1 May 1994, the day of the San Marino Grand Prix, saw three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna suffer a severe crash that would claim his life a few hours later. The loss of the man widely considered to be the fastest race car driver of all time shook Formula 1 down to its core, spurring massive safety regulation changes to avoid any such tragedies again. To this day, Ayrton Senna da Silva remains the most recent casualty of a Formula 1 event.
In the shadow of Senna’s death, another driver lost his life. Roland Ratzenberger, aged 33, was a newcomer to Formula 1 in a backfield team. While he had done little to gain public attention in his three grands prix weekends, the unassuming Austrian had managed to become very popular in the paddock with his abundant enthusiasm to simply be in Formula 1. Amongst those who Ratzenberger had managed to charm was none other than Ayrton Senna, who nearly quit the sport on the spot following Ratzenberger’s death.
One day before Senna died, Ratzenberger had lost his life in a freak accident during Saturday qualifying. Sunday would see his name and picture at the front of newspapers, but his death would be eclipsed by Senna’s hardly 24 hours after his death. Though it may be understandable that a three-time world champion’s death would take headlines, Ratzenberger’s story is a tragedy in its own right.
At the Imola circuit, there is a statue dedicated to the memory of Ayrton Senna near the Tamburello corner where he lost his life; Ratzenberger’s death went largely unremembered apart from an empty grid space and moment of silence at the following grand prix.
As an Ayrton Senna fan who has studied the legendary Brazilian’s life extensively, I can confidently say that Senna would not approve of Ratzenberger being so quickly forgotten. In the wreckage of Senna’s car, the medical team discovered a rolled-up Austrian flag that he had planned to display after the race – evidence of my claim. Senna’s decision to stay in the sport was likely inspired by Ratzenberger as well.
Following the deadly accident on Saturday, Ayrton Senna reformed the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association to push for the safety reforms that were promised by his own death. Without Ratzenberger’s accident, safety may have remained an understudy.
This article is written in memory of Roland Ratzenberger, the overshadowed half of the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Born in Salzburg on 4 July 1960, little is known of Ratzenberger’s early life apart from his tendency to lie about his age (he claimed to be born in 1962 in an effort to extend his racing career), and his interest in motorsport. Coming from more humble backgrounds than most motorsport professionals, his ambitions to become a race car driver was stunted by a lack of finance.
His true racing efforts would begin quite late in life (hence why he lied about his age). Ratzenberger’s open-wheel career began in 1983 with German Formula Ford. In spite of his lack of experience, Ratzenberger demonstrated a rapid learning curve and the natural talent to win the Austrian and Central European championships in 1985. He would finish the German Formula Ford championship second and claim a podium at the Brands Hatch Formula Ford festival the same year. In 1986, he won the festival at Brands Hatch.
Undefeated on his way to the final event of the festival, Ratzenberger started from pole position with another undefeated driver, Phillipe Favre of Switzerland (who passed away December 2013 in a skiing accident). Both drivers were the class of the field from the start, as they put several cars’ lengths between themselves and the drivers battling for third.
From start to end, Favre kept heavy pressure on Ratzenberger, hoping to force a mistake that would allow him to take the lead. A difficult track to pass on, Favre also attempted to use slip-streaming along paddock straight to beat Ratzenberger into the first turn, but each time was foiled by clever driving. Approaching the first corner, Ratzenberger would take the inside line, forcing Favre to take to the outside or tuck in. Ratzenberger would move out wide on the straight to build up speed and then tuck back to the inside line before turn 1.
On the final lap, Ratzenberger did make a small mistake as he carried too much speed into the penultimate corner. With the entrance to paddock straight wide open, Favre shot to the inside, so closely matched to Ratzenberger’s speed that they were wheel-to-wheel for some time. The wide line had enabled slightly greater acceleration for Ratzenberger, and he managed to just pull ahead by a third of a car’s length to take the chequered flag.
A full video of the British Formula Ford Festival final is viewable below.
Road to Formula 1
Following his success in Formula Ford, Ratzenberger moved up to Formula 3 for 1987 and 1988.
His debut in F3 was with West Surrey Racing, though he struggled to find the success he had known in Formula Ford, and he finished the season a disappointing 12th.
The same year, he also took part in World Touring Car Championship, driving a BMW M3 for the Schnitzer team. In a strong demonstration of his versatility as a driver, he claimed three podiums, one of which was a second place, on his debut year. He finished the season an impressive 10th. This showing would be useful for helping his career further down the line.
His F3 campaign would continue to disappoint in 1988, as he again finished the championship 12th, this time with Madgwick motorsport. At the same time, he took part in several British Touring Car Championship races, finishing 4th in the Class B category and 13th overall in spite of missing half of the races.
A category change to British Formula 3000 in 1989 would see him return to form in his open-wheel pursuits, with him securing 3rd in the championship and claiming a victory at Donington Park.
As enthusiastic as ever about racing, Ratzenberger jumped at the chance to drive a Porsche 962 at the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car would break down in the third hour and retire, but Ratzenberger had impressed enough that he would spend the next five years taking part in the prestigious race.
In 1990 and 1991, he raced for SARD, a Japanese team that ran Toyota’s C-class Le Mans Prototypes in the Japanese Sports Prototype Car Endurance Championship season. He and his team would take a win at the 1991 Suzuka Circuit.
In 1992 he primarily shifted his attention to a combination of Japanese Touring Cars and Japanese Formula 3000. His Japanese F3000 career looked to be tarnished as his team had provided him with an outdated chassis, but as soon as he was given a new one he claimed two wins before his season came to an end.
Ratzenberger’s big break would come in 1993 when he and his teammates piloted their Toyota 93C-V to fifth overall and a class victory. Beating the next closest car in their category, another 93C-V, by a remarkable five laps.
To achieve his dream of getting into Formula 1, he could have done himself no greater service. Consistently finding strong results and winning prestigious races, and smiling all the way through it, Ratzenberger’s ten years of climbing through the ranks was about to be rewarded.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow, and will cover Roland Ratzenberger’s three grands prix weekends and legacy in Formula 1.