Roland Ratzenberger (4 July 1960 – 30 April 1994) was an Austrian racing driver who raced in Formula Nippon, Formula 3000 and Formula One. He died during qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the same event at which three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna was killed the following day.
Early life and early career
Born in Salzburg, Austria, Ratzenberger often claimed 1962 (rather than 1960) as his birth year, wanting to appear younger to extend his racing career. He began racing in German Formula Ford in 1983, and in 1985 won both the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships.
Racing in Britain
In 1985 he also entered the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, finishing second. He returned in 1986 and won it before graduating to British Formula Three the following season. While in the UK, he briefly gained fame for the similarity of his name to that of TV puppet Roland Rat, whom he appeared alongside in an edition of TV-am and whose branding briefly appeared on his car.
Two years in British F3 yielded two twelfth places in the championship with West Surrey Racing and Madgwick Motorsport respectively. He also raced in other formulae than single seaters, once finishing second in the 1987 World Touring Car Championship driving a Team Schnitzer BMW M3. In 1988 he entered the final few rounds of the British Touring Car Championship in a class B BMW M3 for the Demon Tweeks team.
In 1989 he entered the British Formula 3000 series, finishing third overall.
The same year he raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. The Brun Motorsport Porsche 962 he shared with Maurizio Sandro Sala and Walter Lechner retired in the third hour.
He raced in the next four Le Mans, with Brun again in 1991 and with the SARD team in 1990, 1992 and 1993. His highest finish came in 1993, when he, Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka finished fifth in a Toyota 93 C-V.
Racing in Japan
In the nineties Ratzenberger switched to Japanese racing. He won one race each in 1990 and 1991 in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship with the same SARD team he drove for at Le Mans. He also returned to touring car racing in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, finishing seventh in 1990 and 1991 in a BMW M3.
This paved the way for a return to Formula 3000 in the Japanese championship with the Stellar team in the 1992 season. The year began poorly but, when the team upgraded their two year-old Lola for a new model, Ratzenberger won twice to finish seventh overall. He remained in the series in the 1993 season, finishing eleventh.
In 1994 he finally achieved his ambition of becoming a Formula One driver, signing a five-race deal with the new Simtek team run by Nick Wirth.
His campaign got off to a poor start at the Brazilian Grand Prix in Interlagos where he failed to qualify. But he got onto the grid for the next round at the TI Circuit in Aida, Japan, as his experience of the track from his touring car days meant he was the only driver in the race who had driven at the venue before. He finished eleventh.
Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit on Saturday 30 April 1994. He went off-track on the previous lap, damaging his front wing, but rather than come into the pits he continued since he was competing for the final grid spot. The high speed on the back straight, and therefore high wind pressure, finally broke the wing off, sending it under Ratzenberger’s car. His car failed to turn into the Villeneuve Corner and struck the outside wall at 195.68 mph (314.9 km/h).
The cause of death was a basal skull fracture.
He was the first racing driver to die at a Grand Prix weekend since the 1982 season, when Riccardo Paletti was killed at the Canadian Grand Prix, coincidentally at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. He was the first driver to die in an F1 car since Elio de Angelis during testing in 1986.
The day after Ratzenberger’s death, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna was killed in another accident that brought the sport of Formula One under international scrutiny. The double tragedy was marked before the start of the next race in Monaco, with the front row of the grid left empty and the two slots painted with a Brazilian and Austrian flag.
While Ratzenberger’s death was overshadowed to some extent by Senna’s loss barely 24 hours later, his death nonetheless had one lasting legacy. On 1 May 1994, during the customary drivers’ briefing, the remaining drivers agreed to the reformation of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, with Senna, Gerhard Berger and Michael Schumacher as its first directors. The Association subsequently pressed for improvements to car and circuit safety in the wake of Imola and other serious crashes during the 1994 season; in 2003 the FIA mandated the use of the HANS device, designed to prevent the type of injury suffered by Ratzenberger.
When track officials examined the wreckage of Senna’s racing car, they found a furled Austrian flag. Senna had planned to raise it after the race, in honour of Ratzenberger.
FIA President Max Mosley attended the funeral of Ratzenberger, despite the overwhelming attention on Senna’s funeral, both in the world of motorsport and worldwide. In a press conference ten years later Mosley said, “‘Roland had been forgotten. So I went to his funeral because everyone went to Senna’s. I thought it was important that somebody went to his.”
Ratzenberger was supposed to drive later that year in the Le Mans 24 Hours for Toyota. Eddie Irvine took his place in the team, and Roland’s name was left on the car (which would go on to take second place overall) as a tribute.
Roland Ratzenberger is buried in Maxglan
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