Roland Ratzenberger: A career and life cut short
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend will forever be remembered as one of the darkest in motorsport history, marred by a number of accidents that would leave a permanent scar on Formula 1. Most notable was the tragic death of the legendary Ayrton Senna during the early stages of the race. However, Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger also lost his life in a similar incident during qualifying the previous day.
Only a day after Rubens Barrichello nearly lost his life during the Friday qualifying session when his Jordan was violently launched into the tyre barriers at the Variante Bassa, Austrian debutant Roland Ratzenberger tragically lost his life after an incident at the Variante Villeneuve only moments after running wide and sustaining light damage to his Simtek. Despite receiving immediate medical attention at the side of the track and being airlifted to Maggiore Hospital in Bologna, it was later announced that Ratzenberger had succumbed to multiple injuries sustained during the incident.
Despite only making his third Formula 1 appearance at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix, Ratzenberger had partaken in numerous other forms of motorsport throughout his career leading up to his debut in F1 with Simtek. His tragic death during qualifying for the race at Imola cut short what had the potential to be a long and prosperous Sportscar career, with Ratzenberger running in every Le Mans 24 Hours race from 1989 to 1993. He was scheduled to compete in the 1994 edition of the legendary endurance event with Toyota, after finishing a personal best of 5th in the C2 category the year before.
Ratzenberger was born on the 4th July 1960 in Salzburg, and made his open-wheel debut in the German Formula Ford Championship in 1983. Two years later he attained his first taste of success by securing the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford Championships, whilst also entering the German Formula Ford Championship once again and the Brands Hatch Formula Ford Festival, where he managed to finish on the podium on his debut. A year later Ratzenberger returned to the Formula Ford Festival around Brands Hatch to secure a memorable victory after a race-long battle with Phillippe Favre which ended with the duo crossing the line literally side-by-side.
After his success in the Formula Ford Festival, Ratzenberger graduated to the British Formula Three Championship for 1987, where he finished 12th overall with ten points. Along with his participation in British F3, he also competed in the F3 EuroSeries which yielded a victory at the Nurburgring as well as a 2nd place finish at the iconic German circuit. During the 1987 season, Ratzenberger also made his debut in the inaugural World Touring Car Championship with BMW, finishing an excellent 2nd at Jarama in Spain and Dijon in France to finish 10th overall in the Championship. The following year he once again competed in the British Formula Three Championship, along with participation in the UK Formula 3000 Championship which saw him take victory at Donington and the final few rounds of the British Touring Car Championship with BMW in the B Class.
In 1989 Ratzenberger embarked upon his busiest season of motorsport yet, competing in numerous championships which included two races in the FIA Sportscar Championship with Porsche, two races in DTM for RSM Marko, the British F3000 Championship which included one race victory at Donington and the Le Mans 24 Hours C1 Class which ended in retirement after 50 laps. Despite frustratingly retiring from the event, Ratzenberger still managed to finish an impressive 4th at the 480km race of Spa-Francorchamps which made up the seventh round of the FIA World Sportscar Championship with team-mate and then Formula 1 driver Oscar Larrauri for the Porsche-powered Brun Motorsport outfit.
The 1990 season sparked the beginning of Ratzenberger’s ventures in Japan, comprising of Japanese Formula 3000, Touring Cars and Sportscars. Despite his move to Asia, he still returned to Europe for the Le Mans 24 Hours with Toyota in the C1 Class. Once again his participation in the iconic race was short-lived, with an engine-related issue striking his Toyota-powered Team Shard car after 241 laps. Although the 1990 season yielded little success for Ratzenberger, he did secure victory at the the Fuji Speedway in the Japanese Sportscar Championship with Toyota along with team-mate Naoki Nagasaka.
Once again Roland Ratzenberger remained in the Japanese Sportscar Championship and the Japanese Touring Car Championship in 1991 with Toyota and BMW respectively, along with a return to Porsche for the Le Mans 24 Hours. Unfortunately he was forced into retirement after 201 laps due to an ignition issue on his car, which he was sharing with Swedish driver Eje Elgh and 1991 British Touring Car Champion Will Hoy. Over in Far East Ratzenberger once again visited victory lane in the Japanese Sportscar Championship, this time securing victory at Suzuka with Toyota alongside Naoki Nagasaka and Pierre-Henri Raphanel.
After several years of relatively uncompetitive results at the Le Mans 24 Hours and in Japan, the 1992 season was a move into the right direction for Roland Ratzenberger as the Austrian ace finally reaching the checkered flag at the Le Mans 24 Hours race in the C2 category with Toyota alongside former Sportscar team-mate Eje Elgh and future Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine. Along with his continuation in the Le Mans 24 Hours event, Ratzenberger also returned to the Japanese Formula 3000 Championship with Team Noji International after a year away from the category. Once again Ratzenberger shone around Suzuka, securing pole position and race victory in the 35-lap race. Throughout the season he finished on the podium a further two times, and also managed to secure pole position at Fuji prior to his one and only victory. Overall, Ratzenberger finished the season 7th in the Championship with 19 points, finishing ahead of future Formula 1 drivers Eddie Irvine, Marco Apicella, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Mika Salo.
In 1993, Ratzenberger managed to secure his personal best finish at the Le Mans 24 Hours, by finishing 5th overall for Toyota after yet another shared drive with Naoki Nagasaka and reigning Japanese Formula 3000 Champion Mauro Martini. Despite only finishing on the podium once during the Japanese Formula 3000 season in 1993 with Stellar International, he finally secured a drive in Formula 1 for the next season with Simtek alongside David Brabham. At 33-years-old, Roland Ratzenberger entered the 1994 Formula 1 season as the 12th driver from Austria, following in the footsteps of Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger and Jochen Rindt.
Despite finally securing a drive in Formula 1, Ratzenberger’s debut race weekend around Sao Paulo’s Interlagos circuit for the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix was far from ideal. Throughout the weekend Ratzenberger completed a combined 30 laps during practice and qualifying, and the Austrian failed to qualify for the race after producing a 1:22.707, +6.745 seconds off of Ayrton Senna’s pole time in the Williams. However, once the sport moved to TI Aida for the Pacific Grand Prix several weeks later, Roland Ratzenberger’s knowledge of the 3.703km Japanese circuit proved vital as the 33-year-old managed to qualify for his first race in the sport, albeit on the last row of the grid alongside Simtek team-mate David Brabham.
During the 83-lap Pacific Grand Prix, Ratzenberger managed to reach the checkered flag in 11th and last position, after an eventful race which eventually culminated in Michael Schumacher’s second successive victory for Benetton ahead of Gerhard Berger and Rubens Barrichello. After successfully qualifying and finishing in his first Formula 1 race, Roland Ratzenberger headed to the third round of the 1994 season at Imola full of confidence in a bid to continue his learning process in the sport. During the first two practice sessions Ratzenberger seemed to have marginally improved, finishing the two sessions 26th and 25th respectively ahead of the Pacific duo of Paul Belmondo and Bertrand Gachot.
In subdued circumstances after Rubens Barrichello’s horrific accident during the Friday qualifying session, Ratzenberger ended the session 25th overall with a lap of 1:27.657, only just behind his Simtek team-mate with the two Pacific drivers behind him once again. During the early stages of the Saturday session Ratzenberger managed to improve slightly to a 1:27.584, however in his quest to continue improving he ran off of the track and sustained minor damage to his front-wing. Instead of lose time returning to the pits he elected to remain out on track, and a lap later his front-wing failed and went underneath his Simtek, preventing it from turning at the Variante Villeneuve which in turn led to Ratzenberger’s fatal accident.
Roland Ratzenberger’s untimely death was the first in Formula 1 since that of Elio de Angelis, who was killed in a testing accident in 1986 at Paul Ricard. Although his short time in F1 failed to produce extremely competitive results, it’s fair to say his career beforehand in Sportscars, Touring Cars and Japanese Formula 3000 showed just how quick he truly was. Only the year before he had finished 5th at the Le Mans 24 Hours, and in 1994 the Austrian driver was scheduled to make his sixth appearance in the Le Mans 24 Hours race, with fellow Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine instead filling the void with Ratzenberger’s name remaining on the car as a tribute.
The 1994 Formula 1 season would become infamous for the tragic events of the San Marino Grand Prix weekend, which so cruelly took the lives of Ratzenberger and Senna, with Barrichello lucky to escape with only minor injuries after his incident during Friday qualifying in the Jordan. Throughout the remainder of the season the drivers’ safety was continuously put at risk, with Karl Wendlinger, Andrea Montermini and Pedro Lamy each being involved in separate incidents; Wendlinger was in a coma for several weeks, Montermini broke his left heel and right foot; Lamy broke both legs and wrists.
After these horrific event,s changes were naturally applied to the sport, with the HANS device eventually being introduced in 2003 along with a pit-lane speed limit after one of Michele Alboreto’s wheels worked its way loose in the pits and stuck several mechanics during the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Despite these various safety improvements, one must never become complacent in one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
This is a time to not only commemorate the life and legacy of Senna, but also that of Roland Ratzenberger. Had the Brazilian reached the podium on Sunday, he would have unfurled an Austrian flag that was in his car. Alas, it was not to be…
Images via Wikimedia Commons, made available by Creative Commons.