Having gained no small amount of notoriety for his achievements at Le Mans and unyielding devotion to racing over the years, Ratzenberger finally found himself with a route to Formula 1. Barbara Belhau, a sports manager from Monaco, got in touch with the Austrian and began working to help him find a place on the grid.
She found him a position with the newly formed Simtek team, an engineering consultancy firm owned by none other than former FIA President Max Mosley and aerodynamicist Nick Wirth.
A newly formed team in desperate need of funding, Simtek accepted Ratzenberger mere days before the opening round in Brazil. Though the Austrian had some financial backing, it would only have been enough to pay for his seat for five grands prix unless he could find additional finances.
Even with his future at F1 in peril as soon as it began, Ratzenberger’s charm and ever-present smile endeared him to the sport from the start. His car was not competitive, and his teammate David Brabham was more experienced and more famous, but Ratzenberger was living his dream. He had made it to Formula 1.
Brazil 1994 – A difficult start
The highest number of cars allowed to take part in a Formula 1 Grand Prix has been 26 for decades. However, the 1994 season had 14 teams signed up resulting in a 28 car field. This meant that the two slowest qualifying cars would be eliminated from the grid. As soon as the first open qualifying session began on Friday, it was obvious that only two of the teams would be fighting to avoid elimination: Simtek-Ford and Pacific-Ilmor.
Simtek’s first car, the S941, was outdated before it was finished being built. The original version had envisioned a car laden with driver aids such as active suspension, but had to be redesigned more conservatively following the ban on driver aids. Even had the car had active suspension it still would have been relatively heavy and running with an unimpressive Ford-labeled Cosworth HB engine. A manual six speed transmission also gave it a marked disadvantage against the increasingly common double clutch transmissions seen throughout the grid.
Being signed to the team at the eleventh hour put Ratzenberger at an immediate disadvantage to Brabham. His teammate, who had already driven a full season in Formula 1 in 1990, also had been able to take part in testing and development of the car. Ratzenberger had hardly been able to see the car prior to his first race weekend, leaving him at the mercy of a brutal learning curve with only a few hours of practice to prepare him for the weekend.
Brazil was never going to be a good weekend for Simtek, and qualifying for the race would have required a miracle on Ratzenberger’s part. And there were no miracles to be had that weekend, as any talent he had was smothered by technical problems with the car.
Ratzenberger managed to punch in the 27th fastest time, with only a Pacific-Ilmor that had failed to complete a timed lap doing worse. The only way for him to go was up.
Pacific Grand Prix 1994 – Signs of improvement
A one-off race at the TI Circuit, Aida, the Pacific Grand Prix looked set to be an even worse weekend for Ratzenberger than the week before. He had been unable to take part in the Friday qualifying session due to a shunt, and a much higher temperature on Saturday promised slower lap times.
Both Pacific-Ilmor cars and Ratzenberger’s teammate had managed to post times the previous day and enjoyed more practice. A two-second gap between Brabham in 25th and the Pacific duo of Gachot and Belmondo left Ratzenberger a fighting chance to get on the grid.
Not 20 minutes into the event, the Austrian set a time of 1:16.536. Although that put him over 1.5 seconds down on his teammate, he was four tenths clear of the quicker Pacific, slotting him into 26th place. Neither Pacific would be able to best his time. It might have been from the back of the grid, but after nearly 34 years and a decade-long climb through motorsport, Roland Ratzenberger was set to realize his dream: racing in a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
The start of the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix remains a relatively infamous one for the start that saw Mika Hakkinen hit Ayrton Senna at the start, with Nicola Larini collecting the Brazilian, and an extremely high rate of attrition throughout the race—bad news for the sharp end of the grid, but a good opportunity for the slower drivers. As a beneficiary of the chaos at the front, Ratzenberger’s first race would have been one that he would have been proud to remember.
At the back of the grid, Ratzenberger had a strong start that saw him pull around the slow-starting Lotus of Pedro Lamy and alongside his teammate as they entered the first corner. Amidst the chaos caused by the accident at the front of the grid, Ratzenberger was able to climb a few places higher still.
His nearest rival would have been his teammate, David Brabham, but the Australian retired on the second lap due to electronic gremlins leaving Ratzenberger to handle the back field quite alone.
In spite of a largely quiet race, Ratzenberger was quick enough to stay on the same lap as the notably quicker Ligier cars, finishing five laps down on race-winner Michael Schumacher. For him it was a dream come true:
“We were on the same flight back to England and at the airport the gentleman at the check-in desk recognised Roland to be an F1 driver, which delighted Roland immensely,” reminisced photographer Keith Sutton in 2004.
“Roland proceeded to give the check-in staff a pin-badge depicting his helmet. Roland had had these produced on his arrival to F1 and was handing them out to friends and those who had supported him over the years. This gesture promptly saw Roland upgraded from Business to First Class!
“We arranged on the flight to visit each other’s respective new homes in Austria and England – a plan that sadly never had the time to materialise.”
The third and final part of the Ratzenberger will be up tomorrow.