During a break between sessions at the 1989 Le Mans 24 Hours, I bumped into event rookie Roland Ratzenberger in the back of the paddock.
A pal since his Formula Ford days, he’d just experienced his first laps of the circuit in a Brun Porsche 962 and was beaming wildly.
Le Mans was his kind of race and, since the ACO had announced that chicanes would be added to the Mulsanne Straight for 1990, he was delighted to be sampling the track in its unadulterated form.
“You know,” he said with his trademark smile. “The Steve McQueen movie is what made me want to become a racing driver…” The moment summed him up perfectly. You would struggle to find a driver possessed of such deep-rooted enthusiasm for the sport, or who had worked so hard and for so long to get where he was, fuelled by self-belief and an absolute commitment to make it.
Five years later Roland would achieve another big ambition when he finally made it to F1, albeit with a struggling new team. But his death at Imola meant that the world at large never got to know a man who made a lasting impression on those who knew him, and who earned the respect of team-mates and rivals.
“He was a good-looking guy, super fit and very charming,” says F1 team-mate David Brabham. “He was quite a ladies’ man, let’s put it that way! He was a colourful character. It’s a shame that we lost the opportunity to see what kind of man he would have become.”
“Ratzy was super, super competitive, and very professional in the car,” adds his 1992 Group C co-driver Eddie Irvine. “He gave 100 per cent every time. He was smart, talented and worked hard for everything he had.”
Roland was born in Salzburg on July 4, 1960, although – much like Gilles Villeneuve, one of his heroes – he would later lose a couple of years in order to keep his career on an upward trajectory. His father Rudolf was a civil servant involved in pensions, and didn’t have any interest in motor sport. The family lived on a main road, however, and young Roland became fascinated by the passing cars.
When he was seven his grandmother took him to a local hillclimb at Gaisberg, then in 1969 the Salzburgring opened just a few kilometres from his home, further stoking a growing interest in motorsport. With Jochen Rindt and, later, Niki Lauda competing in F1, there was plenty to excite a young Austrian.
As a teenager Roland discovered that racer and Formula Ford team owner Walter Lechner was based nearby and, while studying at a technical school, he began to hang around the workshop. On finishing his education at 18 he joined Lechner, who – with perfect timing – was just opening a racing school at the Salzburgring.
Roland had no money, and there was no support whatsoever from his parents. But now he had an opportunity to get behind the wheel on a regular basis while working as a mechanic and later instructor at the school. “His parents were 100 percent against me,” Lechner says. “Because I was the one who helped to get him into racing! From day one he was very confident, he was sure he would make it.
He was very hungry and very focused
“The only problem was that he was underfinanced like hell. Gerhard Berger was with us in FF2000, and it might even be possible that Roland worked on his car. Gerhard was a wealthy son from a big transport company, and it was much, much harder for Roland…”
It was indeed a slog. Roland took any opportunity to further a stop-start Formula Ford career, working at the Jim Russell school in Italy, as a mechanic for a German team and later at engine tuner Gatmo. He was always helped by his networking skills, easy-going charm and a big, winning smile.
Everything finally came together in 1986, when he tackled the British FF1600 series on a shoestring. There was a level playing field for the one-off Race of Champions event at Brands Hatch, where Van Diemen provided 25 identical cars and Roland beat a strong field. Back in his own machine he did a brilliant job to win the Festival at the end of the year.
He was already 26 – although he told the world he was 24 – but his success finally propelled him upwards. Via an introduction from Gerhard Berger’s manager Burghard Hummel, who helped out as a favour, he landed a works BMW drive with Schnitzer in the new World Touring Car Championship. Despite his inexperience he held his own alongside Roberto Ravaglia, Emanuele Pirro and Ivan Capelli, and logged a string of podium finishes.
Hummel also helped Roland to find ATS funding for British F3, and he earned a couple of thirds with West Surrey. Combining two parallel programmes had not been easy, and for 1988 he focused on F3, this time with Madgwick. It was a difficult season, and his career seemed to have stalled. His only way forward in single-seaters in 1989 was the second-string British F3000 series.
New doors were opening, however. That year he also took his first steps in sports car racing having landed a Toyota seat with SARD, rival to the works TOM’S team in Japan. He dovetailed that with some World Championship races with Brun, sharing with old mentor Lechner on his aforementioned Le Mans debut.
The racing scene was booming in the Far East and Japan would become Roland’s second home, his SARD job leading to opportunities in F3000 and Group A. He finally began to earn good money, enough to justify setting up a European base in Monaco. Despite his success in Japan, however, he always kept his options open. He was one of many drivers hoping to get into Jordan for its F1 first season in 1991, and later he had an impressive Champ Car test with Dick Simon at Willow Springs.
In the winter of 1991-92 his life briefly changed, when he quietly married the former long-time partner of another driver. The arrangement lasted a matter of weeks and he soon discovered that he wasn’t ready to settle. His greatest regret was that to show his initial commitment he had thrown away his little black book, losing a lifetime of carefully stored phone numbers. Not that finding new lady friends was ever a problem. “It was like his driving, he would just go for it,” says sports car team-mate Eje Elgh. “That was his personality.”
On track he continued to amass huge experience with the sheer volume of races and test days that he undertook in Japan. “He was extremely competitive,” says F3000 and touring car team-mate Andrew Gilbert-Scott. “He was entertaining and very amusing. He was fit, strong and I think he could muscle Group C cars fairly easily. And he was quick and determined – as good as anybody on his day.”
When the local Group C series was canned for 1993, leaving Roland with just F3000 and touring cars, Japan’s appeal began to wane.
He was now 33, and with the clock ticking he began to look again at a way into F1. Irvine’s spectacular debut with Jordan at the end of that season gave him an extra impetus.
Back in Monaco he’d got to know Barbara Behlau, a wealthy German art collector and entrepreneur, and she was willing to put up some money to help get him into F1. Meanwhile, Max Mosley had introduced Hummel to Simtek founder Nick Wirth – and that contact led to Roland landing a drive alongside David Brabham, financed by Behlau. However, it was only guaranteed for the first few races. “He was very driven and I just liked him,” says Wirth. “From what we could tell he seemed to have the credentials. He was the ultimate charmer, just a wonderful guy.”
With Pacific also joining the grid, two drivers were always going to miss out and Roland was devastated when he failed to make the cut in Brazil after a misfire, damper problems and rain in final qualifying conspired against him.
Second time out in Aida, he made the grid after outpacing both Pacifics and kept out of trouble to bring the car home 11th. He was delighted to have completed a race distance, but for a guy so used to running at the front it wasn’t easy to adjust.
“It was all in his ability to get the slow corners right, which just drove him nuts,” says Wirth. “In the high-speed corners he was bang on the pace with David, and sometimes quicker. But he couldn’t get his head around the best way to get an F1 car to tackle a slow corner, and that’s really what held him back. With a new team, new cars and then the pressures of the battle with Pacific to qualify, it was a bloody steep learning curve.”
Knowing that his seat wasn’t guaranteed for the season just added to that pressure.
Roland drove from Monaco to the next race, Imola, in his recently acquired Porsche, giving Benetton driver JJ?Lehto a lift. The car wasn’t the only novelty as he adjusted to his full-time return to Europe – he’d also bought an apartment in central Salzburg. Having overseen the renovations on Roland’s behalf, sports car racer Ernst Franzmeier delivered the keys to him at Imola.
On track, meanwhile, he continued to try to come to terms with the Simtek. “It was not the best scenario for either us, trying to do F1 with a small team and very few resources,” Brabham says. “He was struggling a bit in terms of getting the best out of the brakes. He didn’t feel they were working properly. On the Friday I jumped in his car just to verify what was being said, because I had more experience with that kind of system. And they were shite, basically – he was absolutely right.”
On Saturday morning, with the brake issue addressed, Roland found some performance.
“All of a sudden he was where he should be,” Brabham says. “He was happier with the car, and happier with the brakes. You felt like his momentum was going to build, and he was going to push me, which would have been good for me, too.”
Come the afternoon qualifying session, Roland’s target was to beat the Pacifics and get onto the grid. “If you look at the circumstances now, he was just so desperate,” Wirth says. “He had his sponsors there; Japan was the first time he’d got into a race and he wanted to do it again. There was unbelievable pressure.”
“We were all very much on the edge,” says Pacific’s Bertrand Gachot, a friend from FF1600 days. “We knew we had cars that were difficult to drive. He tried his best and got unlucky.”
Simtek’s data would indicate that Roland hit a kerb before slowing and tweaking the steering wheel, as if checking the car for damage. With tyres at a premium, he went for another lap.
“I would have done exactly that,” says his engineer Humphrey Corbett. “You’re on a roll, it feels quite good, so go for it again.”
Roland was heading from Tamburello into Villeneuve when his front wing came adrift, seemingly the result of its mountings working loose. He left the track at unabated speed and struck the wall with sickening force.
“I remember coming around the first corner and seeing bits of bodywork on the ground,” says Brabham. “I immediately thought it was Roland. By the time I got there the ambulance had arrived. I can remember looking back at the car and seeing the way his head was positioned. I immediately thought he was gone, there didn’t seem to be any life in the car.”
Back in Salzburg Roland’s parents had just returned from holiday. They switched their TV on just in time to see the accident on Eurosport, although initially they were unaware that it involved their son.
“It’s a set of emotions I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” says Wirth. “When you are as responsible as I was… It is an indescribable feeling, the world falling away beneath your feet. It was so difficult, a feeling of numbness – it’s still tough talking about it today. The hardest bit was when Bernie came and told us Roland had died.”
Roland was on his own in Imola, so Hummel went to the hospital and later returned to Simtek’s hotel to pack his friend’s bags. He then drove the Porsche to Austria, eventually handing it over to his parents, along with the new apartment keys. The latter would become their home and they packed it with the memorabilia of a career they hardly knew.
“He was a bloody good driver, and very determined,” says Irvine. “And those two things are very important. You’ve got the super-talented drivers, but there aren’t many of those around. And then you’ve got the next crowd – he would have been part of that.”