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Monday, 30 April 2012

Remembering Roland Ratzenberger

Roland Ratzenberger and his MTV Simtek-Ford S941
This was originally posted in 2012 and was updated in 2014.

20 years ago today, the much-liked Austrian Formula 1 driver Roland Ratzenberger suffered a fatal accident at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, better known as the Imola circuit, while qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The front wing of his Simtek-Ford - which had become loose on a previous lap - broke off at high speed after the flat-out Tamburello corner and got caught under his front wheels, sending him into a concrete wall at 195mph and causing a basal skull fracture, despite the car absorbing enough of the crash to rip off the entire left-hand side of it. Of course, this was in an age with lower standards for chassis strength, not to mention a time before ear-height cockpit protection and the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) devices drivers now attach to helmets to avoid whiplash or worse. The day after this tragic accident, well, you know what happened, but I'll touch on that more tomorrow. After the last black weekend in Formula 1, the safety element of the sport was very closely examined, and it as a result, no drivers have died in Grands Prix since then.[*]

Roland was only in his first Formula 1 season, racing for the seriously underfunded Simtek team. Unfortunately, in his two races before Imola, he failed to qualify for the opening race in Brazil - one team too many meant they were effectively competing with the Pacific team for a spot on the grid each weekend in Pre-Qualifying - but he made the grid in race two, finishing 11th place at the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida (now called Okayama) in Japan. Granted, 11th back then was five places off the points, not just one, but in starting and finishing that race he had achieved his lifelong dream. Considering he had won his class at Le Mans in 1993 - Group C class 2 with Toyota - and came third in British Formula 3000 (the equivalent of today's GP2 Series) in 1989, this F1 record isn't really indicative of his talent, and it's a shame he was taken before he had a chance to get his F1 career off the ground.

He was well-liked in the paddock and rarely seen without a smile on his face. He had worked hard to get to F1, and just being there was awesome to him. His death at only his third Grand Prix weekend shook the entire paddock, especially after Rubens Barrichello had survived a brutal high-speed accident the day before. Perhaps they just didn't think it could happen anymore. Ayrton Senna in particular was deeply upset by what was the first driver death in F1 for 12 years, and on the grid for the race the following day, he had put an Austrian flag in his car to wave after the race in tribute to Roland. As you probably know, he never got the chance.

It's important that we remember Roland Ratzenberger in connection with this weekend just as much as Senna, because past records aside, both were men living their passion until the very end. What's more, while it's tragic that Senna died in his prime, if you ask me it's even more so that Ratzenberger died before he could even reach it...


[* Update (30/4/2016) - Tragically it is no longer true that 1994 was the last time an F1 driver succumbed to injuries from a Grand Prix event. Jules Bianchi's car went under a tractor during the rain sodden 2014 Japanese GP, putting him in a coma with a diffuse axonal injury. He fought on and on, but ultimately passed away on 17th July, 2015. His story is largely similar to that of Ratzenberger's, in the sense that he died before his true potential was ever reached. We did at least get to see him artfully fight his way to 9th place at the Monaco Grand Prix that year, halfway through his second and final season of Formula 1, with Marussia (now Manor), one of the slowest cars on the grid. It's the team's only points finish to this day, and it stopped them disappearing from the sport altogether at the end of that year. He too will always be remembered.]

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