Roland Ratzenberger tragically crashed and died in only the third event of an F1 career it had taken him 34 years to begin.
In a bitter irony, this little-known driver lost his life one day before Ayrton Senna, one of the most famous racers of all time, succumbed in another crash just a few hundred metres from the scene of Ratzenberger’s death.
Born on July 4th, 1960, in Salzburg, Austria, Ratzenberger’s racing career began in German Formula Ford in 1983.
He achieved notable successes in the category, winning the Austrian and Central European championships in 1985, finishing second in the German championship, and finishing on the podium at the Brands Hatch Formula Ford Festival.
He returned to the festival in 1986 and won it. Two seasons of British Formula Three followed and he finished 12th in 1987 and 1988, for West Surrey Racing and Madgwick Motorsport respectively.
In 1987 he also competed in the World Touring Car Championship for the Schnitzer team. He managed two second places in a BMW M3, underlining his versatility as a driver. But the WTCC did not continue for another season (it was eventually revived in 2005).
After a poor 1988 in F3 he moved into British Formula 3000, ending the year third overall with one win.
He branched out again, this time into Group C sportscars, competing in a Brun Porsche 962 at the Le Mans 24 Hours, which he retired from. He continued to return to the Le Mans race every year, his best finish being fifth in 1993 in a Toyota 93 C-V with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka.
By then he had made Japan the focus of his racing efforts. He competed in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship in an SARD Toyota, winning one race in 1990 and another in 1991.
In that second year he set himself the unusual personal goal of leading in every round of the season. In order to achieve this target, at the final round in Sugo, he deliberately jumped the start of to clear the faster TWR Jaguar XJR14s that had locked out the front row of the grid.
He dovetailed his sports car duties with two seasons in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, back in an M3, finishing seventh in both seasons.
For 1992 he returned to single-seaters and to F3000 – but remaining in Japan. He struggled at first in his Stellar team’s two year-old chassis. But after upgrading to a current model he won two races in the Japanese Formula 3000 series.
During one race at Fuji he came to the assistance of fellow racer Anthony Reid, who had crashed so heavily the force of the impact ripped his crash helmet off. Ratzenberger was so appalled by the unhelpfulness of the marshals he helped a Japanese journalist write a magazine article about the deficiency in safety standards at the track.
He finished seventh overall in 1992, one place ahead of former SARD team mate Eddie Irvine, but dropped to eleventh in 1993.
Irvine made his F1 debut at the end of 1993 with Jordan and Ratzenberger finally joined motor sport’s elite the following year.
Monaco-based sports manager Barbara Behlau helped him gain a seat in the all-new Simtek team for 1994 early in March, just days before the start of the season. At the time he only expected to be in the car for five Grands Prix unless he could find further funding.
Ratzenberg failed to qualify for his first race in Brazil after being delayed by mechanical problems in practice, after which an untimely rain storm during final qualifying prevented him from setting a competitive dry time.
But when the field headed to the new F1 venue at Aida in Japan, Ratzenberger’s Japanese Touring Car experience meant he was the only driver in the field with prior experience of the circuit. He qualified 26th (last) and finished 11th, five laps down.
But it was to be his only F1 start. During qualifying for the next race at Imola on Saturday 30th April Ratzenberger ran wide and off the road at the Acque Minerali chicane, apparently damaging the front of his car.
On the following lap he approached the flat-out Villeneuve kink and, it is believed, his front wing failed, pitching the Simtek into an unyielding barrier at around 320kph (200mph). He was killed instantly.
In his memory, Simtek ran the rest of the season with “For Roland” painted on the car’s airbox. Irvine was drafted into the SARD team he had been due to race for at Le Mans, but Ratzenberger’s name remained on the side of the car.