The dream of every driver competes in car racing is to reach some day the top series of motorsports, Formula 1. It was a dream of life for Roland Ratzanberger too.
Born on the 4th of Jule 1960 at Salzburg, Austria, his racing career started at the German Formula Ford in 1983 (that is, at the age of 23), which was quite late and for that reason he stated himself to his employers as 2 years younger.
In 1985, he won both the Austrian and Central Europe Championships and finished 2nd at the Formula Ford Festival that was held at Brands Hatch. In 1986, he competed once again in the festival and won the race.
The next two years found him at the British F3, where he finished 12th at both times. Alongside F3, in 1987, he competed in the WTCC too (at its last year, until 2005, when it was revived) with Schnitzer’s BMW M3 and team-mates the Italians Ivan Capelli, Emanuele Pirro and Roberto Ravaglia. A 2nd and two 3rd places were his best results and finished the season in 10th place.
In 1988 (once again alongside F3) he competed in the 8 out of 13 races of the BTCC with Demon Tweeks’ BMW M3, finishing the year 4th in his class. Ratzie moved a category up in 1989, competing in the British F3000 on behalf of Spirit Motorsport team. He won a race (at Donington Park) finishing the year in 3rd place.
He competed in the 24 hours of Le Mans the same year with a Porsche 962 of the Brun Motorsport team, but retired after 3 hours. In 1990, he decided to continue his career in Japan. A move that might sound as suicidal these days, but at that time, the Japanese championships carried a lot of weight and many names surfaced from there towards Europe and Formula 1. He competed in the Japanese sports prototype championship with SARD team and simultaneously in the JTCC (Japanese Touring Car Championship) with a BMW M3 by Auto Tech Racing.
At the sports prototypes, he rivaled known names of the business (some of whom made it to F1), such as Derek Bell, Luiz Perez Sala, Manuel Reuter, Toshio Suzuki, Johnny Herbert, Rickard Rydell, Eddie Irvine, as well as the Greek Costas Los. Together with the Japanese Naoki Nagasaka, they won the last race of the championship that was held at Fuji, at the cockpit of a Toyota 89C-V. At the JTCC, with the same team-mate, he won 2 races in his class (JTC-2) and finished in the 7th place overall. He also competed in the 24 hours of Le Mans, without making it to the end, though.
1991 was one of the same.
At the prototypes he managed to grab a win at Suzuka, while at the JTCC he won 3 out of 6 races in his class and finished 7th in the general standings once again. For yet another time, he didn’t make it to the checkered flag at Le Mans. For 1992, he switched to Formula Nipon (Japanese F3000 championship). He began without any distinctions, as his team was using the 1990 chassis. When they finally brought a new generation one, the Austrian took 2 pole positions and won at Syzuka, finishing the year in 7th place overall. Of course, there couldn’t be a year without Le Mans. Thus, he competed with a Toyota 92C-V and Eje Eglh – Eddie Irvine as team-mates, finishing 2nd in their class (C2) and 9th overall.
1993 didn’t bring what was expected, since last year’s new chassis had grown… oldby next year and the championship ended with no wins for Roland and 11th place in the standings. At Le Mans, however, things went the opposite direction. With Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaki as team-mates, he managed to win the C2 category with a Toyota RC-93, finishing 5th overall. That place was meant to be his ticket to Formula 1!
At 33 years old already, Ratzenberger saw the light at the end of the tunnel that answers to the name Formula 1, through March-Leyton House’s former aerodynamicist, British Nich Wirth, and his team, Simtek (into which, Jack Brabham had entered as a shareholder) that would use Ford’s V8 customer engines. The first seat was automatically taken by Jack Brabham’s son, David, while the negotiations with Andrea de Cesaris, Gil de Ferran and Jean-Marc Gounon for the second, led to nothing.
That granted the opportunity to the Austrian to seal a contract for the first 5 races of the season, just a few days prior to the start of the championship. At the inaugural race, held in Brazil, Ratzie, having run no tests with the single-seater and without being familiar with the track, stayed out of the race, as expected. He did the 27th time in qualifying (with 26 being qualified) with his team-mate doing the 26th and starting the race from last. The first out of the five GPs he would race belonged to the past.
He would have 4 more opportunities in Formula 1 to prove he deserved to be there, since he had to bring some financial support to the team if he was to race for the rest of the championship.
The next race was taking place at Aida, Japan, something that automatically made things easier for him. In contrast with Brazil, the Austrian, here, had only to familiarize with the car, as he knew the track pretty well from his term at the Japanese championships. That enabled him to qualify into the race, starting from the 26th position, one place behind Brabham.
He didn’t perform any miracles in the race, he couldn’t, after all, with the car he had at his disposal, finishing in 11th and last position, 5 laps behind the winner Michael Schumacher, and in the same lap with Olivier Panis – Eric Bernard in the two Ligier-Renaults.
Then, F1 came to European soil and the circuit of Imola.