October 26 1986 is remembered as the day that Nigel Mansell’s spectacular tyre failure in Adelaide handed the world championship to Alain Prost. It was also the day that Roland Ratzenberger won the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, firmly marking himself out as a man of the future. That evening the beaming Austrian celebrated in the Kentagon, the crowded bar at the top of Paddock Hill Bend. Among the first to congratulate him was Johnny Herbert, winner of the previous year’s event. Inevitably the two men chatted about their hopes for the future. Roland had recently signed to drive for BMW in the new World Touring Car Championship, while Johnny was heading towards British Formula 3 with Eddie Jordan. Both men had loftier ambitions.
“We talked about where the journey was leading us,” Herbert recalls. “He’d had the difficult times, and then won the Festival. I had won the Festival the year before, but then had a difficult ’86 season in the FF2000 Quest.
“We just discussed how things can go so well and then turn against you – but if you had the right mentality, it was something you would always get over. F1 was the thing we talked about. We knew what the stepping stones were, we knew we were on the road, and we were just bouncing it off each other.”
Remarkably Herbert would be a Formula 1 driver within just two and a half years, but for Ratzenberger, that road would be a long one.
When he won the Festival he was 26, although he’d lost two years on his CV in attempt to appear younger. With no parental support he’d already spent an age trying to get his career off the ground, working as a mechanic for less talented drivers and instructing in racing schools. The BMW deal for 1987 was the first time he had earned any proper money.
Always good at winning people over with his big smile and genuine charm, he found enough sponsorship to compete in British F3 and Formula 3000 and, when he ran out of options, he moved into sportscar racing to keep his career afloat.
The big break came in 1990, when he landed a drive with the SARD Toyota team in Japan. He soon emerged as a major force, which led to chances in the domestic F3000 series. He earned good money in Japan, but F1 remained his goal. When at the end of 1993 opportunities opened up for his friends and F3000 rivals Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Roland was happy for them, but inevitably a little envious.
“He loved F1,” says Irvine. “He was addicted to it, and it was amazing how much he wanted it. He had a great career in Japan, but he kept pushing for F1, especially with me and then Frentzen jumping across. It must have been tough for him, but it also encouraged him.”
Roland’s own chance would come with the new Simtek team, following an introduction by Gerhard Berger’s manager Burghard Hummel, a wheeler dealer who helped Roland informally.
Over the winter of 1993-94 Ratzenberger put a deal together with Simtek boss Nick Wirth, having landed support from a wealthy Monaco-based German who had taken a shine to him.
“He’d got the backing of Barbara Behlau,” says Wirth. “She had befriended Roland and decided that she should support his motor racing career. So she put a lot of the money up, which helped him to get the drive and us to get the team together. It was really with her backing, Roland’s tenacity and Hummel’s help that the whole thing came together.”
Eventual a deal was agreed for Roland to drive the second car alongside David Brabham. At 33 he was finally an F1 driver – but initially his contract covered only the first six races, and others with money were circling around.”When I heard about it I was really happy for him, because I knew how hungry he had been,” says Herbert. “I knew how frustrated he was as a typical driver, knowing that a couple of us had got our way into it. He finally had the backing that he needed to give himself that chance.
“When I saw him I remember giving him a bit of a hug and saying, ‘You’ve made it’. He said: ‘It’s been a little bit tougher for me than you!’ He was probably the very last one who had been his own mechanic, working on his Formula Ford car, who got to F1.”
There was little time for testing, and Ratzenberger’s own chassis was only finished on the eve of the Brazilian Grand Prix.
“We started off with a big pile of bits in the garage, trying to build his car and nicking nuts and bolts from McLaren and Williams,” says Brabham’s engineer Rod Nelson. “We didn’t have enough bits to build the car, but we got him out.”
With two cars failing to qualify at each race – and Simtek fighting with fellow newcomer Pacific for the last spots in the field – the pressure was on.Beset by mechanical gremlins, and still learning his way around the S941, Roland was devastated when he missed the cut at Interlagos. “It was you race or you don’t race, you succeed or fail,” says Wirth. “Pressure like they don’t have now. If you don’t make it from Q2 into Q3, big deal. In ’94 it was you do not race and you go home. We were a new team with new cars, and it was a bloody steep learning curve.”
Nevertheless, Ratzenberger impressed the small team with his knowledge and approach.
“The whole car was just thrown together very quickly,” says his race engineer Humphrey Corbett. “It’s not surprising that there were one or two problems.
“You knew he wasn’t bullshitting you, he wanted to succeed as much as we did. I remember thinking, bloody hell, this guy knows what’s going on in the car. He would also say, ‘I need to find more time in myself,’ which is very refreshing to come across in a driver.”
Second time out at Aida Roland missed Friday qualifying after a crash in the morning. Nevertheless he made it into the field on Saturday. The following day he managed to bring the car safely home in 11th and last.”To get both cars racing in Japan was an unbelievable thing, it really was,” says Wirth. “The odds were stacked against us. I was so happy for Roland as well, because I knew how disappointed he was from Brazil, and how much it all meant to him. It was, ‘We’re on the way now’.”
However, Ratzenberger was frustrated with his own performance, especially in the slow corners. At the third race at Imola he struggled with the brakes, and he was convinced something was amiss. Roland was vindicated when Brabham backed his assessment after sampling his car on Friday. Certainly after he got new brakes he made good progress,” says Brabham. “And I thought, ‘Great, there’s some good competition within the team.” Meanwhile the big story that day was a huge crash for Rubens Barrichello.
“I spoke to Roland on Friday,” says Herbert. “We just discussed what we’d seen, and how violent it was. ‘That was scary’. He mentioned that we should stick together a little bit more about the safety stuff.” Come Saturday, and with his car now working more effectively, Ratzenberger was in an optimistic mood. Following Barrichello’s accident the entry was down to 27, which meant that he had to beat just one Pacific – in effect that of the tardy Paul Belmondo – to make the grid.
“He was always very upbeat, and always very positive,” says Corbett. “I think he felt that almost for the first time he could put in a good performance, and he was probably chirpier than he normally was.” Early in the session Roland was indeed faster than Belmondo. Simtek’s data would later indicate that on a subsequent lap he had a minor excursion, and had then given the steering wheel a shake to ensure that all was OK, and to clean the tyres. He then went for another quick lap.
“He didn’t lose a lot of time, but it was enough for him to think, ‘I’d better check the car,'” says Brabham. “Looking at the data he’d zig-zagged and braked, and in his mind he’d be saying, ‘Do I come in and check it?’ I can understand why he didn’t. “He couldn’t have felt if there was an issue with the front wing, and off he went. And that lap is when he didn’t come round.”
As he headed into the Villeneuve corner the front wing came adrift, probably after two of the four bolts that attached it to the nose had worked loose. He ran off the road and hit the concrete wall at a terrifying speed. “I went past the wreckage of Roland’s car and my heart sank because it looked pretty bad immediately,” says then Williams racer Damon Hill. “Guys were standing around the car and waving us past, but there was no attempt to get him out of the car, and he looked limp.”
“I saw the red flags,” Herbert recalls. “I saw it was a Simtek, but I didn’t know which one. As I got to him I slowed up and looked. I remember him being slumped, and thinking ‘shit’…”
It wasn’t long before the stunned F1 paddock learned that Roland had died: “It was really quite emotional for me,” says Johnny. “I remember having a little cry back at the hotel after I heard the news.”
“I engineered Paul Warwick as well,” says Corbett. “And I still have those two deaths on my mind the whole time. In the back of my diary I make a note of the day that Roland died, and the day that Paul died.”
Herbert was one of the few F1 drivers to attend Ratzenberger’s funeral, joining Gerhard Berger in an overnight dash from the Ayrton Senna memorial in Sao Paulo to Salzburg. For Roland the road that the pair had discussed on that evening at Brands Hatch had come to an end.
“What happened on the Sunday almost completely and utterly wiped away that day,” says Johnny. “That’s why I went to both funerals, to pay my final respects.
“It was so unfair that he was taken away and he wasn’t given that chance of competing in F1 properly.”