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

Advert | Go Ad-free


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

  1. craig-o (@craig-o) said on 29th April 2014, 20:28

    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.

    • In all honesty, I think it also had a lot to do with Bernie E himself. He said “no security, no race” and developed safer although boring tracks with Tilke.

      • craig-o (@craig-o) said on 29th April 2014, 21:51

        @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…

  2. iFuel said on 29th April 2014, 22:41

    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

  3. Minardi (@gitanes) said on 29th April 2014, 23:51

    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.

    • 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.

  4. our nige (@our-nige) said on 29th April 2014, 23:53

    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.

  5. taurus (@taurus) said on 30th April 2014, 0:21

    That Jordan is such a pretty car.
    Imola was a fantastic circuit.

  6. Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 30th April 2014, 2:21

    Looking back, it’s amazing to think that after such a dark weekend, Imola would stay on the calendar for another 12 years (albeit in a very different configuration). Other circuits were not so lucky – the Nordschleife never saw another GP after Niki in 1976, and Zolder only had 1 more GP after Gilles’ 1982 accident before it was dropped from the calendar.

  7. dragoll (@dragoll) said on 30th April 2014, 7:59

    1994 remains one of the most difficult seasons for me to reflect upon personally. On one hand, we saw the rise of a brilliant young German in Michael Schumacher. Love him or hate him, you cannot deny, has left his mark on our beloved sport for a very long time. However, in 1994 we also suffered terrible losses to the sport in Senna and Ratzenburger. On top of those losses, many drivers suffered serious injuries in the lead up and during the 1994 season. It is staggering to think Lehto and Alesi had such big accidents in testing and although suffered bad neck injuries were able to survive the impacts. Then we had some massive accidents, including the one in Brazil involving Brundle and Irvine (plus 2 other drivers I can’t recall at this very moment), the accident mentioned in the above article about Barrichello, and then the accident between Lehto & Lamy on the start line of the race. Then just when we thought the worst was over, we then see Wendlingers’ big crash at Monaco that put him in a coma.
    As an F1 fan, the 1994 season is one that I remember the most vividly, however, not entirely all for the best reasons, and not entirely for the worst. For those that are somewhat new to following motorsport and have not had to witness such terrible things, I hope that you never do. It is hard seeing something like that unfold before your eyes on live TV without warning, not much in life can prepare you for it and when it does, it is very difficult to process.

    • Indeed, I am very glad that I have yet to see a fatal accident live on tv (though I could very well have seen one had I watched the Le Mans race last year). I can’t imagine how much worse the feeling is, if I – not even having been born at the time – still have a tear shead every time I see footage of Senna’s accident.

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments must abide by the comment policy. Comments may be moderated.
Want to post off-topic? Head to the forum.
See the FAQ for more information.