Formula One has had its fair share of moments that defined the future of the sport, and none could have been so more impactful than the tragic events that transpired at Imola in 1994 on a race weekend that would never be forgotten. That particular season saw a lot of changes from a technical regulation perspective, with a lot of the electronic aids such as traction control and active suspension that had helped both Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell to their respective titles, being banned from the sport.
The San Marino Grand Prix race weekend was one that did define the way that safety would be changed for the better, as the advent of HANS devices and many other safety changes including raised cockpits came about over time and research to ensure the livelihood of those competing.
But think of those that have been taken before their time in the sport, such great drivers, who were in an era when motorsport was considered dangerous, with the likes of Rindt and Villeneuve losing their lives in the pursuit of speed. The events at Imola were no different, and really made a mark in the sport that would be felt by all involved and all that followed it.
The race itself was considered as being on “the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember,” according to well-respected former BBC commentator, Murray Walker. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari would not be the same again, and neither would be Formula One. A young driver then, Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello suffered a nasty shock during Friday qualifying, when his Jordan-Hart 194 V10 left the track at around 140 mph at Vairante Bassa, hitting the tyre barrier at extreme force, leaving the Paulista with a broken nose and plaster cast on his arm, following him being rendered unconscious.
This was just the precursor to what would ultimately define the way forward, especially as the drivers, including 1996 World Champion, Damon Hill, was Senna’s teammate that year, just got on with the business at hand. The former BRDC president said a decade after that fateful weekend: “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt.” This is always the way in motorsport, especially in those days that the “show” must go on. But nothing could prepare anyone for what was to happen next.
In the 1990s, qualifying was radically different to what we have now in the current variation, but with final qualifying well underway, Simtek’s Roland Ratzenberger was pushing his car hard, trying to get onto the grid for the race. As portrayed in the footage in the film “Senna,” he was talking to one of the team, and said that the car was not handling as it should. But this didn’t deter the 33-year-old from going for it, but it was to end in dramatic and subsequently, tragic fashion.
The lap before his severe crash at the Villeneuve curva, he had an off track excursion at Acque Minerali, which compromised his front wing, as the Austrian continued on his task of getting on the grid. Just a few moments later, he lost control of the Simtek-Ford S941 at around 190 mph as the front wing failed, slamming into the concrete barriers at a truly horrific force. Ratzenberger suffered a fracture at the base of his skull at the point of impact, killing him instantly, leaving a clearly lifeless body in the remains of a ravaged F1 car.
His teammate, David Brabham, elected to continue racing for the remainder of the season, as well as that weekend, in tribute to his fallen comrade, and help pick up the spirits of a clearly- affected team. The Australian’s decision to carry out spurred everyone at Simtek back into action, with “For Roland” painted on his car’s airbox to show the strength of the human spirit, as well as Simtek’s reason as a collective to continue in F1.
The Austrian had a number of successes in his own right, on the way to his seat in F1, as he competed on our very shores here in the UK, and finished second in the Formula Ford Festival in 1985, and went one better in 1986. He then raced for West Surrey Racing and Madgwick Motorsport in the British F3 Championship for the next two years. He also raced at Le Mans, in Japan F3000 and the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship as well, so he was no ‘flash in the pan” driver by any means.
However, he was the first person to have died during a Grand Prix race weekend since Riccardo Palletti at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1982. It is unfortunate just how cruel life can really be, with the fact that no one can know just what it going to happen just around the corner. That was until race day came along, on what was a truly dark day for motorsport…
Ayrton Senna had put his Williams-Renault FW16 on Pole Position, ahead of young upstart and future 7-time World Champion, Michael Schumacher, with Gerhard Berger and Hill making up row 2. As the lights went out, a stalled JJ Lehto was hit hard from behind by a fast-approaching Pedro Lamy, which brought out the safety car. The safety car was not keeping up a relevant pace, so as for the drivers to keep heat in the tyres and brakes of their high performance vehicle, which was frustrating to a lot of the drivers, especially Ayrton.
Lap 6 saw the cars return to full speed, as Senna led the field, ahead of a charging Schumacher. But just two laps later would see a crash that would change the future of the sport, as Ayrton’s Williams-Renault went straight on at Tamburello, with the triple world champion hitting the concrete wall at just over 130 mph. The crash was violence personified, as debris from the resulting impact was strewn onto the track, with lifeless Senna behind the wheel of what was left of the FW16.
The race was stopped, as Professor Sid Watkins and his team arrived to treat the Paulista at the scene. Graphic scenes of Ayrton’s treatment were broadcasted around the world, before he was airlifted to Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital. The race was restarted, but after such an emotionally fraught weekend, where two drivers in the “fastest sport on four wheels” lost their lives doing what they loved, the F1 paddock would not be the same, and out of respect for their fallen comrades, no champagne was sprayed at the podium. What followed was Brazil’s three days of mourning for their hero, the investigations into Senna’s accident by Italian prosecutors, which included Williams F1 and circuit personnel, and the public funeral of Ayrton.
Whenever this time of year comes along, it must be said that emotions do run high, especially when triggered by such memories that will forever live with us, no matter our place in the motorsport world, be it fan, reporter, photographer or commentator. But there is always a lighter note to such a tragedy, as the Senna spirit lives on in the world of motorsport, as his nephew Bruno carries on said tradition by following his dream. Those up above will look down his recent triumph at the 6 Hours of Silverstone with Aston Martin Racing upon from the heavens, and one person in particular, will be grinning from ear to ear…
(Image credits: johnmarkcole.blogspot.co.uk, tumblr.com and Octane Photographic)