Today in 1994: Ratzenberger’s death stuns F1

1994 San Marino Grand Prix flashback: Saturday

Roland RatzenbergerRubens Barrichello spent Friday night at Maggiore hospital in Bologna after his sickening crash on the opening day of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

On Saturday he returned to the Imola track, to widespread relief his injuries were not as serious as had first been feared. He would take no further part in the weekend, however, and that presented an opportunity for F1′s two smallest teams.

With Barrichello’s withdrawal the 28-car field had been trimmed to 27, with room for all bar one of them on the grid. The Pacific and Simtek outfits, both appearing at their third races, had fought over the last two places on the grid at the two previous races. Now the chances were only one of their drivers would be left behind on Sunday.

As has always been the case in Formula One the competitive urge is no less fierce at the back of the grid – it is merely conducted on a smaller scale by less well-funded teams. Simtek and Pacific each had in the region of two dozen staff at the track.

Simtek even enlisted BBC presenter Steve Rider to bring a parcel of extra parts with him in his luggage when he flew over from Britain. So it was a hassle they could have done without when their two drivers, David Brabham and Roland Ratzenberger, tangled at the Tosa hairpin during the morning practice session, leaving Brabham’s car stuck in the gravel.

That afternoon’s final qualifying session would decide which driver would take no further part in the weekend. Ratzenberger had an added incentive to make the cut: the Simtek driver had a place in the team for the opening races, but was widely expected to be replaced by Jean-Marc Gounon later in the season.

Technical problems had thwarted his efforts to qualify in Brazil. But at the TI Aida circuit he got him Simtek onto the grid and battled his way to the end of the race.

The high-speed Imola circuit was a very different proposition to the slow twists of Aida. Ratzenberger had been ahead of both Pacifics in the first qualifying session, but in the second Bertrand Gachot was leading him and Paul Belmondo was just three-tenths of a second slower.

Brabham briefly took over Ratzenberger’s car and confirmed his team mate’s suspicion there was something wrong with his brakes. They were replaced in time for the decisive final hour of qualifying.

Ratzenberger’s crash

Jean Alesi, who was missing his second race due to injury, was watching the cars accelerate through the flat-out sweeps of Tamburello and Villeneuve when Ratzenberger came into view, 18 minutes into the session. The purple car hurtled past at over 300kph and Alesi noticed sparks flying from the front.

What happened next was revealed in a series of grainy, static videos. A piece of bodywork flew from Ratzenberger’s car as he approached the Villeneuve corner. Crossing a recently resurfaced patch of tarmac, his front wheels appeared to lose contact with the ground. The signs indicated his front wing had failed at the point on the track where he needed it the most.

Instead of rounding the Villeneuve kink the Simtek carried straight on at unabated speed. Ratzenberger struck the concrete retaining wall on the outside of the turn at 314.9kph (195mph).

For the second time that weekend, Professor Sid Watkins and the medical crew scrambled to the accident scene. The situation was obviously very serious: Ratzenberger was slumped at the wheel of his car and the impact had gouged a hole in the cockpit. Brabham took one glance at his team mate as he passed by and immediately wished he hadn’t. “I think he’s gone,” he told his wife when he returned to the pits.

Silence fell across the circuit. Television cameras zoomed in pitilessly on the scene as a doctor tried in vain to resuscitate the driver.

It was hopeless: Ratzenberger had sustained serious head injuries. He was taken to Maggiore hospital and declared dead a few minutes after he being admitted.

“I was shaking all over”

The grim business continued at the track: the crash scene was hosed down and qualifying restarted 45 minutes after the accident. But Williams, Benetton and Sauber took no further part in proceedings.

Ayrton Senna, who collected his 65th pole position, had commandeered a course car to visit the scene of the accident himself, as he had after other serious crashes in recent seasons. In a column published on the day of the race Senna said his fears about safety had been “borne out in tragic fashion” by Ratzenberger’s crash.

Other drivers, even those who had witnessed fatal accidents at races before, were shocked by what had happened. “I felt sick as I saw the accident,” said Gerhard Berger, who knew from experience the consequences of a high-speed front wing failure at Imola. “And it was another Austrian driver, thus it was even worse. I was shaking all over my body.”

The paddock had lost a friendly, approachable driver who was just weeks into his dream career as an F1 racing driver. The tiny Simtek team was devastated by the accident, which had been made all the more traumatic by the gruesome pictures beamed back from the scene.

It left Brabham, whose wife was four months pregnant, with a gut-wrenching decision. On previous occasions when a team had lost a driver it had been normal practice to withdraw the second car – as Ferrari had when Gilles Villeneuve died and Osella did when Ricardo Paletti died in 1982.

But that was 12 years ago and Brabham, who had been instrumental in forming the new Simtek team, believed it was his duty to carry on. Bravely, he chose to race on Sunday, even amid doubt over the exact cause of Ratzenberger’s accident. It later emerged he had gone off the track on the previous lap and appeared to have weaved the car, perhaps trying to judge if his wing was broken, before continuing.

There were repercussions for fellow newcomers Pacific. Belmondo declined to take Ratzenberger’s empty place on the grid. The team had also concluded a sponsorship deal with a tobacco brand of the name ‘Black Death’, whose logos had been due to appear on their cars for the first time on race day. They left the stickers in the garage.

In the stunned paddock, the drivers came together in search of answers. Niki Lauda urged Senna to use his position as the sport’s most famous driver to lead a reformed Grand Prix Drivers’ Association and lobby the FIA for better safety standards.

Safety in F1 was back on the agenda following the sport’s first fatal accident in years. But no one could have expected the next one was just 24 hours away.

This feature will conclude tomorrow.

Image ©

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41 comments on Today in 1994: Ratzenberger’s death stuns F1

  1. Roald (@roald) said on 30th April 2014, 12:12

    Really, really sad. The scene of Ratzenberger sliding down the grass onto the tarmac with his head hanging must be one of the worst scenes in sports ever. In hindsight, it was crazy how low the cockpits were and how freely the heads of the drivers could move in case of a crash before HANS was ever made mandatory.

    However, I slightly disagree with a lot of people claiming Ratzenberger is “the forgotten one”. I can name at least a dozen Formula 1 drivers who died too early that get mentioned even less. To be honest, I thought it was a disgrace there was no sign of a Rindt tribute during the Italian Grand Prix in 2010, he died 40 years ago that day. (I know the Italian GP took place on a different date, but still) Not to say Ratzenberger deserves the attention he gets, a very unlucky casualty that made F1 the safer sport that it is today.

    • Roald (@roald) said on 30th April 2014, 12:13

      doesn’t deserve*

    • Gridlock (@gridlock) said on 30th April 2014, 12:29

      I’m also sure the families of the marshals killed since 2000 don’t deserve to see some of the more uninformed reporting this week, or indeed generally. I hate that they tend to be casually overlooked by stories using language like “No fatalities in Formula One for 20 years” – it’s been less than a year.

    • HiPn0tIc (@hipn0tic) said on 30th April 2014, 13:02

      The scene of Ratzenberger sliding down the grass onto the tarmac with his head hanging must be one of the worst scenes in sports ever

      I was just write that…It was just a sad image, i remember that weekend to well, and in the air looking back then, there was something, everyone was jus too nervous… it just sad!

      • Carlitox (@carlitox) said on 30th April 2014, 13:44

        I remember learning about Ratzenberger a long time after my dad told me Senna’s history. At that moment I didn’t had access to YouTube or anything, so it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I watched the tapes of the crashes. Honestly, Senna’s seemed huge, but not fatal at first glance. Ratzenberger’s, however, was truly brutal and graphic. The way his head was moving as if it were a ragdoll made you think it was a horror movie. Poor Ronald had the most violent accident but only a part of the fan base actually remembers him.
        Another awesome feature Keith, kudos!

    • Timothy Katz (@timothykatz) said on 30th April 2014, 13:07

      Yes, that was an awful image @roald I saw it on TV and decided that I just couldn’t bear to watch the Grand Prix itself the next day. Altogether hideous, and it sticks with you forever.

    • Jason Giles said on 1st May 2014, 0:26

      I was watching F1 the day that Senna died but don’t remember seeing anything about Ratzenberger until recently very sad.

  2. Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 30th April 2014, 12:25

    It’s frightening to even read about it.

    I cannot start to imagine what the people involved, those present at Imola that day, and those that followed the Grand Prix closely on telly or whatever felt that day.

    • JerseyF1 (@jerseyf1) said on 30th April 2014, 13:55

      I was watching (on TV) and supporting Shumacher that day, when Senna first disappeared from the lead I was celebrating but as it became clear that it was pretty serious I felt awfully guilty about my initial reaction.

  3. ECWDanSelby (@ecwdanselby) said on 30th April 2014, 12:40

    Great piece. Thank you, Keith.

  4. spoutnik (@spoutnik) said on 30th April 2014, 12:42

    Ah, horrible memories, horrible weekend, never forgot that, and never will.

  5. OmarR-Pepper (@omarr-pepper) said on 30th April 2014, 13:28

    Ronald’s death should have led to cancel that GP. For respect and for safety. I know other series also keep running even after fatal events, but at least F1 should be an exception. Ronald’s death was maybe “too little” then, but now we know his and Senna’s can’t were awfully sad but not in vain.

  6. GeeMac (@geemac) said on 30th April 2014, 13:47

    Man this series of (incredibly well written) articles is bringing back some horrible memories. Seeing Roland sitting lifeless in his Simtek at the apex of Tosa, head resting on the side of the cockpit, is an image I will never forget. As much as I love this sport images like that have to make you think “is it all worth it?”

  7. WilliamB (@william-brierty) said on 30th April 2014, 13:51

    To refer to Ratzenberger as “the forgotten one” or “collateral tragedy” is simply inaccurate. His death was the first on-track fatality for an F1 driver since de Angelis’ testing death in 1986, and to many of the paddock’s engineers and pundits their first encounter with a motorsport fatality. I was a paddock regular in the 1990s and, although (fortunately in hindsight) I was not at the track that weekend, I can report, through friends, that the response to Roland’s death was not the shrug that Murray and Palmer’s calm clinical coverage would have you believe. The paddock mood is the only reaction worth taking note of in F1, and I’m told a shadow very much covered the paddock that evening. The fact that his death was overshadowed by Senna’s was inevitable; Ayrton was the man that took the sport’s appeal global, a sporting megastar by all accounts, but together with the fallout from Senna’s death Roland’s equally helped to put the wheels of safety in motion: a truly precious legacy.

  8. airtone said on 30th April 2014, 14:00

    It was Paul Belmondo, not Jean-Paul. :-)
    But otherwise, a very well written and detailed article. Some of the details were unknown to me even after all these years.

  9. Garns (@) said on 30th April 2014, 14:08

    I don’t think Roland is forgotten to a real F1F but a rookie going a day before a legend means his tragic death is overshadowed for some, unfortunately. I got goose bumps when first seeing the Senna doco with Roland’s words just before he went out on track!! After quite a few viewings I still do!!

    In response to above comments about the views we saw on the TV that day, when in the past someone was killed TV footage was poor at best and viewers just knew there was a bad accident, for most part. When we see a close up of drivers being pulled from a car and Sir Sid doing CPR on live TV it is very confronting and emotional. I agree Roland’s crash was pretty well the worst thing seen on F1 TV (until the next day) and really something I don’t think we should see.

  10. JCost (@jcost) said on 30th April 2014, 15:07

    If I was a movie maker and had funding to make a film on the life of an F1 driver, Roland Ratzemberger, the one who completed only one race would be my pick.

    After reading Autosport tribute by Adam Cooper, the first thing that came to my mind was “what a story!”. A driver (and mechanic) who did everything he could to land an F1 drive that came only when he was 33 years of age and met a tragic end at the second day of his third GP weekend as an F1 driver…

  11. sumedh said on 30th April 2014, 15:13

    This feature will conclude tomorrow.

    Hey Keith, I thought you were going to do the whole 1994 season.

  12. iFuel said on 30th April 2014, 15:14

    I remember that weekend so well..
    I was 6 year old at the time.. My dad, who taught me about F1 was murdered in late february of that year..
    Formula 1 was one of the only joys that I had in those days, watch my 2 favorite drivers, Gerhard Berger and Ayrton Senna race.
    I wan’t watching when Ratzenberger died.. I remember my mom telling me that someone called something-berger just died on track.. I cried the entire afternoon, later my mom told me to calm down because it wasn’t Gerhard who died, and I remember clearly that I told her that it did not make any difference, someone had died after all…
    Nothing in the world could prepare me for what I witnessed in the race on the day after, but this time, I was watching live as my greatest idol and role model died.

  13. Magnificent Geoffrey (@magnificent-geoffrey) said on 30th April 2014, 15:23

    What I’ll always remember about Roland Ratzenberger was the story Heinz-Harald Frentzen recalled about when they went to a Japanese nightclub during their time racing in the Japanese Touring Car Championship.

    They were in the club when Ratzenberger apparently spotted or heard a young woman in distress. The woman was being assaulted by a male attacker wielding a knife. Roland confronted the man with no regard for his own personal safety and was able to see him off before helping his victim to safety.

    Ratzenberger really was a hero. It’s a terrible tragedy that his life and career were cut so brutally short.

  14. Tayyib said on 30th April 2014, 16:25

    RIP Roland

  15. montreal95 (@montreal95) said on 30th April 2014, 19:04

    RIP. I started to watch F1 from the next weekend at Monaco 1994 completely by chance. Now that I saw the video of Roland’s crash and together with Ayrton’s crash I don’t think I would become an F1 fan at all had I stumbled upon it a race earlier. So terribly sad

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