If motorsports is a ladder, and if Formula One is the top rung, Roland Ratzenberger was hanging on by his fingernails. With only enough funding for five races, he had already missed the first, unable to qualify the new, heavy, underpowered Simtek car.
He managed to make the second race, barely, and mostly because he was more familiar with the circuit than the other drivers. He finished 11th, last of the cars that were still running.
This third race, though, the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, was critical. One car out of the 27 there would go home, and it would likely be him, or Bertrand Gachot in his lumbering Pacific.
So he was taking all the car could give him, and more. During the last qualifying session, he ran off the track briefly, and when he came back on, he steered his car back and forth, determining that the suspension and tires weren’t damaged.
There was time for one more flying lap before he’d pit to check the car over. If he couldn’t hang onto that top rung now, he knew he would never get another chance. In a couple of months he would be 34. That was the age F1 drivers should be thinking about retiring, not getting their rookie stripes – after all, Ayrton Senna, polesitter for tomorrow’s race, was only a few months older than Ratzenberger, and already had 41 wins. Sometimes Ratzenberger would tell prospective employers he was born in 1962, instead of 1960, until he realized that by now, two years wouldn’t make much difference.
At full speed, he closed in on a mild right-hand kink called Villeneuve Corner. He did not know that the off-track shunt had damaged his front wing. It came apart at the worst time. With no downforce, the car steered straight towards the wall.
Ratzenberger was in trouble. He was traveling more than 310 km/h. He tried to steer, tried to brake, but nothing would change the speed and trajectory of his Simtek. It smashed into the wall and skirted it for a couple hundred feet before coming to rest exactly in the middle of the track, Ratzenberger’s head slowly lolling from side to side like a rag doll’s.
The first safety workers to arrive looked into the car and backed away, milling about like we’ve seen in so many tragedies. You can read their minds: Oh, god. Oh, Jesus. This is bad. This is bad. What do we do?
Medical workers removed Ratzenberger from the car and placed him on the stretcher, and they took turns doing chest compressions. It was at Bologna’s Maggiore hospital, not far from the track, where he was pronounced dead. That’s the custom: Drivers are typically taken to the nearest hospital where family and friends gather, still hopeful, before their hopes are dashed in a proper, controlled setting.
Roland Ratzenberger died when he hit the wall from multiple injuries, including the basilar skull fracture that became a household term when it happened seven years later to Dale Earnhardt at Daytona International Speedway. Would a HANS device have saved Ratzenberger? Maybe, maybe not. But the results could not have been any worse.
Ronald Ratzenberger likely never knew that a previous lap would have been fast enough for him to qualify 26th, and race the next day. The newspapers, of course, hit the streets Sunday morning with Ratzenberger’s photo on the front page. After all, no F1 driver had been killed during a Grand Prix weekend for 12 years.
What a chilling weekend at Imola: Friday, Rubens Barrichello, just 21, had launched his Jordan off a curb like a fighter jet leaving an aircraft carrier, catapulting into the top of the catch fence and flipping over. A safety worker carelessly pushed the car back onto its wheels, and Barrichello’s helmeted head took one more lick on the sidepod as a result. He was unconscious but survived.
Then came journeyman Ratzenberger’s death on Saturday – likely Senna would win his 42nd race on Sunday, but there would be no celebrating: He would unfurl the Austrian flag he carried with him inside the cockpit and wave it in victory lane to honor a fellow driver he barely knew, the first driver to die during Senna’s decade-long F1 career. Of course, Senna never got that chance. This weekend, the motorsports world will remember Senna on the 20th anniversary of his death. Will they also remember Roland Ratzenberger?
He deserves it.
Ratzenberger was born in Salzburg, Austria on July 4, 1960. There was never a question in his mind about his career path: He would race. His family was not wealthy, though, so Ratzenberger had to work to earn his first ride in a kart at age 16. It was a template followed for the rest of his life: He worked for everything. Three years later, he worked to pay for his first ride in a Formula Ford 1600.
Four years later, in 1983, he had shown enough talent and willingness to learn to begin to attract attention. He raced in the German Formula Ford championship in 1984, paying for his car by working as a mechanic for the series. In 1985, he won 11 of the 16 Formula Ford races he entered. Doubters were becoming believers. In England in 1986, he won the Formula Ford Festival, long a respected steppingstone.
But good rides were scarce. He bounced from Formula 3 to European Touring Cars, back to Formula 3, to Formula 3000. He made it to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1989, and that led to rides in Japan in 1990 and 1991, winning races in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship. He first reached for the top rung of the ladder in 1991, when a Japanese sponsor planned to finance a run in Eddie Jordan’s new F1 tea, but the deal fell through and it was back to Japan, this time in Formula 3000. In 1993, though, he was back at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Toyota, finishing fifth overall and first in class.
Then came 1994, and what he knew was his last, best chance. Barbara Behlau was a smart, enterprising businesswoman who lived in Monaco, working as a sports agent. She saw promise in Ratzenberger, and arranged enough financing through several sponsors, mostly MTV Europe, to pay for five races.
The team was Simtek – short for Simulation Technology – and one of the founders was Nick Wirth, who began his racing career as an aero designer for March. Five years after the British engineering company was founded in 1989, Wirth decided to try F1 for himself, designing the Simtek S941. Originally the car featured active suspension, but F1 banned the technology shortly before the start of the season, forcing Wirth back to the drawing board with a too-tight deadline. The resulting car was heavy, had a manual transmission that shifted slower than the competition’s semiautomatics, and was powered by a customer Ford HB V-8 engine from Cosworth, which was down on power to the front-runners.
Taking a part-ownership role in Simtek was Sir Jack Brabham, the three-time F1 champion who, not surprisingly, installed his youngest son David Brabham in the main car’s seat. Several drivers were up for the second car, but deals fell through, and suddenly Roland Ratzenberger had his chance. Though Behlau couldn’t find the money for a full season, Ratzenberger – as he had all his life – figured if he worked hard enough, drove well enough, the money would come from somewhere. It had to.
At the first race of the season, Brabham qualified last, but Ratzenberger couldn’t make the field in the trouble-plagued car. Both cars qualified for the next race, and both had problems and Brabham’s car broke, but Ratzenberger soldiered on to 11th, the last of the cars still running at the end. Finally, he was a Formula One driver.
Next, the San Marino Grand Prix. Branham was in the show, barely, and Ratzenberger knew than missing two of his first three F1 races was not the sort of performance that would attract additional sponsors.
It was all on the line for the last qualifying lap.
And then it was over. Many tributes suggested that Ratzenberger died doing what he loved. Perhaps. Brabham went on to race the next day: “I am confident that the greatest tribute we can pay to Roland is to race today,” Brabham said in a statement, “hence my decision.” His car’s steering broke soon after Senna was killed. He did not finish.
For the next race, at Behlau’s hometown of Monaco, Brabham raced again, with “For Roland” painted on the airbox. Out of respect for Ratzenberger, Barbara Behlau continued to sponsor the team through 1995, even though MTV Europe backed away. By the end of the year, after a series of pay-to-play drivers performed with little success – even Brabham had moved on to race BMWs in the British Touring Car Championship – Simtek went bankrupt, and its assets sold at auction. Wirth, now 48, went on to design F1 cars like the Virgin VR-1, and American Le Mans Series entries like the Acura LMP car. Barbara Behlau was 62 when she died in 2006. David Brabham, 48, still races sports cars.
Roland Ratzenberger is buried in a well-tended grave in a cemetery in Salzburg not far from the airport. The vast majority of drivers and crew and F1 executives attended Senna’s funeral instead of Ratzenberger’s. One who did not was FIA President Max Mosley, who, along with Wirth, was a founder of Simtek. Years later, Mosley said he wentto Ratzenberger’s funeral “because everyone went to Senna’s. I thought it was important that somebody went to his.”
Often Ratzenberger is called the “forgotten man,” since his death was immediately and comprehensively overshadowed by Ayrton Senna’s death. But that isn’t true: Had Senna not died that same weekend, few would likely remember Roland Ratzenberger at all. And that Sunday morning after his death, and before the race, a shaken Senna and other drivers publicly called for greater safety measures. That led to the formation of the Advisory Expert Group, chaired by Dr. Sid Watkins.
And one of the changes the Group pushed through was the use of the HANS device – which may have saved Roland Ratzenberger’s life.