It beggars belief that today marks twenty years since the death of Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
The unassuming Austrian stood no chance when his Simtek ploughed nearly head-on into an unprotected concrete wall at close to 320km/h at the Villeneuve kink, just a few hundred metres beyond the Tamburello corner that would claim Ayrton Senna’s life the very next day.
His death was the first in Formula 1 for eight years, and the first fatality at a race meeting for twelve years.
Roland was a surprise choice for the second seat at Simtek Grand Prix, the team led by Nick Wirth that was making its championship debut in 1994. In truth, the Salzburg-born driver was something of a forgotten figure in international motorsport, having spent the previous four years enjoying a successful career in Japan after his options to progress up the motorsport ladder had been exhausted at the end of 1989.
Ratzenberger was a winner in the 1986 British Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, which led to Formula 3 drives in Britain and Germany, drives in the British Formula 3000 championship and – of all things – a BMW drive in the FIA World Touring Car Championship.
He achieved some pretty respectable results, enough to move him into the F1 feeder championship, Formula 3000, but the opportunities did not come knocking and he instead headed east to Japan.
Competing against the likes of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Mika Salo, Jacques Villeneuve and Eddie Irvine, he won in touring cars, Japanese Formula 3000 and Group C endurance racing.
To his delight, he secured the race seat with Simtek for the first half of the championship season, and his joy at simply making it into the championship was apparent to everyone.
Sadly, his part on the Grand Prix stage would be all too short. He failed to make the grid at the opening race in São Paulo, but managed to make the qualifying cut at the next round at Aida – being one of the few drivers on the grid to have raced at that circuit – where he finished eleventh, five laps adrift.
To the next round at San Marino, and safety would become all too prevalent a concern when Rubens Barrichello was fortunate to escape with his life in a frightening accident at the Variante Bassa chicane.
History will recall that in Saturday qualifying, Ratzenberger went off the circuit at the Acque Minterali chicane on the lap before he crashed. With little time left in qualifying and with the chance that he would be bumped from the top-26 drivers (where he needed to be to start the race the next day), Ratzenberger checked that all was OK with a quick weave, he elected to stay on track instead of pitting for an inspection.
On the next lap, it is believed that the aerodynamic load placed on his front wing at the circuit’s quickest section was simply too much, and it broke, sending him headlong into the wall. His neck was broken on impact, and he was pronounced dead en route to being airlifted to the local hospital, the same ward where Senna would be transported just 24 hours later.
His death was shocking and tragic, causing a ripple (that would later become a torrent) of grief in the Formula 1 community. Pole-sitter Senna had snuck an Austrian flag up the sleeve of his racing suit that he would have waved to the crowds had he have gone on to win the race, but the blood-stained flag would only be discovered after he too succumbed to his own injuries during the race.
Simtek dedicated the rest of their championship season to Roland with a ‘For Roland’ insignia painted on the car’s airbox. Due to drive for Toyota at that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, his close friend Eddie Irvine took his place in the cockpit, but they kept his name on the door nonetheless.
It would be a cliché to say it, but it’s never been truer: Roland Ratzenberger died doing what he loved. His death was a loss for Formula 1 and the broader racing community where he proved so versatile. More importantly, the raft of safety measures introduced since his and Senna’s accidents have kept the sport fatality-free for its drivers.
This was certainly a man who had grit and determination in abundance to make his dreams come true. Rest in pace, Roland Ratzenberger.
Images via F1 Nostalgia