Roland Ratzenberger tragically crashed and died in only the third event of an F1 career that had taken him 34 years to begin.

In a bitter irony, this little-known driver died one day before Ayrton Senna, one of the most famous racers of all time, succumbed in another crash mere metres from the scene of Ratzenberger’s death.

Born on July 4th, 1960, in Salzburg, Austria, Ratzenberger’s racing career began in German Formula Ford in 1983.

He achieved notable successes in Formula Ford in 1985, winning the Austrian and Central European championships, finishing second in the German championship, and getting on the podium at the Brands Hatch Formula Ford Festival.

He returned to the festival in 1986 to win it. Two seasons of British Formula Three followed and he finished 12th in 1987 and 1988, for West Surrey Racing and Madgwick Motorsport respectively.

In 1987 he also competed in the World Touring Car Championship for the Schnitzer team. He managed two second places in a BMW M3, underlining his versatility as a driver. But the WTCC did not continue for another season (it was eventually revived in 2005).

After a poor 1988 in F3 he moved into British Formula 3000, ending the year third overall with one win.

He branched out again, this time into Group C sportscars, competing in a Brun Porsche 962 at the Le Mans 24 Hours, which he retired from. He continued to return to the Le Mans race every year, his best finish being fifth in 1993 in a Toyota 93 C-V with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka.

Before this he had relocated the focal point of his career from Britain to Japan. He raced in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship in an SARD Toyota, winning one race in 1990 and another in 1991.

In that second year he set himself the unusual personal goal of leading in every round of the season. In order to achieve this target, at the final round in Sugo, he deliberately jumped the start of to clear the faster TWR Jaguar XJR14s that had locked out the front row of the grid.

He dovetailed this with two seasons in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, back in an M3, finishing seventh in both seasons.

For 1992 he returned to single-seaters and to F3000 – but remaining in Japan. He struggled at first in his Stellar team’s two year-old chassis. But after he got an up-to-date model he won two races in the Japanese Formula 3000 series.

During one race at Fuji he came to the assistance of Anthony Reid who had crashed so heavily the force of the impact ripped his crash helmet off. Ratzenberger was so outraged by the unhelpfulness of the marshals he helped a Japanese journalist write a magazine article about the deficiency of safety standards at the track.

He finished seventh overall in 1992, one place ahead of former SARD team mate Eddie Irvine, but dropped to eleventh in 1993.

Irvine made his F1 debut at the end of 1993 with Jordan, and Ratzenberger finally joined motor sports’ elite the following year.

Monaco-based sports manager Barbara Behlau helped him gain a seat in the all-new Simtek team for 1994 early in March, just days before the start of the season. At the time he only expected to be in the car for five Grands Prix, unless he could find further funding.

At his first appearance in Interlagos, Brazil he failed to qualify after a mechanical problems in practice and the untimely intervention of a rain storm during final qualifying.

But arriving at the new F1 venue at Aida in Japan, Ratzenberger was the only driver in the field with prior experience of the circuit, from his Japanese Touring Car days. He qualified 26th (last) and finished 11th, five laps down.

On Saturday 30th April during qualifying Ratzenberger ran wide and off the road at the Acque Minerali chicane, apparently damaging the front of his car.

On the following lap he approached the flat-out Villeneuve kink and, it is believed, his front wing failed, pitching the Simtek into an unyielding barrier at around 320kph (200mph). He was killed instantly.

In his memory, Simtek ran the rest of the season with “For Roland” painted on the car’s airbox. Irvine was drafted into the SARD team he had been due to race for at Le Mans, but Ratzenberger’s name remained on the side of the car.

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