The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix – it is a weekend that lives in infamy as one of the darkest in the history of Formula One. An event marked by the death of not only the sport’s leading light, in Ayrton Senna, during the race, but also that of rookie Roland Ratzenberger, who was killed on the preceding day, during qualifying. On the 21th anniversary of that tragic weekend, Dan Paddock reflects.
Formula One arrived at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit – colloquially known as Imola – in 1994, for what was to be the third race of an already dramatic season.
Triple world champion Ayrton Senna, who had joined Williams, the all-dominant team of the previous two years, was still yet to score a point for his new team, after two retirements from the opening races in Brazil and Aida, Japan.
In fact, it was Michael Schumacher and Benetton, rather than the much-fancied pairing of Senna and Williams, who had started the season the brightest, with the German, entering his third full season of F1, leading the championship after back-to-back wins from the opening two races.
Politics were abundant in the paddock at that early stage of the season, with whispers that the B194 – Benetton’s 1994 challenger – was not entirely legal. Senna himself had raised doubts to his Williams team over the legality of Schumacher’s car, the Brazilian reporting that he had heard odd noises coming from the #5 Benetton, having sat and listened to the blue and mint green car after his early retirement in Aida. Talk was that Benetton was running a form of traction control, banned, amongst a host of other driver aids, for 1994.
The San Marino Grand Prix race weekend got off to an inauspicious start on Friday, after the Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello was involved in a mighty accident at the Variante Bassa during the opening qualifying session. Barrichello over cooked it on the entry into the right-hander, which saw the Jordan launched into the air over the kerbs on the exit. The car violently speared into the top of the tyre barrier on the right of the circuit, rolling over twice before coming to a rest. The entire right hand side of the car had visibly been sheared off in the impact.
The medical team, led by Professor Sid Watkins was immediately on the scene to treat the Brazilian, who despite the accident, and the absurd actions of the marshals on the scene – who proceeded to right the broken Jordan, despite the threat of a serious spinal injury to the unconscious Barrichello – came away from the accident with just a broken nose, and an arm in plaster cast. His weekend was over.
If Friday had been a fright for the F1 paddock, then worse was to come on Saturday. With Barrichello now out of the equation, it left just 27 cars in contention to qualify for Sunday’s race. One of those pushing to make the cut was Roland Ratzenberger. The Austrian, driving for the all-new Simtek team was competing in just his third Grand Prix weekend. Having failed to qualify for the season opener in Brazil, Ratzenberger was looking to make his second consecutive Grand Prix start after a solid run to 11th in Aida.
Eighteen minutes into the qualifying session Ratzenberger’s car left the circuit at the Villeneuve curva. The Austrian’s Simtek hit the oncoming concrete retaining wall at a speed approaching 200mph, before coming to a rest at the apex of the Tosa corner. The 33-year-old was killed instantly. Ratzenberger was the first driver to be killed during a Formula One weekend since Ricardo Paletti twelve years earlier at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.
The Formula One world was in shock. Driver fatalities were not supposed to happen. F1 was safe, or so everyone thought. After a series of near-misses in the late 80s and early 90s grand prix drivers had been treated with an air of immortality. For many involved in the sport, Ratzenberger’s death would be the first that they would have experienced in the glamour world of Formula One.
There was understandably a sombre mood in the paddock on Sunday come race day, with the events of the previous day very much at the forefront of people’s minds. Talk was that Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Michael Schumacher and former racer Niki Lauda intended to reform the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association – a body that promoted driver safety in the 1960s and 70s – ahead of the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix, in response to Ratzenberger’s death.
Pre-race preparations complete, Ayrton Senna led the field of 25 cars – Pacific’s Paul Belmondo having declined to take the slot made free by Ratzenberger’s absence – on the parade lap, before he settled his Williams into the pole slot on the grid, the Brazilian having claimed the 65th pole position of his career the previous afternoon. Michael Schumacher would start alongside the triple world champion in his Benetton-Ford. Gerhard Berger and Senna’s Williams team-mate Damon Hill would share the second row, while JJ Lehto – recovered from his pre-season testing accident – and Ferrari substitute Nicola Larini – Jean Alesi, himself injured – rounded out the top six.
Senna led cleanly away from pole, but there was chaos behind, as Pedro Lamy’s Lotus slammed into the rear-end of Lehto’s stalled Benetton, sending a wheel and debris from the Lotus over the catch fencing into a spectators’ area, injuring eight fans and a policeman.
The start-finish line was covered in debris following the violent accident, yet rather than stop the race, a safety car – a concept reintroduced in 1993 – was deployed while track marshals cleared the shattered remains of the Benetton, and the Lotus.
Five laps passed before the safety car – in this case a black saloon – dived into the pits, releasing Senna and the remaining 23 runners on their way.
At 2.17pm Ayrton Senna flashed past the pits to start lap seven of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The blue and white Williams, its Renault engine howling, the yellow helmeted figure of Senna at the wheel, hurtled its way up to the Tamburello for what would be the seventh and ultimately final time.
Senna’s car left the circuit at 190mph, slowing to 130 mph before striking the wall at the outside of the Tamburello. The car’s right-front area took the brunt of the force, wheels and debris flying as the Williams came to a gentle rest alongside the race track, Senna motionless, his head slumped to the right. A slight movement of the yellow helmet moments later betrayed the fact that Ayrton Senna was gone.
The race was red flagged almost immediately, as marshals and the medical team, led by Sid Watkins, a close personal friend of Senna, arrived at the scene of the accident.
As Watkins arrived at Tamburello, it quickly became evident that Senna had suffered a severe head injury, which the signs suggested would be fatal.
As it later became clear, the front-right wheel of the Williams had become trapped in between the chassis and the concrete wall in the impact, violating the cockpit space and striking Senna on the head. This wheel had in turn driven a serrated piece of the broken front suspension arm through Senna’s famous yellow helmet in the region of his right temple, causing the fatal head injury.
Senna, unconscious, was removed from his car, stabilised via a trackside tracheotomy, as well as cardiac massage, before being airlifted by helicopter to Maggiore hospital, the same centre that had overseen the aftermath of Barrichello and Ratzenberger’s accidents earlier in the weekend.
38 minutes after Senna’s accident, the race, now run to an aggregate time, was rightly, or, wrongly in some people’s minds, restarted. Schumacher led the field – unaware of the severity of Senna’s accident – away, but it was the Brazilian’s friend Gerhard Berger who took the early advantage for Ferrari.
Berger pulled into the pits on lap 15, his team pointing the finger at a rear suspension issue. This promoted Schumacher, who had already made his first stop back into the lead, a position he would hold until the race’s conclusion.
In one final twist, on lap 41 of the restarted race, the right-rear wheel from Michele Alboreto’s Minardi, not properly fitted at the Italian’s pitstop, came loose as he exited the pit lane, knocking down and injuring a number of Lotus and Ferrari mechanics.
Schumacher would ultimately take the chequered flag to secure a hollow victory, ahead of the unfortunate Nicola Larini, who came home a distant second to claim not only his first – and only – podium finish in Formula One, but his very first points as well. Hakkinen, who had briefly partnered Senna at McLaren in 1993, stood on the final step of what was a sombre podium.
At 6.40pm, two hours and twenty minutes after the San Marino Grand Prix had ended, Bologna’s chief medical officer Dr Maria Theresa Fiandri declared that Ayrton Senna had died as a result of severe head injuries sustained in his earlier accident. The official time of death would be given as 2.17pm, the moment that the Brazilian had crashed at Tamburello. Formula One’s brightest light had been extinguished.
The outpouring of emotion that followed in Senna’s beloved Brazil would be phenomenal, as an estimated million people poured onto the streets of Sao Paulo to see their hero one final time, bringing the city to a standstill. The funeral of Ratzenberger, the forgotten man of the piece, was a simple affair, conducted in Salzburg.
The events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix would leave a deep collective scar on the consciousness of Formula One. The hubris and cavalier attitude to safety of the last decade had finally bitten back, and it had cost the sport dearly. The impact of the race is still with us now, not only in the bitter memories of that weekend, and the two drivers lost, but by the sweeping changes made to the sport following the tragedy of Imola.
Safety once again became paramount, as the FIA, supported by the newly reformed Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, moved to steady a sinking ship.
The accidents at Imola came on the back of two major testing shunts that had left Jean Alesi and JJ Lehto injured earlier in the year. A fortnight after the San Marino Grand Prix, Sauber’s Karl Wendlinger was left in a coma for three weeks after an accident exiting the Monaco tunnel. A few days later, Pedro Lamy, who had clashed with Lehto off the start-line in Imola, suffered a rear wing failure while testing at Silverstone and vaulted the catch fencing. The Portuguese racer was left with serious leg injuries. At the following round in Barcelona, Andrea Montermini, Ratzenberger’s replacement at Simtek, was left with a broken foot after an accident coming out of the final corner. This simply could not go on.
The cars were slowed, and tracks were altered, arguably at some expense to the spectacle that is Formula One, but most importantly, the sport has not witnessed a driver fatality in 20 years. Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna remain the last two drivers to be killed during a Formula One weekend. Mika Hakkinen, Luciano Burti, Robert Kubica, and Mark Webber, amongst others, arguably owe their lives to those changes, influenced so heavily by the loss experienced at Imola in 1994.
Roland Ratzenberger: July 4, 1960 – April 30, 1994 – Ayrton Senna: March 21, 1960 – May 1, 1994