When recovering his body at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, officials found that Aryton Senna had a flag inside of the cockpit. It’s believed that had Senna won the race, he would have unfurled it in honour of a racer that had died during qualifying the day before. The flag was Austrian.
As we approach the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, Grid Talk discusses Roland Ratzenberger, whose untimely death is often overlooked in light of the second tragedy that occurred on that race day. We shouldn’t treat these deaths as separately but equally.
Roland Ratzenberger had potential, which is what inspired this article. How far could he have gone? They raced in British Formula 3000, Japanese Formula 3000, and Le Mans. It was in Le Mans he displayed a talent for endurance racing, coming 9th in 1992 and 5th in 1993, with class positions of 2nd and 1st respectively. He almost had his F1 debut in 1991 for Jordan racing. That was not meant to be due to the loss of a major sponsor.
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix is infamous, along with this entire season. The rule changes for that season, ostensibly to reduce costs for smaller teams, got rid of electric driver aids, such as anti-lock brakes and traction control. While this did cut costs, it led to more accidents – Rubens Barrichello’s injury in Q1 of qualifying put a decidedly morbid mood on this race weekend.
During Q2, Ratzenberger’s front wing flap fell off, causing major suspension damage and worsened aerodynamics. During his next, and ultimately last, lap, the front wing broke off entirely and became lodged underneath his car. His car lost control and crashed at 180 mph into the Villeneuve kink. A basilar skull fracture caused Roland Ratzenberger’s death at the age of 33. His death was the first in F1 since 1986.
The next day, the more well known of the tragedies happened. While Aryton Senna’s death is the one we remember and is considered the catalyst for many rule changes during the 1994 season and beyond, aimed at increasing safety, a lot of the initial push came from Ratzenberger’s death. That’s what inspired Senna to reform the Grand Prix Driver’s Association, which was done the following weekend at Monaco by Michael Schumacher, Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger, and many others.
While these deaths could have been avoided with better rules, and more stringent safety requirements, we must remember the time’s culture. Even in 1994, the focus on safety and knowledge of injuries was not as extensive as today. If this happened in 2021, both men would have survived. However, it would have required that knowledge and culture.
The big question of this post was this: What could Roland Ratzenburger have achieved if he survived? His endurance racing talent was wasted with Simtek, whose unexciting and underfunded cars never really set the world on fire. The team would end up bankrupt in 1995. Had Ratzenberger continued through 1994 and 1995 and signed with another team, he could have been a venerable middle grid driver. Likely scoring points consistently, but probably not a serious title contender. Ultimately, we’ll never know. While most of the paddock would attend the 3 times World Champion funeral, 5 drivers went too, along with FIA President Max Mosely.
Almost 27 years later, Roland Ratzenburger is remembered as ‘the other driver’ to die. This post aims to provide a spotlight on Ratzenburger and remember someone who could have gone further. Instead, with this weekends Grand Prix edging closer, we remember Aryton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger, two men who died doing what they loved.