San Marino 29 April 1994
Considered by many to be the darkest weekend in the history of Formula 1, the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari began to go wrong during the Friday qualifying session.
A young Rubens Barrichello was on a hot lap when he entered the Variante Bassa corner too quickly, hit a kerb and was launched into the air at 225km/h (140mph). He struck his helmet on a tyre barrier and was knocked unconscious as his car rolled several times and finally came to a rest upside down.
Ayrton Senna rushed out with Doctor Sid Watkins to visit his compatriot at the medical centre. Senna would later confirm the Jordan driver was okay, saying he was “a little rattled” but fine. Barrichello would be present at the track on the following day with a broken nose and plastered forearm, instilling some sense of confidence for F1’s safety. That sense of security would be shattered by two more horrific accidents.
30 April 1994
Whether it was a steep learning curve, skills better suited to high speed circuits or raising confidence, Roland Ratzenberger’s form during the San Marino Grand Prix was very impressive. At the previous grand prix he had been roughly a second and a half down on his teammate’s qualifying time. On Friday, however, he had pulled himself within 0.050 seconds of his teammate’s qualifying time, and looked to repeat the feat as he jousted with David Brabham and the Pacific cars for a starting position.
With Barrichello unable to take part in the race, only one of the usual back markers would have to sit out the grand prix. Having pipped both Pacific cars on Friday, Ratzenberger was desperate to show his improved form on Saturday.
Brabham had improved his time from Friday by eight tenths, and both Pacific drivers had shown marked improvement, with Bertrand Gachot splitting the two Simteks and Paul Belmondo slowly improving.
Desperate to keep his place, and improve it, Ratzenberger set out with a vengeance. Running wide as he carried excessive speed into Acque Minerali chicane on his timed lap, Ratzenberger still managed to improve his time slightly from the previous day. An impact from a kerb in the chicane is thought to have damaged his front wing slightly.
Knowing he could still improve and fearful of lengthy repairs costing him a place on the grid, Ratzenberger continued on track.
As he approached the Villeneuve Curva, the repairs he had put off proved a terrible misjudgment. Approaching the high speed turn at 200 miles an hour, the front wing on Ratzenberger’s Simtek collapsed. Unable to turn and with no front brakes, both as a result of the lack of front loading, Berger went straight as the corner began, continuing into a wall at 306 km/h (195mph).
Even at the speed of the impact, Ratzenberger’s mangled car managed to roll back onto the circuit, swinging on two wheels before coming to halt. The left side of the car had been obliterated in the impact; small bent bars protruding from the monocoque were all that remained of the suspension. The whole rear of the body work was gone from both sides, as was the nose cone. Ratzenberger sat in the intact cockpit, limp.
For the first time in 12 years, Formula 1 had lost a driver in a race.
This is a video of the accident: watch at your own discretion.
As Ratzenberger’s tragedy unfolded, Ayrton Senna could be seen in the Williams garage with a horrified look on his face. Unable to watch anymore, he moaned and walked to the stewards’ office, asking to be driven to the scene of the accident in the hopes of finding some cause for what had happened.
Unable to do so, Senna began discussing plans to increase driver safety with fellow drivers Michael Schumacher and Gerhard Berger. His plan was to revive the Grand Prix Driver’s Association (GPDA); a collective of drivers that would actively press for changes in their interests, notably safety.
When it was announced later in the day that Ratzenberger had not survived his accident, Senna nearly quit. Professor Sid Watkins, the Formula 1 doctor, recalled that the Brazilian wept upon hearing the news and was unsure what to do. Watkins offered to take him fishing if he left the sport but, driven by his own passion for motorsport and desire to see the sport become safe, Senna declined.
The following day, he succeeded in getting the drivers to reform the GPDA and announced their intent to make the sport safer. An act inspired by Ratzenberger’s tragedy, Senna’s own death on Sunday would guarantee the safety overhauls he desired would be seen through.
Commonplace in nearly every form of motorsport today, the head and neck support (HANS) device was rarely seen before Ratzenberger’s death. The device is specifically designed to prevent basilar skull fractures, or fractures along the base of the skull. Such injuries are what Ratzenberger had succumbed to.
Though it had been invented by an American in 1980 who had lost his brother to a motorsport accident, the HANS device was largely ignored until the deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna at Imola. Before long after, the device would become mandatory, and was determined a permanent safety feature after Mercedes proved it was superior to airbags
Strong safety cells and more stringent crash regulations also followed the deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna. Some of the improved safety technology has played a role in improving road car safety.
Cars were also no longer allowed to skid across the ground for fear that the bouncing could decrease control.
Though no such sacrifices should ever have to be made for the sake of safety, Roland Ratzenberger should still be remembered as a crucial contributor to the safety of modern motorsport and, by effect, road cars. More than that, as a kind and humorous man who worked for ten long years just for a chance to drive a Formula 1 car alongside his heroes, he deserves to be remembered as a good man who died pursuing his dreams.