. With Barrichello out for the rest of the weekend that left Jordan represented only by Andrea de Cesaris, who had taken over from Aguri Suzuki as Irvine’s stand-in.

Under the circumstances his team could be forgiven for the lapse which sent him out of the pits with his right-rear wheel loose – it worked free halfway around the lap and bounced down the track.

Barrichello wasn’t the only driver to crash his car at the Variante Bassa that day. Towards the end of the session Olivier Beretta spun backwards into the wall, damaging his Larrousse, but climbed out unhurt.

They were the lucky ones on a weekend where fortune spared few drivers.

This feature continues tomorrow.

Image © Williams/LAT

50 comments on “Today in 1994: Barrichello survives horror crash as F1’s darkest weekend begins”

  1. The more I read and see regarding the crashes in the very late 80s and early 90s, the more I am shocked at what was allowed to build up, in terms of a cavalier attitude to safety. So many of the crashes were horrifying to watch (the most similar in recent times was probably Kubica in Canada) and you genuinely feared for the driver’s life. In some cases, like Donnelly’s accident, you just feared the worst. Someone was watching him that day.

    1. In fairness, I think it is only in hindsight that they seemed cavalier about safety in the late 80’s amd early 90’s. I think they had come a long way from the 60’s and 70’s so took some comfort in that. Fatalities had gone from common to rare by the early 90’s. And that was with much faster cars.

      1. @robbie there was an element of complacency though as @jh1806 rightly points out. It had been years sense there had been a death in the sport, and in the years between there were few if any changes to improve safety.

        If you read the blogs of Gary Hartstein, the former F1 doctor, medical delegate, and Sid Watkins’ protege, you’ll be concerned for the future safety of race car drivers in all series. Those currently in charge of furthering the cause of medicine in motorsport at the FIA have no qualifications to do so, they are crony political appointments. It seems very little has been done in recent years to further the cause of safety in the sport despite the fact that we’ve seen some very close calls many times.

        1. Hmm…I thought that huge runoff areas, and ever stringent crash test thresholds were keeping the drivers safer than ever. We’ve seen some horrific looking accidents, but in terms of actual injury I don’t think there have been that many close calls. Massa’s was debris hitting his helmet which would only have been prevented with enclosed cockpits. They had a concern about high noses being at driver level, and now the noses are lower, although as Newey points out low noses can get under a car and lift it up. At some point we have to understand that racing can never be made entirely safe. Safer…sure…but not safe.

    2. I remember a series from History channel I guess, reporting F1’s first decades it was “war-zone” in the first few years and decades later the situation improved but not to a satisfactory level. It was until 1994 that safety really became a major issue and like Mosley said few days ago, safety is Senna’s ultimate legacy.

  2. I was about to chide the author for the title, but I luckily decided to check wikipedia before posting.

    I didn’t know it, but the 1994 San Marino GP was actually one of only two GP weekends to suffer double fatalities. The other being the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix. While there were many fatalities throughout the 60’s and 70’s none were on the same weekend/

    It boggles the mind with the significant advances in safety made into the 1990’s (seat belts + helmets in particular) that there simply weren’t more multiple fatalities.

    1. Fuel fires were a big risk in the 60s, 70s and 80s. After Berger’s crash at Imola when his car caught fire the safety people got a grip on fuel issues with the fuel Kevlar bladder inside the tank. I don’t think there has been a fuel fire since in F1. Only in the re-fuelling rigs during the in-race refuelling days.

      1. One of the main reasons to ban turbos according to Bernie was the risk of fire due to hot turbo engine components. On some ocasions he related fatal consequences of Ellio DeAngelis’ crash to the very same reason. But, if you have a chance to see exploaded drawing of Ferrari 639 or 640 ( one of my favorites cars though ) you’ll see exhaust piping next to the fuel bladder. Bernie never said anything about that, even after the Imola fiery crash. After that accident I was 100% sure that in turbo ban Ferraris politics played major role. That’s why I’ll never respect them, in spite of all their success, before and after it. Turbo ban was bad for the sport and automotive industry. It had no positives regarding safety whatsoever. In my opinion it was an interlude to steps taken by FIA in 1993 ( remember Canadian GP ?) with the disastrous consequences reaching its peak at Imola 1994.

  3. Another great feature, though we all know how it’s going to end. But sometimes I like to think that this so-called “blackest weekend” saved many lives in these almost 20 years. I’m sure Katayama, Hakkinen, Brundle, Panis, both Schumachers, Kubica and many more would’ve died from their respective huge shunts had the events of Imola not happened. We owe Ayrton and Ronald and all who suffered during that race more than what we think.

    1. @carlitox
      I think you’re quite right about that. It did start a wave of safety measures, which have lead to almost 20 years without a death. And if Im right, Max Mosley did a lot right to push those new regulations.

      Oh and Massa is another one. If the helmets were anything less than amazing, he wouldn’t be driving the Williams today. I was simply amazed how strong and good at protecting the current helmets are. The force of impact was staggering, especially on so tiny a surface…

      Great article! Well written and my thanks for making it.

  4. Every time I think myself or read about modern F1 having to large run off areas or fans are too far from the action I think of this. No matter how safe you think it has become to the detriment of the show you can never stop pushing the safety aspect. Even 5 years from that date things changed as Schumacher at Silverstone in 99 may have been fatal in a 94 car. There are other examples and even simple looking crashes should analysed as per the Maldonado Guittierez incident this year. Another day a slightly different angle of impact could have been far worse.

    1. Even 5 years from that date things changed as Schumacher at Silverstone in 99 may have been fatal in a 94 car.

      Not just the car, Stowe corner was a lot faster with a lot less run-off & only a single layer tyre barrier before it was changed post Imola ’94.

  5. This is one of 4 dates in my life where you can ask me where I was that day and I will remember exactly. Unfortunately it’s also the saddest of all of them. First the death of fellow Austrian Ratzenberger, that was very hard to grasp and then Senna the next day in the same corner where Berger had his horrific accident a few years before. And I still remember how shocked I was when his death was announced.

  6. Apart from Ayrton a Berger, who also suffered an horrendous crash at Tamburello was Nelson Piquet, with a Williams in 1987. Piquet himself said afterwards that as a driver he lost a couple of tenths of his pace for the rest of his career.

    1. I think the same thing happened to his countryman Massa after that spring jumped up and hit him in his Ferrari. I don’t think he won a GP since that day.

    2. Berger has also said, not too long ago, that his crash in Tamburello lost him a bit of an edge. I believe he called it the ability give it his all and not consider the danger, and that from that day, he was more ‘aware’ and slowed down a little bit.

    1. The incident involving Lehto and Pedro Lammy at the start which resulted in the safety car being deployed for 5 laps. In addition to Lehto being injured in the crash, several fans and a marshal were wounded after being hit by debris thrown into the stands.

  7. I remember getting into F1 in 1998, when the San Marino GP was around the corner, the Dutch F1 magazine ran a feature on the weekend. Ever since, I’ve spent a lot of time looking up things about Ayrton’s accident, Roland’s accident and Rubens’ accident. When YouTube started to grow, and the footage of Rubens’ accident appeared on there, I have to admit I found his crash to be the hardest. It is a testament how looks can deceive in a crash (a lesson I would learn again as Dale Earnhardt Sr. died..).

    My father already being a marshal around the time I saw the accident for the first time, it struck me as utter carelessness how the marshals just flip over Rubens’ car. To act with such carelessness after such a crash is a sign of incompetence or unreadiness. I sincerely hope the FIA had a word with these marshals. Though nothing could prepare the marshals there for this weekend, I suppose.

    There is some footage of Rubens returning to the paddock and even his car on Saturday and it’s strangely heartwarming, knowing the context of the rest of the weekend. Though I’ve given Rubens a lot of flack in his final 2 seasons, I can’t help but have a soft spot for the guy.

    1. Also, @keithcollantine, thank you for not using pictures of the crash. They’re out there everywhere, but I’m glad to read an article on this crash and not have to look at Rubens’ helmet, visor open, laying against the edge of his cockpit.. The combination of his, Roland’s and Ayrton’s heads hanging that way has left me very paranoid whenever that happens (Ralf at Indy 2004, Dario’s career ending crash..)

  8. Still have vivid memories of this weekend. Not only should it be remembered for the death of Roland and Ayrton but also the death of F1 as it was. It was a dangerous, fast, ruthless and exciting sport and we as spectators were living on borrowed time. When Roland died it was shocking but something F1 could’ve recovered from, however losing Senna was a mortal blow in more than one sense.

    F1 has never been the same, i don’t think i’ve ever felt the same toward F1 since that day either. The danger had to stop and since then it pretty much has and F1 has lost something it will never recover.

    1. Well said. Has made me think though, why this weekend? Why particularly Senna. Why did F1 change so much after that weekend when in previous eras in F1 many more died without drastic measures being taken to prevent further deaths? Was the technology just not there? Jackie Stewart was one of, if not THE main pioneer(s) for safety back in the day, but it was a slow go.

      In answering my own question I think partly it was because there hadn’t been a death in a while and because Senna was that god-like in F1 status that it was that much more shocking than the much more commonplace deaths of the 60’s, and of course combined with the other tragedy of the weekend with Ratzenberger, and the other big shunts, it was a wake up call, and a reminder that they still hadn’t gone far enough after several years of thinking they had.

        1. In the weekend of 7 April 1968, the 4 wheeled communitie lost another great champion, who is, by a lot of people, the only one that can come close to the great God-like status of Senna…. In that fatal weekend, this certain Scotsman had the father of the last teammate of Senna as a teammate…

  9. …and every year that passes, I see myself, again, playing with a car in the kitchen’s floor, with my dad having breakfast and watching the race and suddenly shouting: “no, no, no…” as Senna’s car came to a halt.

    Twenty years already…

  10. The worst thing with this weekend to me was the Eurosport commentators. They pretended it was business as usual even when cars were flying around all over the place. Even when there were TV-pictures of Watkins giving CPR to Ratzenberger they pretended they didn’t understand how serious it was. And then just before the start they were completely tasteless. They interviewed Gerhard Berger and wondered if he wasn’t excited about the race. He reminded them that his countryman lost his life the day before and they just walked away from him then. Then comes the big blow and everything stops when it is learned that Senna is dead after a big shunt too. Then suddenly they seemed to remember Ratzenberger too. Ratzenberger up until that point was treated as “collateral damage”. Nobody cared. Now suddenly it was TWO dead. It was among the most disgusting scenes I have seen in any sport with a total lack of moral standards in the way they handed especially the first tragedy. He didn’t count until Senna also suffered. Otherwise Watkins said that the track he hated most was Monza because there anything could happen. It could be very brutal. I certainly got the same apocalyptic feeling as with September 10, 1978 on that horrible day 1994.

    I also believe this was the first time they used the plank underneath and I alway have had a feeling that it made some cars uncontrollable that weekend. Maybe they silenced this matter and just quietly made the necessary adjustment for it to work. Maybe it did something to the balance of the cars in this first attempt. I guess from an insurance point of view it would have been devasting if FIA admitted making a mistake with the plank at first.

      1. I’m glad if you can shed some light on this, because it seemed that on this weekend some very severe and similar type of accidents began to happen with cars of different makes. It looked like it had a common cause.

  11. San Marino Imola is my Fav track in F1 along with Spa Fracnochamps. I am sad that Imola has gone off the calender. There were so many thrilling races here. All the way upto 2005 and 2006 !!!!.

    It was a horrible weekend for F1. I still remember those days of watching F1. While personally I was not a Senna supporter, I was feeling so sad after that weekend. The Rubens Crash, Roland death and followed by Senna’s death it kept on coming. If you were a F1 fan , irrespective of the driver and team you support you would have come out sad that weekend.

    That Sunday evening after watching the race i was meeting my friend for a coffee. We both were F1 fans and all he had to say was that “Looks like some evil spirit has engulfed the race track”. He went on to say that he would wish that they do not race ever again in this track !!!!

    I must admit being one of my fav tracks I really felt sad on two counts 1) the horrible accidents and deaths of the drivers and 2) The prospect that Imola might go off the F1 calender due to these horrific events.

  12. I was too young to remember that horrible weekend but I am well aware of the impact it had, not just on our sport, but motorsport around the world, Brazil and the automotive industry in Europe as a whole.

    Thankfully, I have never witnessed a fatal accident live on telly, although there has been a few cases where I have come far too close. Schumacher at Silverstone, Kubica and Montreal, Massa at Budapest, Webber at Valencia, Franchitti at Houston and so many more.

    I’m glad that F1 learned from that weekend, not just from Senna’s accident, but from the other terrifying accidents that weekend. Any one of those, I think was violent enough to raise alarm bells around the paddock now so I can only imagine what all five could do. I still feel, however, there is a lot of work to do with safety in motorsport.

    Barrichello was one of the lucky ones that weekend. He had a very good career after that weekend, especially taking his first pole later that year (a Jordan doing it at Spa of all places), it’s a massive shame that F1 lost two drivers in the space of one weekend, but we will have no driver fatality for twenty years as a result. That’s a fantastic achievement for Max Mosely and the FIA, Professor Sid Watkins and also the GPDA. I hope other series can take a similar seriousness with safety, especially IndyCar, where we still see too many nasty shunts, even with the DW12 chassis.

      1. @melthom You raise a good point there! I was listening to Keith commentating on the Formula Renault this weekend and he was talking about the Motorland Aragon circuit. It has a section like the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca but with a smaller gradient change due to safety reasons. Circuits like Spa and Monaco are now only on the track because of the history but Tilke did get a few tracks spot on. Turkey and COTA are both highly enjoyable to play on the games and provide/provided good races! I don’t like the ‘shopping centre car park’ run off areas but I suppose it’s better to have one of those there if you have a brake failure than a concrete wall…

  13. Nelson Piquet Snr. thinks that this accident hampered Barrichelo speed for his entire career.
    I don’t think it’s too farfetched, something like that happened to Piquet himself.. and in my opinion, to Massa

  14. Keith makes a valid point to say that F1 cars had more stringent frontal crash requirements between 1982 and 1994. But while the driver was moved rearward substantially in the mid 80’s – it is still astonishing how unprotected the drivers had become in years leading up to 1994.

    It started really in about 1988 but then the sidepods just seemed to get smaller and smaller….and lower. We could see the driver’s entire head, neck, and shoulders from the trackside – easily. Surely someone must have thought at the time this was not good, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

    The fact that Rubens’ accident may have been the worst looking one of the weekend yet survived, would indicate that F1 knew exactly how to protect drivers in frontal impacts…..but not necessarily from the side.

    I suppose hindsight is always different than reality.

    1. A lot of having the driver’s head and shoulders exposed like that was because of the legacy of fire. Although fire was not really a problem during the ’80s there still was a rule that the driver had to get out of the car in under 5 seconds. This was a problem for some of the bigger drivers. The exposure of the head and shoulders was fully realized during the Imola weekend and thus a shift to having the driver tucked down in.

  15. I remember there was a great picture of Barichellos Jordan about 5 feet off the ground with his hands covering his face. He was really lucky – so were the people in the grandstand behind the fence.
    I went to Imola in the late nineties for the GP – a very passionate place, sat at Tosa and visited the memorial for senna at tamberello. Behind the corner was a massive drop to a river so moving the barrier was never an option.

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