The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was among the blackest weekends in motor racing history. Even before Ayrton Senna’s death, Imola and the sport in general were in sombre mood for rookie Roland Ratzenberger had been killed during qualifying.
The popular Austrian’s route to Formula 1 had not been straightforward but he had won races at every stage of that career. Trained as an engineer, Ratzenberger financed early Formula Ford 1600 outings in 1983 by working as a mechanic for others. Austrian, German and European FF1600 titles followed in 1985 and his time in the category culminated with victory in the 1986 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch by beating Philippe Favre in a thrilling finish.
That led to a Schnitzer BMW drive in the 1987 World Touring Car Championship and he finished second at Járama and Silverstone. That was parallel to a limited Formula 3 schedule in West Surrey Racing’s Ralt RT31-Volkswagen. However, victory in the Nürburgring’s EFDA Euroseries race was the highlight of a largely disappointing campaign.
Ratzenberger finished third in the British Formula 3000 series in 1988 and 1989 but his future lay in Japanese racing – competing there and for its teams abroad. Success included an F3000 victory for Stellar International in 1992 and fifth in the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours when sharing a SARD Toyota 92CV with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka.
Consistent success in Japan helped the 33 year old to raise the budget needed to graduate to the 1994 F1 World Championship with the small Simtek concern. Eleventh on his debut in the Pacific GP, he was on course to qualify again at Imola when he crashed at 200mph approaching the Tosa corner. He suffered a broken neck in the accident and died shortly after arriving at hospital in Bologna.
That was a tragic loss of a true gentleman. However, his death would be forever overshadowed by the following day’s events.