When Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, he became the first Formula One driver to die during a grand prix weekend since Riccardo Paletti at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix. The next day, during the race itself, Ayrton Senna was also killed. Although Senna and Ratzenberger were born less than four months apart, their career paths were completely different.
For Ratzenberger, a 33-year old Austrian, the race at Imola was only the third grand prix of his career, having spent a decade slowly climbing the ladder from Formula Ford to F1. Senna, in contrast, was in his 11th F1 season, already a three-time world champion and universally regarded as one of the greatest racing drivers ever.
Understandably, if somewhat unfairly, the Brazilian champion’s death overshadowed that of his lesser-known colleague. Now, 24 years later, I spoke with two drivers who knew Ratzenberger well to get their memories of the man: Anthony Reid, who raced against Ratzenberger in Japan, most notably in the 1993 Japanese Formula 3000 season, and David Brabham, son of Australian triple world champion Jack Brabham and Ratzenberger’s teammate on that terrible weekend at Imola.
Reid got to know the Austrian during the early 1990s, when they both had their sights set on F1. For the European drivers in Japan at the time, “It was quite a close-knit community, compared to, say, racing in Europe,” Reid remembers. “We used to meet up and go out for meals together—a whole group of us.”
Ratzenberger, Reid said, “was a really nice, approachable guy. Very affable…a very sociable guy. We used to talk about racing, or life back in Europe. We enjoyed going night-clubbing together, and stuff like that.”
But Reid remembers Ratzenberger for a much more poignant and personal reason: In 1992, the Austrian saved his life.
“I’d just won the Japanese Formula Three championship and because of my success, I was given an opportunity to test in Japanese Formula 3000. And so we were all at Fuji for a big test in between the races. I was out there trying to prove a point…but I overcooked it, coming into a corner that’s called 100R, down around the back of the pits. It’s an extremely fast corner with hardly any run-off, and if everything’s just perfect, you might take it flat…at around 150 to 160 mph.
“Halfway through the corner, I got what we call a ‘tank-slapper’, where the car became unstable and started to spin, and I hit the barrier so hard it knocked my crash helmet off…and the car shot 25 feet into the air and turned over.
“The guy immediately behind me was Roland, and he had to swerve to avoid being crushed by my car as it came down on the track upside-down, with me without a crash helmet. And my head actually skimmed the road at 150 mph. … There was a lot of blood on the circuit, and when the dust settled after the accident, the Japanese marshals didn’t bother moving to get me out of the car because they just assumed I was dead.
“But it was Roland Ratzenberger and Paulo Carcasci, the two cars behind me, who stopped…and got me out of the wreck and organised an ambulance. I woke up halfway to the hospital.
“I wrote a letter with that story to Roland’s parents after he died at Imola, just explaining how he’d helped save my life.”
The next year, Reid and Ratzenberger raced in Japanese F3000 before Ratzenberger signed a deal with the new Simtek F1 team for the 1994 season.
“He was a very fast racing driver; very accomplished,” Reid told me, “But the odds of making it to F1 are incredibly slim. You have much more chance of winning a lottery.”
Reid never saw Ratzenberger again after the F3000 season finished, as his friend embarked for Europe holding that winning lottery ticket: An F1 race seat.
“I didn’t know him that well before we actually became teammates,” David Brabham said. “When we were signed together, I went to Monaco and spent some time with him and we trained together and developed that relationship before the season.
“We got on very well…it was a good relationship. We tried to help each other because we were in a difficult situation with the team being brand new, and not enough money and just starting out, really.”
In the first two races of the 1994 season—in Brazil and back in Japan, for the Pacific Grand Prix—the Simtek team struggled. Brabham finished 12th in Brazil and Ratzenberger was 11th in Japan, the only grand prix he would ever finish.
“He was a talented driver; we knew that before he signed up,” Brabham remembers. “The car wasn’t competitive, so unfortunately neither of us got an opportunity to shine, but it was the first step in what was hopefully going to be a long career for both of us.”
Although the Austrian rookie had failed to qualify for the first race, “He was getting there in terms of pace,” Brabham told me. “I remember at Imola he had some issues with the brakes and the team asked me to drive his car the day before his accident, just to get it back-to-back to see whether the brakes were OK or not…I drove his car and found that the brakes were bad, so they changed them, and then his pace actually picked up, right to the point where we were only a 10th or two apart, leading up to his accident.”
Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying when his previously damaged front wing broke and launched the car head-on into a concrete barrier. Fernando Alonso had a similar accident at the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2013, although thankfully a gravel trap stopped his car before he could hit anything.
“It’s really difficult to know what to do next or what to think next, so that evening, we were all in a state of shock,” said Brabham. “The question needed to be raised, ‘Are we going to continue racing on Sunday or not?’ And it was basically down to my decision.
“I wasn’t really sure what to do, but what I did suggest was that I do the warm-up, see how that goes and then I’d make the decision.
“I got in the car and, up to that point, did our best…we were middle of the order instead of down the back, where we normally were. So the warm-up had actually gone better than I’d ever done, relative to other people.
“Whether the team put me on empty tanks to make us feel fast, I have no idea. It was all a bit of a blur back then.
“What I did notice when I came into the pits was this heavy, thick, black cloud that was around the team had slightly lifted. It gave people something else to focus on and put a little bit of energy back into the team and I just made my decision then that I had to race for the team. I had to try to pick things up again quickly, and the only way for me to do that was to make the decision to race.”
Brabham would retire less than halfway through the race, but not before, tragically, Senna was killed in another high-speed crash. From that point on, Ratzenberger’s death became something of a footnote to Senna’s.
“It’s just the nature of the beast, really, that more people will gravitate towards Senna than they will towards Roland, except the people who were very close to Roland,” Brabham said. “They’ll see it differently, but in terms of people who are in love with F1, Senna touched everybody’s heart and soul, so it’s inevitable that people will be thinking more about the loss of Ayrton than they will Roland.
“Whether that’s fair or not, it’s not for me to judge. It’s just the way it is.”
However, following the two deaths, renewed calls for increased safety measures ultimately had a very positive impact on F1. No driver has been killed at a race weekend since 1994.
“It’s one of the gifts that those two drivers gave the sport,” Brabham told me. “Their passing made it much safer for racing drivers around the world.”
I asked Brabham if there was one thing in particular he remembered about his Austrian teammate. “His smile,” he responded. “When I say that, I mean he was thoroughly enjoying life at the time. He was a good-looking guy; the women loved him. He was strong, he was confident, he was fit. He was what you’d call an ideal model of a racing driver.”