Simtek Grand Prix started out in life as a British engineering consultancy firm. In 1989 Simtek Research was founded by future FIA-president Max Mosley and designer Nick Wirth. The company was involved in various engineering activities within the world of Formula 1. A few years later in 1993 the decision was made to bring the burgeoning business to the forefront by launching its own F1-team. By this time Max Mosley had already been FIA-president for a full year. To prevent a conflict of interests he sold his remaining shares to Nick Wirth.
The brand new team thankfully had some prior experience with designing a complete F1-car. Simtek had provided the backmarking Italian Andrea Moda team with a reworked car originally designed for a supposedly returning BMW factory effort. For their new car Simtek would stick to what they knew and produce a very conservative design. A conventional carbon fiber monocoque chassis, an unremarkable aerodynamics package and an overweight car were the result. Power was sourced from Ford’s customer program. The Cosworth built HBD6 3.5L V8 produced around 670 horsepower, which was transferred to the rear wheels by an X-Trac 6-speed sequential gearbox. The engine was nowhere near powerful enough to run with the big boys, as the Ferrari V12 and the Renault V10 had already comfortably passed the 800 horsepower mark.
As a new entry the team had an instant money problem. The hip kids at MTV provided principal sponsorship, and triple World Champion Jack Brabham took a substantial share of Simtek Grand Prix. With the share came the driving services of his son David. David Brabham had only driven for one full season in 1990 and only qualified 6 times out of 14 races, but Simtek was in no position to demand more.
The second driver would have to be a pay driver to keep the team afloat, but the search proved difficult. F1-veteran Andrea de Cesaris (ITA) and F3000 driver Gil de Ferran (BRA) were both considered for their tasty sponsorship money, but negotiations were unsuccessful. 1993 Minardi driver Jean-Marc Gounon was also considered, but he turned out to have other commitments. Finally the team signed veteran Group C racer Roland Ratzenberger just days before the start of the first Grand Prix. The 33-year old Austrian claimed to be 31 to extend his racing career, and only provided enough funding to drive just 5 of the 16 races.
Despite all the teething problems Simtek was ready in time for the first round of the season, the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. The uncompetitive nature of their poorly designed car became painfully clear in the first qualifying session. David Brabham barely qualified for the Grand Prix. He managed to set a best time of 1:21.186, some 5.2 seconds slower than the pole sitting Williams FW16 of Ayrton Senna. Brabham was the last car to qualify at 26th on the grid. His teammate was not so lucky. Roland Ratzenberger was a devastating 1.5 seconds slower than Brabham, 6.7 second down from pole.
With Ratzenberger sidelined David Brabham was left to defend the rookie team’s honor. He did just that by staying out of trouble and finishing the S941’s first race, which was in itself a minor victory for Simtek. Even so the woeful car crossed the line dead last in 12th position, 4 laps down on the winning Bennetton B194 of Michael Schumacher.
The second round of the championship took place at the tight and technical TI Circuit in Aida, Japan for the Pacific Grand Prix. Once again the Simtek drivers were struggling to drag the S941 onto the grid for the race proper. The team had little time and money to develop the sluggish machine, which resulted in the cars starting 25th (Brabham) and 26th (Ratzenberger). This marked the first time for rookie Roland Ratzenberger to qualify for a Formula 1 Grand Prix. On race day Simtek immediately took a hit on the nose. David Brabhams car slowed with an electrical issue after just 2 short laps. This left the pressure to finish the race fully on the shoulders of his teammate. Roland Ratzenberger dutifully delivered by finishing in a predictable 11th and last position, 5 laps down on the winning Bennetton of Michael Schumacher.
Next up on the calendar was the San Marino Grand Prix run at the infamously fast Imola circuit. Imola was famous for its dizzying fast sweeping corners and a lack of a real start/finish straight. Every single inch of the track seemed to be designed to yield the maximum amount of g-force through high speed cornering.
This made the course fantastically exciting and a favorite among fans and drives alike. Unfortunately the track´s legendary status also harbored a darker side. The intensity and stresses of the rapid-fire corners and the very narrow strip of grass leading to unforgiving concrete walls had claimed the ego´s of many experienced drivers. Just five years earlier Ferrari ace Gerhad Berger collided with the wall at the infamous flat out Tamburello corner when his front wing failed. His Ferrari 640 burst into flames, but a quick reaction by the stewards saved the tall Austrian´s life.
While the rest of the world was eagerly awaiting the titanic battle between Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, the 35 people employed at Simtek were focusing on a very different goal: making the cut. The fast nature of Imola was ill suited to the lackluster performance of the underpowered and heavy S941 chassis, which meant both drivers would have to push to the ragged edge. During the Friday qualifying session the paddock was shocked by the violent crash of Jordan driver Rubens Barrichello, who hopped a kerb and slammed into the barriers at Variante Bassa. The young Brazilian was knocked unconscious upon impact and transported to hospital. Luckily he survived the ordeal with no more but a broken nose and a wounded arm. Despite the the positive outcome, Barrichello´s accident was a stark reminder of the dangers of Imola.
Undeterred, the F1 circus continued on Saturday for the second and final qualifying session. Both Simtek drivers were again fighting valiantly to get on the grid. Roland Ratzenberger was determined to keep the form he demonstrated at the previous race. While wrestling the lackluster S941 around the track on the very limit he lost it at the Acque Minerali chicane. The resulting off inflicted major damage to his front wing, but the Austrian was too focused on setting a time that he failed to notice. He opted to stay out rather than let his mechanics check out the car for possible damage, a decision that would end his very short career.
Ratzenberger flung his S941 towards the sweeping Villeneuve Curva, when the mounts of his front wing finally snapped. In a split second the wing flew off and jammed under the car behind the front wheels, lifting them clear off the ground. With no way to control the car and no time to brake, Roland Ratzenberger careened into the wall at an estimated 306 kph. Miraculously the car´s carbon fiber safety cell stood up to the dramatic impact. It had remained largely intact, but the immense g-forces involved had taken their toll nonetheless. Roland Ratzenberger suffered a severe basilar skull fracture, but was amazingly still alive. Safety personnel rushed to his aid and he was quickly airlifted to Maggiore hospital in Bologna. There he was pronounced dead on arrival. He was just 33 years old.
Roland Ratzenberger’s death went through the paddock like a shockwave. The warning spelled out by Barrichello´s crash had now become a nightmarish reality. Not since Ricardo Paletti´s death at the Canadian GP in 1982 had a driver lost his life during a Grand Prix weekend. Most affected by the horrors of Saturday was a man who had openly flirted with danger during most of his career, triple World Champion Ayrton Senna. Together with Ferrari´s Gerhard Berger and former driver Niki Lauda, Senna instigated the reformation of the Formula One Drivers Association during the pre-race drivers briefing on Sunday. The organization´s goal would be to push for immediate improvements in track and car safety.
Unfortunately the initiative came too late even for Ayrton Senna himself, as he met his untimely death later that day. When marshals examined Senna´s car after the accident, they found a folded Austrian flag. Senna had meant to raise it in honor of his fallen brother in arms on his victory lap.
Roland Ratzenberger’s legacy lives on in the drivers that have been saved because of the improved safety measures he inspired.