The Overshadowed Austrian: Roland Ratzenberger 1960-1994

matt hillCorrespondent ISeptember 14, 2010


When anyone mentions Imola 1994 the first thought for 99% of people is about Ayrton Senna which of course is understandable. The loss of a 3 time world champion and the man some consider to be the greatest talent ever to grace F1 is of course going to be a hugely tragic loss to F1 and overshadow other events of the weekend.

However, what happened with 20 minutes to go in the second qualifying session another tragedy occurred. The death of Roland Ratzenberger. Roland Ratzenberger was a 31 year old Austrian driver in his 3rd Grand Prix weekend for the recently formed Simtek team. So far in his Grand Prix career he had a DNQ at Brazil and a 11th (the last driver to finish) place at the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida.  

Ratzenberger had a wide range of experience in various motorsports categories before being given the chance to compete in F1 in 1994. In his younger days he did what most drivers did and come up through the ranks of karting. In 1985 he won both the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford Championships as well as securing 4th in the British Formula Ford Series and a podium at the Formula Ford Festival at the Brands Hatch circuit.

During this time people began to see that Ratzenberger was a quick and very hard working driver. In 1986 however Ratzenberger's limits were starting to be found. He entered the British F3 series with the team that took Senna to the title in 1983. However, Ratzenberger was no where near challenging for the title in fact he only finished 12th overall with just one podium in Spa.

In 1987 Ratzenberger decided to combine single seaters and touring cars and entered the WTCC driving a BMW M3. It was quite common during this time for people to switch from single seaters to tin tops. Roland had no previous experience in touring Cars his final standing of 10th in the championship with 2 podiums was again pretty respectable.

However in his single seater duties in 1987 he struggled once more. In the British F3 he could yet again only finish in 12th position overall and any prospects of him progressing further seemed slim. He didn't have the money to help him a long he had to use talent. He did very little racing at all in 1988 apart from a few races in the BTCC.

1989 saw an upward trend for Roland. He entered the British F3000 series and finished 3rd overall including a win at Donington. Once again Roland showing he was a safe, reliable driver but not a world beater by any stretch of the imagination. From 1990 to 1993 Roland went to Japan driving in the touring cars, F3000 series, sports prototype series and other Japanese motorsports divisions. He also competed in the Le Mans 24 hours race each year with a best result of 5th overall.

In 1994 though came Roland's massive chance. There was a seat on offer at the newly formed Simtek Formula One team. He managed to convince Nick Wirth the Simtek owner of his abilities in a rather unusual way. After demonstrating his abilities Wirth said "I can't imagine too many F1 team bosses being impressed by someone trying to demonstrate their driving skills in a Ford Fiesta hire car, but he terrified the life out of me!" 

Ratzenberger managed to secure enough funding for the first 5 Grand Prix's of the season. He was a pay driver but he wasn't going to be one of the embarrassing ones like Deletraz, Lavaggi or Inoue. But it’s safe to say little was expected from him. He was a popular man in the paddock though. He was so overjoyed to be in F1 that his enthusiasm in the paddock seemed to put a smile on faces. He was well aware of his limitations and drove as hard as he could was always courteous in letting others through. All in all he earned the respect and friendship of many in the paddock   

As I said he failed to qualify in Brazil with his team mate David Brabham just making it in to the race in 26th but in Aida both Brabham and Ratzenberger qualified and Ratzenberger got his first F1 start. He was the last man to finish but to his credit at least he got to the finish line. The next race was Imola.

At the time the Simtek team was really competing against fellow new boys Pacific Racing. If they beat the Pacific cars it meant they were on the grid. However after Barrichello's crash all Ratzenberger had to beat just one Pacific to get in. In second qualifying he had (unknown to him) already done enough to beat the second Pacific of Paul Belmondo. However he went back out to try and improve his position and ensure that he made the grid.

On his warm up lap he ran over one of the kerbs at the Acque Minerali chicane. He quickly slowed down and quickly turned the wheel a few times and decided everything was fine and decided to proceed on a fast lap. However, sadly everything was not fine. He had hit the kerb hard and had weakened the front wing. Heading into the 190mph+ Villeneuve curva his front wing failed. With no front downforce Ratzenberger had no chance of making the turn. The car speared off the track. Incredibly there was no tyre barrier; instead there was a concrete wall.

Ratzenberger slammed in the wall and from the data from his car it has been determined he was doing 195 mph. The survival cell did exactly was what it was meant to do. However, this was before the invention of the HANS device. As he hit the wall the belt held his torso down but there was nothing restraining his head. His head snapped forward.

As the car spun down towards Tosa it was clear by Ratzenberger's head movements that he was at best unconscious and that he was badly injured. Doctors were there immediately and doing everything they could to resuscitate the driver. He was airlifted to the hospital in Bologna but nothing could be done and he was pronounced dead. He died from a Basilar Skull Fracture. This is the same injury that took the lives of Dale Earnhardt, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore.

The death of Ratzenberger was the first in a Grand Prix car for 8 years and the first at a weekend for 12 years. Ayrton Senna in particular was utterly devastated. When the medical team was trying to save Roland, Senna took a car and drove straight to the crash sight to check on the condition of Roland and to see if he could do anything.

When Senna found out later that Ratzenberger had been killed he was distraught. It ended up with him having a conversation with Professor Sid Watkins that Watkins later put in his book. I advise anyone reading this to try and get a copy. This is what was said.

Sid Watkins: What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times; you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let's go fishing" 

Ayrton: "Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.

24 Hours later Senna was dead. Looking at those statements there is something very prophetic about it.

Millions went to the Senna funeral and suddenly Roland seemed forgotten. Max Mosley was one of the few that did go to the funeral of Ratzenberger. He summed it up like this “‘Roland had been forgotten. So I went to his funeral because everyone went to Senna's. I thought it was important that somebody went to his"

The Simtek team Roland drove for carried on until mid way through the 1995 season when finally the money ran out. In the process of the team being liquidated an auction was held selling off various things to pay debts. A bike presented to the team by Ratzenberger was sold off for £420. A gift that meant so much to Roland and the team was bought for just £420.

With the development of the HANS device the injuries suffered by Roland that took his life will almost certainly never happen to any driver.

Roland Ratzenberger