Blog Archives

History of the Monaco Grand Prix

FORMULA ONE’s jewel in the crown is the Monaco Grand Prix and it has staged an event in every single year of the Formula One World Championship.  I won’t be covering the whole history, just within the last 20 years but I have to start with one exception.

The closing laps of the 1982 event have gone down in living memory.  Longtime race leader Alain Prost crashed his Renault on a slippery circuit with only a few laps remaining.  This handed the lead to Riccardo Patrese, who promptly spun his Brabham at Loews and allowed Didier Pironi into the lead.  The Frenchman only led for a few hundred metres until his Ferrari spluttered to a halt, out of petrol.  Andrea de Cesaris briefly inherited the no.1 position before he did what he did best, crashed!  Derek Daly became a challenger before coasting to a halt after terminal damage was caused to his Williams.  James Hunt famously said in the BBC commentary box; “Well we’ve got this ridiculous situation where we are waiting for a winner to come past and we don’t seem to be getting one.”  Finally, Patrese regained his composure to win his first ever Grand Prix.

Hunt, who never won Monaco gave us another classic moment in 1989 when Murray Walker told the viewers about moody Frenchman Rene Arnoux and the lack of pace he had in the closing days of his career with Ligier.  Hunt’s live  response on the BBC was; “All I can say to that is b#####it!”

In 1992, Nigel Mansell was aiming to become the first driver to win the first six races of the season since Alberto Ascari in the 1950s.  It looked on course in Monaco until a late pitstop to replace a slow puncture.  The Brit, another never to win in the Principality came out behind the master of Monaco, Ayrton Senna.  What followed was one of the most doggest pursuits in the archives as Mansell tried everything to get past Senna’s slower McLaren Honda.  The Brazilian’s remarkable defensive driving earnt him a fifth Monaco victory and in 1993, he made it six.  Little did we know that he wouldn’t be back in 1994 to make it seven.

The 1994 event was always going to live in the shadow, especially as it was just two weeks after the painful and tragic weekend at Imola, which accounted for Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.  In Thursday free practice, Karl Wendlinger lost control of his Sauber Mercedes and crashed on the approach to the chicane.  Wendlinger suffered serious head injuries and fell into a deep coma.  Although he made a full recovery, his F1 career was effectively over.  A first lap collision between Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen helped Michael Schumacher cruise to his first Monaco GP success, 40 seconds clear of Martin Brundle in a McLaren Peugeot.

Hill was another Brit to be out of luck in Monte Carlo and was denied a clear victory in a crazy 1996 race which saw just four of the 21 starters make the finish.  Schumacher had moved to Ferrari and started on pole position, before making an uncharacteristic mistake and crashing out at the Portier on the first lap.  It was the same place where Senna had famously gone off in 1988 and became so distressed, he went home for hours after the race.  Hill built up a 30 second lead before a rare Williams Renault V10 engine failure exiting the tunnel on lap 40 forced him into a gut-wrenching retirement.  Jean Alesi was the next leader but a wheel bearing problem forced him onto the growing list of retirements.  After all that, a masterful decision on tyre choice saw Olivier Panis come through from 14th on the grid to record his first and only victory and the last for the Ligier Formula One team.  For the record, only David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert and Heinz-Harald Frentzen also made the finish.

Schumacher showed his skill around Monaco in 1997 on another wet day.  He charged into the lead from second on the grid and built up a colossal 22 second lead within five laps, winning in the end by nearly a minute.  The Williams team made a bizarre decision to start Frentzen and Jacques Villeneuve on slick tyres and both would crash out.  Rubens Barrichello held his nerve to finish an extraordinary second for the brand new Stewart team in just their fifth race, bringing Sir Jackie Stewart, a three-time Monaco winner himself to tears.

One Brit who had success in Monaco was David Coulthard.  The Scot won this famous race twice.  In 2000, he inherited victory after Schumacher’s Ferrari suffered a suspension failure, having led by 50 seconds at one point.  In 2002 DC battled an engine problem and stiff challenges from the Williams and Ferrari teams to record a popular victory for McLaren.  It was the only time the Ferrari F2002 was beaten in the 2002 dominant campaign.

Juan Pablo Montoya recorded a super win for Williams in 2003, their first success in Monaco in 20 years and a year later, it was Jarno Trulli’s turn to taste victory.  Trulli’s only Grand Prix victory came on a weekend where the Renault team had the fastest car throughout.  Schumacher lost his chance of winning the first six races in a season, following a controversial clash with a lapped Montoya in the tunnel behind the Safety Car.

No man has dominated Monaco since Schumacher’s first retirement, with Fernando Alonso coming the closest, recording back-to-back successes in 2006 & 2007 for Renault and McLaren respectively.  The 2006 event’s main headline was Schumacher’s parking attempt at Rascasse in qualifying which was a deliberate attempt to stop Alonso, Mark Webber, Kimi Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella beating his fastest time.  The stewards sent him to the back of the grid and he was vilified in the entire paddock.  Some say it was his antics in Monaco that played a part in him announcing his retirement later in the season.

The honours in the last four seasons have been split between Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel.  To win Monaco, you need speed, skill, a bit of luck and total commitment as one mistake and it is an expensive accident against the magnetic attraction of the barriers.  Considering the unpredictable start to 2012 so far, a sixth different winner is highly possible, especially on this circuit where form can fluctuate.

MY TOP TEN MONACO MEMORIES

1. The epic battle between Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell for the victory in 1992.

2. Olivier Panis achieving victory against the odds in the crazy 1996 event.

3. Michael Schumacher’s masterclass in the wet in 1997.

4. Red Bull’s amazing celebrations after Mark Webber led Sebastian Vettel home to a 1-2 in 2010.

5. That unforgettable finish in 1982; the race that no-one seemed to want to win!

6. Alexander Wurz taking on Michael Schumacher in a fantastic battle in 1998, the highlight of Wurz’s F1 career.

7. Jenson Button parking in the wrong place and having to rundown the start-finish straight to the crowd’s acclaim, following his dominant performance for Brawn GP in 2009.

8. James Hunt calling Rene Arnoux “b######t” in 1989 live on the BBC.  Well you might as well be honest about someone at the end of the day!

9. David Coulthard achieving Red Bull’s first podium in 2006, then going onto the podium dressed in a Superman cape!

10. The first signs Ayrton Senna would become a superstar, in the shortened 1984 race for the underfunded Toleman team.

The Driver Files: Jan Magnussen

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next driver featured is the Dane who came with big potential and left with relatively little to show for his efforts midway through 1998, Jan Magnussen.

Jan Magnussen’s one-off drive for McLaren in 1995 was a rare highlight (Global F1)

NAME: Jan Magnussen

TEAMS: McLaren (1995), Stewart (1997-1998)

POINTS: 1

GP STARTS: 25

BEST FINISH: 6th (1998 Canadian GP)

NOW 38 years old, Jan Magnussen was one of Denmark’s highest hopes but in Formula One, it all went badly wrong.  This isn’t to say that he wasn’t a bad driver, sometimes things don’t go according to form and plan.  A real shame for a driver who threatened great things in his junior career.

Magnussen came into Formula One with a huge reputation, especially after dismantling the competition in the 1994 British Formula 3 Championship.  Competing for Paul Stewart Racing, he beat Ayrton Senna’s record of 13 wins in a season.  Once he won the second event at Donington Park in April 1994, the title trophy might as well been awarded to him.  Jan won six of the first eight races and ended up with a final total of 14 wins from 18 starts.  Magnussen ended with a total of 308 points, a massive 125 points clear of his nearest challenger, which was Belgian Vincent Radermacker.

Magnussen did some testing for McLaren in 1995 and when regular driver Mika Hakkinen went down with appendicitis, Magnussen was drafted into the team for the Pacific Grand Prix in 1995.  He actually did fairly well, having a good dice with Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan throughout and finished a creditable tenth, just behind team-mate Mark Blundell.  After some touring car racing in 1996, Jan got his big break with the new Stewart Grand Prix team.  Having raced in Paul Stewart’s F3 team, he was seen the perfect fit to partner the experienced and versatile Barrichello in 1997.

The season was always going to be a learning experience and Magnussen’s confidence took a severe hit.  No points in 17 races and not many finishes either, as the Ford engine often tended to blow up rather than survive to the chequered flag.  Seventh in the wet Monaco Grand Prix was his best result and ninth at the season finale in Jerez was a solid effort, having raced the Benetton’s and Olivier Panis in the Prost for most of the event.  The Dane’s best race came at the A1-Ring, where he qualified an excellent sixth and ran as high as fourth, ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and David Coulthard amongst others.  Magnussen slipped to tenth after the team put him on the wrong pit strategy and a broken driveshaft eventually ended his race.

1998 started even worse, when he took himself and Ralf Schumacher off on the third lap in Melbourne.  He was miles behind Barrichello in the same car, qualifying slowest in Argentina, 21st at Imola and 20th in Barcelona.  Stories about his future continued to put Magnussen under pressure, so crashing into Barrichello at the first corner at Imola didn’t help matters.  By the time of the seventh event in 1998, Magnussen had to deliver a brilliant performance and another dismal qualifying effort in Montreal, again in 20th left him fighting against a huge tidalwave.  His race was highly impressive, running fourth and keeping a consistent pace throughout.  Although he got some luck in the amount of retirements in Canada, he scored a championship point in sixth.  Sadly the damage had already been done and Jackie Stewart replaced him with Dutchman Jos Verstappen for the rest of the season.

Since his F1 rejection, Magnussen has turned into an almost complete motorsport competitor.  He has raced in CART, Danish Touring Cars and more predominately in sportscars.  At Le Mans every year since 1999, his best finish at La Sarthe has been fourth in 2003 and 2006.

Sir Jackie Stewart once said Jan Magnussen was the greatest young talent since the early days of Ayrton Senna.  Sadly his Formula One experience turned into a forgettable, rather than a memorable time.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES:  Flying Finn JJ Lehto, who has fallen on hard times of late but had spectacular natural speed. 

Remembering Imola: The aftermath and the improvements

IN MY final blog this week remembering the ghastly weekend at Imola in 1994 – it is time to look at the aftermath of the events and how the sport has moved on with radical and rapid improvements in medical facilities, safety and learning lessons from very dark and distressing times.

In the days after Imola, there was a lot of soul searching to be done by everyone who was involved in the weekend’s proceedings.  Gerhard Berger, who was driving for Ferrari had to consider his future in the sport, especially after witnessing the death of his closest friend Ayrton Senna and countryman, Roland Ratzenberger.  Others had sleepless nights but the show carried on and all the drivers who raced at Imola in 94 didn’t retire in its aftermath.

The FIA and especially its president, Max Mosley were inspirational in a time of real crisis.  They made immediate changes to safety regulations in the sport, beginning from the Spanish Grand Prix, just two races after Imola and contiuning with this until well into 1995.  Changes included the introduction of the ‘plank,’ to remove illegal skidblock wear which was the downfall to Michael Schumacher’s disqualification after winning at Spa that August.  Driver cockpit sides were strengthened and made bigger and the FIA crash test came into force as a mandatory procedure, both in frontal and side impacts.  A new pitlane speed limit was brought into force to reduce the chances of significant injury after the Michele Alboreto incident in the pits at Imola.

These changes were too late to save some from other nasty accidents.  Austrian Karl Wendlinger fell into a deep coma after crashing at the Nouvelle Chicane during practice for the next race in Monaco.  Wendlinger’s injuries were caused thanks to driver impact from the barriers.  Pedro Lamy had a monumental shunt during private testing at Silverstone in which he was ejected from his Lotus Mugen Honda.  Lamy survived but suffered serious leg injuries and multiple fractures.  In Barcelona, the destroyed Simtek team had to deal with another cracked monocque when Andrea Montermini ran wide into the final corner and crashed heavily during practice, fracturing his heel and breaking his foot.

However driver injury has become far less in recent years.  There have been close escapes, with Felipe Massa especially in 2009.  Although there were two marshal fatalities due to flying debris at the beginning of the millennium, the most serious driver injury since 1994 was Olivier Panis breaking both of his legs after a suspension failure pitched him into the barriers during the 1997 Canadian Grand Prix.  The FIA continue to set the standards in safety today.  The deaths of Marco Simoncelli in MotoGP and Dan Wheldon in IndyCars last October highlight that motorsport is dangerous and always will be.  However it is much safer than it ever has been.

In the wake of the Imola tragedies, the GPDA was reformed, having been disbanded in 1982.  Three time world champion Niki Lauda initiated its return with Berger, Michael Schumacher and Christian Fittipaldi as directors.  Membership isn’t compulsory but many of today’s drivers are part of the association.  Temporary changes were made to many circuits including ridiculous but necessary tyre chicanes in Barcelona and the slowing down of cars for one year through the daunting Eau Rouge corner at Spa.  A year later Formula One returned to Imola with permanent chicanes installed at Tamburello and Villeneuve corners to slow the cars down.  Again, these measures were needed to slow the average speeds down but Imola lost its glory as a drivers circuit, often produced processional events and was axed from the F1 calendar at the end of 2006.  Schumacher remained chairman of the GPDA for 11 years until his first retirement in 2006.  Today’s chairman is experienced Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa with Massa and world champion Sebastian Vettel as directors.

Ayrton Senna’s name is spelt wrong in the poorly researched ‘Going Critical’ documentary – shown by Channel 4 in September 2001 (SennaFiles)

The cause of Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident is unlikely to ever be found out.  There have been many points of speculation including a terrible Channel 4 documentary in 2001 as part of the ‘Going Critical’ series where it was wrongly promoted the whole truth would be revealed.  There was a high-profile trial into the case in Italy and Sir Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adrian Newey were all acquitted of manslaughter in 1997.  It would be wrong for me to speculate on what caused Senna’s accident although driver error was very very unlikely.  For a car to crash at Tamburello, something would have to break or explode on the car, as Berger experienced at the same spot in the 1989 race.  Roland Ratzenberger’s accident was caused by his front wing breaking as a result of it being weakened by impact with either an off-track moment or a high kerb.  Ratzenberger’s car went straight on into the concrete wall with no steering or braking capability due to the loss of the front wing.

The legacy of both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger’s accidents and the entire weekend at Imola is that Formula One has taken onboard what happened and has done all it has to make sure that these kinds of tragedies are prevented in future.  Death in F1 has happened before and it will at some stage, probably happen again.  However so many precautions have now been taken and that is thanks to the hard work of the drivers and the FIA.  Everyone wants to race in a safe environment and to a large extent, this has been achieved since that terrible weekend in April/May 1994.

Neither Senna nor Ratzenberger will be forgotten by the Formula One fraternity.  The experience of these hellish events has made Formula One a safer environment today.

Remembering Imola: Ayrton Senna – A genius behind the wheel

THE penultimate blog from remembering Imola focuses on the career and the life of Ayrton Senna, eighteen years after he tragically perished at the wheel of the Williams FW16 in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.  Forget Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.  In my opinion, Senna was the greatest ever human being to drive in Formula One.

Senna was very successful in the junior formulae in Brazil and in England.  He begun karting at the tender age of four.  For him, racing was in his blood and so to was his will and desire to win.  To him, second place wasn’t acceptable; he felt it was first of the losers.  He underlined that ruthless streak early on in his career, in the tense and exciting duel with Britain’s Martin Brundle for the 1983 British Formula 3 Championship.  Senna dominated the first half of the season, Brundle the second half and it left Ayrton to pull off some crazy overtaking attempts that often ended in accidents.  Eventually he overcame Brundle in the season finale at Thruxton and Formula One beckoned.

Despite testing for McLaren and Williams in the winter of 1983, Senna opted to sign for the Toleman team, later to become Benetton.  Immediately Senna made an impression, despite his inferior equipment.  He came so close to winning his maiden race in 1984.  In Monaco Senna made full advantage of the awful weather conditions, to charge through from 12th on the grid.  He pulled off some stupendous overtaking moves, with the confidence that suggested he would be a champion in future waiting.  Only a red flag that brought the race to an early conclusion denied him.  Senna insisted that he would have won if the race had it run just one more lap.  The determination to succeed was firmly there.  Podiums at Brands Hatch and Estoril followed but Senna knew that Toleman was not a long-term stay.  He went to Lotus for the next three seasons, convinced that this might be the team that could deliver him the world championship.

In only his second race for the famous British marquee, Senna won in Portugal – in very similar conditions to those of Monaco 1984.  Second placed Michele Alboreto was the only driver not to be lapped, in a clinical and masterful performance in the wet.  Not only did Senna become a great wet weather runner, he developed a close association with the Japanese manufacturer Honda in his time at Lotus and also the amazing skill he had to produce a flying lap.  Eight pole positions in 1985 and this skill remained with Senna all the way till his untimely death.  Although Schumacher has beaten this statistic, it took him twelve years to do it after Ayrton’s death.  65 pole positions in 161 races, over 33 per cent is one of the most impressive ratios I’ve ever seen.  In his three years with Lotus, Senna achieved third place in the 1987 championship and six wins in total, including a maiden triumph on the streets of Monte Carlo.  However the British team was on a steady rate of decline and Ayrton elected to jump ship, taking Honda with him to McLaren.

Frustrated by seeing the more superior Williams of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell often get the better of him despite his undoubted talent, Senna was convinced the switch to McLaren would finally give him the success it craved.  There he was partnered with the Frenchman Alain Prost, the golden boy of McLaren at the time.  Fireworks would explode between the pair, though not initially.  The 1988 McLaren Honda was the most dominant car in Grand Prix history, winning 15 of the season’s 16 races.  If Jean-Louis Schelesser hadn’t taken Senna out in the closing stages at Monza, it could well have been a clean sweep.  Senna won eight races to Prost’s seven – though the ‘Professor’s’ consistency meant he went on to score more championship points.  However on a countback system, which the sport used at the time, Senna knew that victory in the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix would be enough for his first championship.

The start was a disaster as Senna squandered pole position and dropped to 14th by turn one, giving Prost a colossal advantage.  Very quickly Senna showed the superiority of his McLaren and charged through the pack.  By lap 16, he was fourth and eleven laps later, was challenging for the lead.  When Prost was trapped in backmarkers, Senna seized his opportunity and squeezed past his team-mate on the start-finish straight.  It was a clinical piece of overtaking and a drive that thoroughly deserved to win the championship.  Prost was very gracious in defeat, admitting that Senna had been the better driver during 1988.  Apart from a moment in Portugal, when Ayrton had nearly put Alain into the pitwall, their battle had been a joy to watch in 1988.  Sadly the next two years bought politics and accusations to the heartfelt of the sport.

Race two of 1989 was the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.  Prost and Senna entered a gentlemanly agreement, that the man who approached the braking point for the Tosa hairpin first, would go onto win the race.  Senna took pole position and led on the first lap.  However when his good friend Gerhard Berger crashed at Tamburello and his Ferrari burst into flames, the race required a restart.  Second time round, Prost made the better start and led approaching Tosa.  Senna, presuming that the agreement was only meant on one attempt, stole the lead into the hairpin and drove into the distance.  It was perhaps a gentle misunderstanding but Prost, who finished over a minute adrift refused to talk to Senna again.

1989 was not a lucky year for the Brazilian, losing certain victories in USA, Canada and Italy due to mechanical problems, whilst he was taken out in Portugal by the already disqualified Mansell.  Once again Suzuka would be the deciding factor in the championship battle, this time with Prost the favourite.  Senna had to win to stand any chance of taking the fight to Adelaide.  He lost the lead with a poor start and harassed Prost all afternoon, with little chance of getting ahead.  On lap 47, he closed up and made his move into the final chicane.  Prost, knowing that Senna had to win turned into the corner and the accident was inevitable.  The two McLaren cars interlocked wheels and slid to a halt.  Prost unbuckled his belts and walked away but Senna kept his engine running and restarted.  However he needed outside assistance from the marshals to get going again.  Despite needing to pit for a new nosecone, catching and overtaking the Benetton of Alessandro Nannini, Senna won and was promptly disqualified for the outside assistance offence.  Prost was champion.  Ayrton was furious, threatening to walkaway from the sport he loved, believing that a conspiracy had been set-up against him by Prost and the unpopular FISA president, Jean-Marie Balestre.  More allegations and accusations followed and Senna’s super license was revoked.

The following March he was back, having apologised and won the season opener in Phoenix.  Once more the fight for supremacy was between Senna’s McLaren Honda and Prost, who had swapped seats with Berger and moved to McLaren’s closest rivals Ferrari.  For the third successive year, Japan was the deciding point for the championship saga.  This time it was Prost who needed to win to keep his title dream alive.  Senna took his customary pole position but bitterly complained all weekend that pole position was on the dirtier side of the grid.  He campaigned for it to be changed and Prost actually agreed.  The officials granted Senna’s request, but Balestre refused to back down.  Consequently Senna vowed that if Prost turned into turn one first, he would regret it.

Twenty-four hours later and Senna accelerated away but Prost got the better start and took the lead.  Senna looked for a gap on the inside of the first corner that disappeared quickly.  Contact was inevitable and the McLaren and Ferrari disappeared into a cloud of dust.  The outcome of the 1990 FIA Formula One World Championship had been decided in a matter of seconds in such sad and distasteful circumstances.  It was a second title for Senna but bittersweet.  Only at the same event a year later, with Balestre gone and replaced by Max Mosley did Senna admit that he deliberately ran Prost off the road in 1990.  His will and desire to win couldn’t be faulted but in attempting to knock another car out on purpose was a hideous crime, which on a normal UK road would land you with at least a driving ban and possibly a jail sentence.

In 1991, Senna won his third and last drivers title for the umpteenth time at Suzuka, the deciding point of most title battles.  Prost fell away and was fired by Ferrari before the season’s end, so it left for a renewed rivalry to remerge between Senna and Nigel Mansell.  Senna won the first four races in 1991 but as the Williams Renault became the stronger package during the campaign, Senna grew frustrated realising that McLaren were being out developed by a rival for the first time in his stint with the Woking team.  Eventually reliability and a terrible pitstop in Portugal shot down Mansell’s 1991 title dream but not for the worth of trying.  He went wheel-to-wheel with Senna, sparks flying at some 200mph down the backstraight of Spain’s Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, one of the sport’s most iconic images.

As the Williams team mastered the active suspension system, McLaren drifted further behind and Senna had to work especially hard for any of his later victories in his career.  1992 was a major disappointment, as Ayrton finished 4th in the final standings with just three wins, compared to the nine of the dominant Mansell.  One of his greatest victories came in Monaco 1992 when he managed to hold off a hard-charging Mansell, who clambered all over the back of his McLaren in the last five laps.  Honda pulled out of F1 at the end of the season and Senna questioned whether he should remain in the sport, especially when Prost ‘vetoed’ him not to drive alongside him at Williams in 1993.

Senna decided to stay with McLaren on a race-by-race basis in 1993 and was excellent throughout the season.  There were memorable victories in Brazil for the second time at home, Japan, Australia and for a record sixth time in Monaco.  However he saved the best for a damp Easter weekend in 1993.  The venue was Donington Park for the European Grand Prix.  Senna qualified 4th and was squeezed out by the uncompromising Michael Schumacher on the rundown to Redgate.  Undeterred he sprinted past the young German on the exit and then swept past the fast-starting Karl Wendlinger in his Sauber around the outside of the Craner Curves.  Next target were the dominant Williams and just three corners later, he went inside Damon Hill to move into second.  He tore into Prost’s early advantage and outbraked his chief rival into the Melbourne Loop.  He had gone from fifth to first by the end of the first lap, definitely the greatest lap in Grand Prix history.  Senna won the race from Hill by nearly a full lap. 

For 1994 Senna got his dream move to the Williams Renault squad.  With Prost having retired and Mansell competing in IndyCars, this was Senna’s chance to add to his forty-one victories.  Sadly the partnership that promised so much never came to fruition.  Senna didn’t like the handling of the FW16 and had a miserable first two races.  He spun off and stalled his engine in Brazil, chasing down Schumacher’s Benetton.  Then he was tipped off the road by Mika Hakkinen into the first corner of the Pacific Grand Prix.  Arriving at Imola, Senna had no points, Schumacher twenty.

Autosport magazine claimed he was a man under pressure.  He didn’t show it though, focused on his goal to bring Williams back to the top after an unconvincing start.  He blitzed the entire field in San Marino, setting the quickest time in every single session.  However accidents to his countryman Rubens Barrichello and the death of Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying deeply affected Senna.

Deep down he didn’t have the passion to race.  Some say he was not on the best of terms with his family, due to his burdening relationship with Adriane Galisteu.  Others suggest he believed that Schumacher and Benetton were cheating their way to success, by using the now banned electronic aids.  Either way he put those issues aside and went out to race.  A startline accident put the race behind the Safety Car and it was going too slow for Ayrton’s liking.  On the restart Senna charged away, determined to pull away from Schumacher.  On lap seven, he entered the flat-out Tamburello bend when his Williams refused to turn into the corner.  The rest they say is history… 

Ayrton Senna may have not endeared himself to everyone.  However his skill behind the wheel of a racing car cannot be questioned, nor could his charitable work he put in for many local Brazilian and worldwide charities.  His speed, desire and commitment to win were immense, even if some of his tactics had to be questioned.  A devote Christian, Senna believed that God would save him on the racetrack.  His death brought shock to the whole world – and the funeral that followed brought Brazil to a complete standstill.  Chillingly he had predicted that the new regulations for the 1994 season would bring serious accidents, possibly even bring the horrible fatality that he feared could happen.  On 1 May 1994, the world lost a famous icon, and although Williams found replacement drivers easy to come by, Formula One will never see the likes of him again.  In 2010 a movie was made about his career, simply titled ‘Senna.’

Ayrton Senna is a legend who leaves an endearing legacy to many and is a sporting legend forever.

AYRTON SENNA (March 21 1960 – May 1 1994)

The greatest of all time, Ayrton Senna (March 21 1960 – May 1 1994)

Remembering Imola: A catalogue of shocking events

REMEMBERING Imola continues with a deeper look into the catalogue of horrific events at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.  A weekend that changed Formula One racing forever.  18 years on, the safety of today’s modern Grand Prix cars has improved greatly.  Sadly though it happened at the loss of taking away the life of the greatest Grand Prix driver of his generation, Ayrton Senna.

The horror of the weekend began on Friday 29th April 1994, when in the first official qualifying session, the young Brazilian Rubens Barrichello lost control of his Jordan Hart car approaching the quick Variante Bassa chicane.  His car launched off a kerb and smashed into the tyre wall at colossal speed, narrowly avoiding going over some catch fencing.  Only the quick reactions of Professor Sid Watkins prevented the talented Barrichello, second in the drivers championship at the time from swallowing his tongue.  Remarkably he walked away with just a cut lip, minor bruising and a broken nose.  His weekend was over but his life had remained intact.  It reminded Grand Prix fans and drivers of the real dangers that the sport possesses.  Just 24 hours later, the luck ran out.

Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was attempting to qualify for what only would have been his second Grand Prix, having finished his first race in Aida just a fortnight earlier.  Eighteen minutes into Saturday’s second qualifying session, Ratzenberger’s front wing broke off exiting the flat-out Tamburello bend.  His wing had been weakened by leaving the track on his previous flying lap at the Aqua Minerali chicane.  With no steering or braking capability, the Simtek Ford car ploughed straight into the concrete wall at Villeneuve bend on the approach to the Tosa hairpin.  The impact was thought to be close to 200mph.  As soon as his car came to a halt, it became clear from a very early evident stage that Roland wasn’t going to be as lucky as Barrichello was.  The session was stopped and the medics did what they could to save the rookie’s life.  However it was to be a battle in vain, with Ratzenberger being pronounced dead on arrival at Bologna Maggiore Hospital.  He became the first driver to be killed at a race meeting for twelve years, since Ricardo Paletti’s demise at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.  The last driver to suffer a fatal crash in an F1 car was the Italian Elio de Angelis at the wheel of a Brabham, during a test session at Paul Ricard, France in 1986.

On raceday, meetings were held between the drivers with the decision to announce the reformation of the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association).  In the wake of Ratzenberger’s accident, no-one could predict the chilling omens for raceday.  The show went on with David Brabham, Ratzenberger’s devastated team-mate electing to continue for the Simtek team.

At the green light, Ayrton Senna stormed into the lead from his 65th pole position leading Michael Schumacher’s Benetton Ford and the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger.  Further back, JJ Lehto had stalled his Benetton from row three on the grid.  The two Ligiers of Olivier Panis and Eric Bernard narrowly missed the Finn’s stricken car but Lehto was to be collected by Pedro Lamy’s fast acclerating Lotus Mugen Honda.  Lamy spun into the barrier and across the road with both cars completely destroyed by the impact.  Lehto suffered a light arm injury and Lamy escaped unhurt but it was a wheel from the departed Lotus that caused the mayhem this time around.  It vaulted into the spectactor fencing leaving nine people, including a policeman with minor injuries.  Despite all the debris on the circuit, the decision was taken to deploy the Safety Car for only the third time in Grand Prix history.

After five laps under the Safety Car, Senna charged away with Schumacher in hot pursuit.  Two laps later, Senna’s car didn’t turn into the flatout Tamburello corner Tamburello corner, pitching straight on into a concrete wall at some 140mph, possibly even greater speed.  The crumbled Williams returned to the edge of the circuit with Senna slumped in the cockpit, debris being thrown in all directions.  The race was red-flagged.

Once again it was clear that Senna was in a grave condition from the outset, with very little sign of movement from the cockpit of his car.  As Professor Sid Watkins and the marshals got to work again, the severity of the crash especially from the pictures being beamed around the world on television made the scene even worse.  Senna was airlifted to Maggiore Hospital from the track.  As soon as the first medical bulletins filtered through from the track, any hope of a recovery was realistically lost.  The race was eventually restarted 45 minutes later with Schumacher claiming his third successive victory in a very sombre atmosphere.

During the race, the final event of a horror weekend occurred when a wheel departed from Michele Alboreto’s Minardi as he exited the pits from his final stop.  The errant wheel bounced down the pitlane and struck one chief mechanic from Lotus and three from Ferrari.  Luckily, none of the injuries were serious.  After the race, Senna was announced as clinically brain dead and his life machine was switched off.  Brazil went into a state of national mourning, the world of sport stunned into silence.

Fortunately the steps taken to improve safety in Formula One have been of massive leaps and boundaries.  Many drivers since 1994, including Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen, Takuma Sato and more recently in Hungary in 2009 with Felipe Massa have had serious, frightening accidents.  All have been able to live the tail and go racing again.  The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix will go down as the darkest weekend in motorsport history and eighteen years on, its pain will never heal.

Remembering Imola: The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix starters – Where are they now

REMEMBERING Imola continues with this special look at all the drivers who took part at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and what has happened to them since.  We sadly know what happened to both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, but what happened in the race weekend to the other 26 competitors and where are they now.

1994 Gran Premio di San Marino Grand Prix – The drivers

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER

Drove for: Benetton Ford, Qualified: 2nd, Race: 1st

Schumacher was chasing Senna hard before the Brazilian’s inexplicable accident which caused the race to be stopped.  In the second race, he was beaten off the line by Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari but stayed on the Austrian’s tail and passed on lap 10 exiting the Aqua Minerali chicane.  Schumacher cruised to victory afterwards by some 50 seconds.

Today: Michael Schumacher still competes in Formula One, driving for the Petronas Mercedes F1 team.

NICOLA LARINI

Drove for: Ferrari, Qualified: 6th, Race: 2nd

Larini was standing in at Ferrari for Jean Alesi, who had been injured at Mugello in a testing accident a month earlier.  The Italian qualified a solid sixth, but slipped to seventh off the start.  On the second start, he quickly moved into fourth and jumped Mika Hakkinen on the road and aggregate timing after the first round of pitstops.  He then drove calmly to finish an excellent second, easily his best ever finish in Formula One

Today: Larini forged a stronger career in touring cars, often a frontrunner in the European and World series.  He retired from professional racing at the end of 2009.

MIKA HAKKINEN

Drove for: McLaren Peugeot, Qualified: 8th, Race: 3rd

The McLaren Peugeot alliance was a disastrous combination but went well at Imola.  Reliability problems and some overdriving in qualifying left Hakkinen back in eighth place on the grid, jumping Nicola Larini at the start.  Following the restart, the Finn ran third for the majority of the distance and held off a late attack from Karl Wendlinger to take McLaren’s first podium of the season.

Today: After two Formula One titles in 1998 and 1999, Hakkinen retired from Formula One in 2001.  He did some driving in DTM before stopping racing completely in 2007.  He now has a career in driving management.

KARL WENDLINGER

Drove for: Sauber Mercedes, Qualified: 10th, Race: 4th

The under-rated Austrian took tenth spot on the grid as Sauber didn’t run in qualifying on Saturday following Ratzenberger’s fatal accident.  Wendlinger leapfrogged Ukyo Katayama at the start and was eighth before the red flag was thrown for Senna’s accident.  On the restart, he ran fifth and moved into fourth when Berger retired.  He was catching Hakkinen and just fell short of a maiden visit to the podium.

Today: Wendlinger’s F1 career effectively ended after a serious accident in practice for the next race at Monte Carlo.  He forged a career in sportscars afterwards and was still racing in GT1 with Lamborghini in 2011.   

UKYO KATAYAMA

Drove for: Tyrrell Yamaha, Qualified: 9th, Race: 5th

A radically improved Tyrrell had Katayama flying all weekend.  He started in the top ten and spent most of the race fighting for points with Damon Hill and Christian Fittipaldi.  Fittipaldi’s late retirement helped Katayama into fifth place, equalling his best ever F1 result.

Today: Katayama has focused on his other hobby, which is climbing mountains.  By 2010, he had successfully climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro amongst others.  He also is a commentator for Fuji TV on Formula One.

DAMON HILL

Drove for: Williams Renault, Qualified: 4th, Race: 6th

Damon had a difficult first day of qualifying but improved to fourth on the grid from seventh just moments before Ratzenberger crashed.  Holding position from the start, he clashed with Schumacher at the Tosa hairpin on the restart and limped back to the pits with a damaged front wing.  Hill set fastest lap on his fightback to sixth and the final championship point.

Today: After retiring from Formula One at the end of the 1999, Damon had a successful time as president of the British Racing Drivers Club, securing the future of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in the process.  He is now a pundit on the new UK F1 channel, Sky Sports F1.

HEINZ-HARALD FRENTZEN

Drove for: Sauber Mercedes, Qualified: 7th, Race: 7th

This was only Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s third race in F1 and it was a dramatic weekend.  He did well to qualify seventh and was devastated by the death of his close friend Ratzenberger on Saturday afternoon.  He missed Lehto’s stalled Benetton by millimetres on the green light and was due to line up in fourth for the restart.  Unfortunately he stalled on the dummy grid and had to start from the pitlane.  A collision with Mark Blundell damaged his front wing and meant despite setting the fourth fastest lap of the day, Frentzen missed out on points in seventh at the chequered flag.

Today: Frentzen has plans to race in the Indian Racing League next season.  For now, he competes in some sportscar and GT events and is often a driver steward at Formula One race meetings for the FIA.

MARTIN BRUNDLE

Drove for: McLaren Peugeot, Qualified: 13th, Race: 8th

Brundle went fourth quickest in Saturday’s practice session, but an engine failure on Saturday and crash in qualifying on Friday left him well out of position in 13th on the grid.  Tenth at the red flag, Brundle’s race was compromised by a dreadful second start that him scrapping with Johnny Herbert and Pierluigi Martini for most of the distance.  He finished a frustrated eighth, but it was his first race finish of 1994.

Today: Martin Brundle has crafted out a successful career in the media and his technical analysis has made him a wanted man for all UK TV broadcasters.  He has commentated for ITV, BBC and from the start of 2012, joined the Sky Sports F1 team.

MARK BLUNDELL

Drove for: Tyrrell Yamaha, Qualified: 12th, Race: 9th

Mark Blundell struggled to match the pace of his team-mate Katayama and had a weekend of total obsecurity, qualifying 12th and finishing two laps down in ninth place.

Today: Blundell was a CART driver until 1999 and a pundit on the ITV F1 team until they lost broadcasting rights to the BBC at the end of 2008.  Now, Blundell runs his own management company, 2MB Sports Management, handling the career of McLaren tester Gary Paffett amongst others.

JOHNNY HERBERT

Drove for: Lotus Mugen Honda, Qualified: 20th, Race: 10th

With an old spec Mugen Honda engine and a difficult Lotus chassis to handle, Herbert’s frustration was starting to creep in with the dwindling outfit.  He got the maximum out of the car at Imola to finish tenth, little reward for his determination.

Today: Herbert has done various roles in motorsport, from British Touring Cars with Honda to racing at Le Mans for Audi.  Like Brundle and Hill, he is a regular contributor to the newly formed Sky Sports F1 team as a pundit.

OLIVIER PANIS

Drove for: Ligier Renault, Qualified: 19th, Race: 11th

As with Lotus, 1994 was a very tough season for Ligier due to ownership issues with both engine and management.  F3000 champion graduate Panis struggled around to 11th in the race, gaining important race mileage for his future career.

Today: Panis has a new love now, competing in Ice Racing.

ERIC BERNARD

Drove for: Ligier Renault, Qualified: 17th, Race: 12th

Eric Bernard was often outpaced by Olivier Panis in 1994, but got the better of his team-mate in qualifying at Imola, lining up 17th.  He was behind David Brabham at the time of the red flag and trailed home 12th and the last runner, three laps down.

Today: Bernard has gone onto a successful career in GT and sportscar racing

CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI

Drove for: Footwork Ford, Qualified: 16th, Race: Retired on lap 56, brake failure led to him spinning

Fittipaldi drove superbly under adversity after seeing what happened to his compatriot and close friend Senna.  He looked set to finish fifth until a brake failure sent him into the gravel and out of the race with six laps remaining.

Today: Fittipaldi quit F1 at the end of 1994 and has moved to America where he still lives today.  He has raced in CART, NASCAR and American sportscars ever since.

ANDREA DE CESARIS

Drove for: Jordan Hart, Qualified: 21, Race: Retired on lap 49, accident

de Cesaris returned to Jordan where he had raced in 1991, subsituting for the banned Eddie Irvine.  Lacking race fitness and sharpness, he had many predictable spins and accidents all weekend and on lap 49, retired from near the back from you guessed it, another crash!

Today: de Cesaris has carved out a successful career in Monte Carlo as a currency broker and spends a lot of his free time windsurfing around the world.  

MICHELE ALBORETO

Drove for: Minardi Ford, Qualified: 15th, Race: Retired on lap 44, wheel flew off on pitlane exit

The veteran Italian Michele Alboreto had a tough weekend full of mechanical gremlins.  He was forced to start from the pitlane in the spare car and on lap 44, retired after a loose wheel fell off his car and bounced down the pitlane injuring mechanics from Ferrari and Lotus.

Today: Alboreto won the Le Mans 24 Hours for Porsche in 1997, but tragically was killed in April 2001 when a tyre exploded while doing some testing in Germany for Audi in the build-up to the 2001 sportscar classic.

GIANNI MORBIDELLI

Drove for: Footwork Ford, Qualified: 11th, Race: Retired on lap 40, broken engine

Morbidelli qualified a strong 11th and was running in a closely fought midfield pack along with Martin Brundle and Heinz-Harald Frentzen when the unreliable Ford engine broke down on lap 40.  Points were possible as he was running ahead of eventual sixth placed finisher Damon Hill on aggregate timing at the time.

Today: Morbidelli raced in BTCC for Volvo in 1998 and had time in European Touring Cars too.  He now is racing in the V8 Supercar Series in Australia.

PIERLUIGI MARTINI

Drove for: Minardi Ford, Qualified: 14th, Race: Retired on lap 37, spun off trying to overtake Brundle

Martini had a quiet weekend and was closely matched with Michele Alboreto.  On lap 37, he spun off at Tosa and ended up in the gravel after a failed overtaking attempt on Martin Brundle whilst running tenth.

Today: Pierluigi won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1997 and 1999 and he was last seen competing in public during a one-off Grand Prix Masters series event at Kyalami in 2005. 

DAVID BRABHAM

Drove for: Simtek Ford, Qualified: 24th, Race: Retired on lap 27, spun following handling imbalance

David Brabham showed his brave committment to continue in such tragic circumstances after the fatal accident of his team-mate, Roland Ratzenberger.  He raced Eric Bernard and was ahead of him before the red flag came out.  From the second start, he carried on until suspension failure caused by handling imbalance saw the Australian spin out.

Today: David is still competing in GT racing and in V8 Supercars in Australia last year.  He is a keen charity campaigner and won the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours alongside Marc Gene and Alexander Wurz.

BERTRAND GACHOT

Drove for: Pacific Ilmor, Qualified: 25th, Race: Retired on lap 23, engine failure

Gachot managed to drag his incompetent Pacific Ilmor package onto the grid and did well to miss Pedro Lamy’s out of control Lotus on the first lap.  He toured around at the back before retiring with a blown engine on lap 23.

Today: Unknown

OLIVER BERETTA

Drove for: Larrousse Ford, Qualified: 23rd, Race: Retired on lap 17, engine failure

The unknown Beretta never matched Erik Comas at Larrousse and was the team’s only entry in the second race following Comas’s decision to withdraw in the wake of witnessing the medics attending to Senna.  An engine problem saw him retire on lap 17 with only Brabham and Gachot for company at the back of the field.

Today: Born in Monte Carlo, Beretta is still racing today, competing in a GRE-pro class Ferrari in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

GERHARD BERGER

Drove for: Ferrari, Qualified: 3rd, Race: Retired on lap 16, Suspension issue after running over debris 

ERIK COMAS

Drove for: Larrousse Ford, Qualified: 18th, Race: Withdrew on lap 5, distressed by Senna’s crash

Qualifying in 18th, a miscommunication from his pit sent Comas screaming out of the pitlane exit when the red flag came out and he only narrowly missed the medical helicopter on the circuit attending to Ayrton Senna.  Eurosport commentator John Watson called it the most ridiculous thing he had ever seen in his life.  Distressed by what he witnessed, Erik elected to withdraw from the restart.

Today: Comas spent several years competing in GT racing in Japan, as well as focusing on driver management, promoting further French talent.  He suffered from ill health in 2006 and effectively retired from all forms of racing.  Now he runs Comas Historic Racing, which is a service that provides customers to pay and drive historic rally driving cars.

JJ LEHTO

Drove for: Benetton Ford, Qualified: 5th, Race: Retired on lap one, stalled and hit by unsighted Lamy

JJ Lehto was making his first appearance of the season after recovering from neck injuries he sustained in a pre-season testing crash at Silverstone.  He flew to fifth on the grid in qualifying but stalled on the grid and was collected by Lamy leaving his car stranded in the middle of the track.  He walked away with a minor arm injury.

Today: Lehto commentated for Finnish TV for nine years at the start of the millennium.  In December 2011, he was sentenced to two years in jail, found guilty of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol after a boating accident in Finland that killed his passenger.  Lehto has served intention to appeal against his conviction.

PEDRO LAMY

Drove for: Lotus Mugen Honda, Qualified: 22nd, Race: Retired on lap one, careered into back of Lehto

Young Pedro Lamy made a spectacular exit in this race, when unsighted by Andrea de Cesaris, the Portuguese driver smashed into JJ Lehto’s stranded Benetton on the grid.  Lamy walked away from his shattered car unhurt.

Today: A serious crash in private testing at Silverstone in 1994 left Lamy with serious leg injuries.  He left Formula One in 1996 and is a regular Le Mans competitor.  In 2012, he is competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

PAUL BELMONDO

Drove for: Pacific Ilmor, DID NOT QUALIFY

Pacific’s woeful chassis/suspension combination meant Belmondo had little chance of ever qualifying for a race other than by default.  He ended up 0.3secs behind Ratzenberger after his crash, meaning he spent Sunday afternoon as a spectactor.

Today: Paul Belmondo became a motorsport team owner in 1998 and dovetailed that with a career in GT racing.  His whereabouts are unknown since the Le Mans Endurance series folded in 2007.

RUBENS BARRICHELLO

Drove for: Jordan Hart, DID NOT QUALIFY FOLLOWING ACCIDENT ON FRIDAY

Barrichello’s weekend ended almost as soon as it started.  Ten minutes into first qualifying, the Brazilian lost control of his Jordan Hart in the tricky Variante Bassa chicane near the pits.  His car hit the top of the tyre barrier and almost somersaulted the catch fencing.  Only quick action from paramedics stopped Rubens from swallowing his tongue.  He was very lucky to suffer only a cut lip, broken nose and light damage to his right arm.  However his participation in the San Marino Grand Prix was over.

Today: After failing to find a drive in Formula One for 2012, Rubens Barrichello has begun a new chapter in his career, competing for KV Racing Technology in the 2012 IndyCar series, finishing in the top ten twice in his first three events.

Remembering Imola: Roland Ratzenberger: The forgotten soul

MY SPECIAL weekly series of Remembering Imola starts with a tribute to the career of Roland Ratzenberger: The forgotten soul of that ghastly weekend.  Whilst everyone understandably remembers the accident of Ayrton Senna and his legacy on the sport, it is difficult not to forget the impact Ratzenberger’s death had a day earlier – the first death in a Formula One racing car since Elio de Angelis perished in a testing accident at Paul Ricard, France in 1986.

Roland Ratzenberger was born in Salzburg, Austria on July 4, 1960.  Although the official records show this was his date of birth, Roland claimed that he was born in 1962 – in an attempt to help further his opportunities into motorsport.  From an early age his dream was to be successful in Formula One.  He began racing in 1983 in the German Formula Ford series and finished second in the 1985 Formula Ford festival at Brands Hatch.  A year later, his presence on the car racing scene first came to serious attention as he returned to Brands Hatch to win the prestigious festival.  It was clear that although he never looked like one of those racing drivers who would take your breath away, Ratzenberger had some quality and it is no accident for anyone to win these kinds of junior events.

Two campaigns in the British Formula 3 Championship followed but they bought little reward.  The Austrian’s career had suddenly got bogged down.  He spent time racing for BMW in the World Touring Car Championship and the British Touring Car Championship – but as the 90s dawned, Roland Ratzenberger’s dream of reaching his ultimate goal – Formula One, were all but over.

Ratzenberger was a very popular guy in any championship he contested and was friendly with most drivers, developing close friendships with JJ Lehto and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his junior days.  Ratzenberger seemed to have settled on a successful career in sportscar racing.  He had five cracks at the famous Le Mans 24 Hours race, finishing fifth for Toyota in 1993 alongside Naoki Nagasaka and Mauro Martini.  Toyota had signed him for the 1994 assault on the event too.  Sadly he would never make that destination and the car he was meant to take part in finished second in the hands of Martini, the late Jeff Krosnoff and Eddie Irvine.  Ratzenberger’s name was left on the car as a tribute.  He also worked out a successful career on the Japanese scene.  He competed in touring car events and in F3000, racing against the likes of Irvine and former Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve.  Again Roland’s results were mixed, but that also was down to some of the equipment he had rather than lack of driver skill.  A victory in the Suzuka round of the F3000 series in 1992 certainly caught the eye of some on the European circuit, especially as he still insisted that Austrian journalists should cover events that didn’t appeal to them.

In 1994, Ratzenberger signed up with Nick Wirth’s fledgling new Simtek team.  The inital deal was to run for five races, with a potential extension depending on performance and sponsorship.  This was despite the team’s link-up with music channel MTV.  He would join the Australian David Brabham, who had one season of F1 experience and was son of three-time world champion in the 50s and 60s, Sir Jack Brabham.  Things didn’t get off to a great start for Roland, as perhaps struggling through nerves and an old-spec Ford engine; he failed to qualify for the season opener in Brazil.  Three weeks later, he went to the TI Aida circuit in Japan which would stage the Pacific Grand Prix.  Ratzenberger was the only driver to have raced on the circuit before, a real help with his Formula Nippon experience.  Although he qualified slowest, he made it onto the grid and also finished the race, albeit in 11th place and five laps adrift of the race winner Michael Schumacher.

At Imola he looked set to qualify again, especially as Rubens Barrichello was out of the event after his shocking crash on Friday and Paul Belmondo’s lack of capability in performance for fellow newcomers Pacific Ilmor.  It even actually looked like he might be edging closer to his team-mate Brabham on genuine pace.  On Saturday 30 April 1994, Roland Ratzenberger went off the road at the Acque Minerali chicane.  Rather than choose the safer option of pitting to get the front wing checked, Ratzenberger went immediately for another qualifying attempt.  As he flew through the flat-out Tamburello kink, the aerodynamic forces weakened the front wing and it broke on the approach to the flat-out Villeneuve curve.  With no brakes and no front downforce, he had no chance.  Ratzenberger ploughed into the concrete wall flat-out at nearly 200mph.  The wreck of his Simtek Ford came to a halt in the middle of the Tosa hairpin and from the lack of flailing movement in the cockpit; Ratzenberger was clearly in big trouble.  The Italian marshals crowded around his car instantly, which highlighted the general concern, especially when the wreckage was surveyed.  Roland was taken to the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna, but was pronounced deal on arrival at the hospital.  His death was the first demise at a Grand Prix meeting for twelve years; Riccardo Paletti the last man to die in Canada in 1982.

Formula One was sent into shock.  Ratzenberger’s death bought about the reformation of the GDPA (Grand Prix Drivers Association).  Brabham and the Simtek team bravely decided to continue with the remainder of the weekend and the season, running a ‘For Roland’ tribute on their airbox for the remaining races.  For many it will be the death of Ayrton Senna that is remembered and rightly so, for his impact and genius on the sport.  However Roland Ratzenberger is the forgotten man on F1’s nightmare weekend of all-time.  He was full of determination, humour and desire to achieve his dream.  At least he got the chance to make the grid and race before his tragic accident.  His death was a grave loss to Formula One, Austria and of course, his loving family.

Eighteen years on, he will never be forgotten.

ROLAND RATZENBERGER (July 4 1960 – April 30 1994)

The Driver Files: Jos Verstappen

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The third driver featured in The Driver Files is the popular Dutch racing driver who spent many years floating in the midfield of Grand Prix racing, Jos ‘The Boss’ Verstappen.

Jos Verstappen never shyed away from a challenge in Grand Prix racing

NAME: Jos Verstappen

TEAMS: Benetton (1994), Simtek (1995), Footwork (1996), Tyrrell (1997), Stewart (1998), Arrows (2000-2001), Minardi (2003)

POINTS: 17

GP STARTS: 106

BEST FINISH: 3rd (1994 Hungarian Grand Prix)

FLAIR, charisma and drama, Jos Verstappen didn’t do boring and his career certainly produced plenty of those three words.  Sadly, there was a lack of ultimate success with two podium finishes and only 17 points to show for his lengthy career that spanned nearly a decade.

Having been successful in his native Holland through karting, Jos made the move into car racing in 1991 and won the German Formula 3 championship in 1993.  In September 93, he startled the world of motorsport with an incredible two day test for Footwork at the Iberian circuit, Estoril.  He set consistent laptimes that would have put him tenth on the grid for the 1993 Portuguese Grand Prix!  The standard had been set and suddenly, Verstappen was a wanted man within motorsport.  Eventually, the colourful Flavio Briatore signed the Dutchman up as Benetton’s test driver for the 1994 season.

His chance came earlier than expected when no.2 driver J.J Lehto broke his neck in a pre-season testing shunt at Silverstone.  Verstappen’s debut was memorable, but the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix was for the wrong reasons.  He spent most of the weekend off the road in practice and qualifying and on lap 34 of the race, was involved in a terrifying multiple accident.  Dicing with Eddie Irvine, contact was made, which launched the rookie over the top of Martin Brundle’s slowing McLaren Peugeot.  Martin was struck on the head by an errant wheel from the Benetton but incredibly, Verstappen emerged unhurt.  He spun off at the next race in Aida and by then, Lehto had recovered from his injuries.  However, the Finn was inconsistently erratic and after qualifying a dire 20th for the Canadian Grand Prix, Benetton ‘rested’ him and gave Verstappen the seat back for the French Grand Prix.  He crashed in qualifying for the Magny-Cours event, destroying the television monitors on the McLaren pitwall in the process.

After spinning Michael Schumacher’s race car into the gravel during qualifying for the German race at Hockenheim, Jos had survived the first corner fracas to be challenging for fourth place when he came in for a routine fuel and tyre stop on lap 15.  No-one will ever forget what happened next.  Approximately three seconds into the stop, fuel escaped from the refuelling rig and doused the Benetton, before the car went up in a bull of flame.  Mechanics dived for cover in desperation to put the flames out.  Unbelievably, Verstappen only suffered minor burns and looked completely unfazed by the whole experience.  In fact, his strength in character to bounce back and score his maiden podium in the very next race at the Hungaroring was a superb effort.  He followed that up with a podium result at Spa, albeit in the stewards room when team-mate Schumacher was disqualified for a technical infringement.  Fifth place at Estoril followed, but too many first lap incidents cost Verstappen his drive to the more dependable Johnny Herbert for the final two races of a dramatic 1994.  Only Lewis Hamilton’s rookie season in 2007 can probably rival with the amount of drama Verstappen’s did back then.

Loaned out to Simtek in 1995, he showed his geninue talent by qualifying 14th, ahead of both Ligiers and Mark Blundell’s McLaren in Argentina.  In the race, he ran sixth before gearbox problems ended his race premateurely.  Simtek went bust after the Monaco Grand Prix and Verstappen spent the remainder of the season testing for Ligier.  Back in the cockpit for 1996, he showed well at Footwork now owned by former Benetton principal Tom Walkinshaw.  He finished sixth in Argentina, ran in the points before technical problems intervened in the rain of Brazil and spun away fifth in another wet race in Barcelona.  Sadly, his 1996 would be remembered for being crazy enough to start on slicks on a wet track in Monaco and a serious crash at Spa when his suspension failed.  The former saw him slide into the barriers on the first lap and the latter left him with a neck injury which affected the rest of his racing career.

A wasted year with Tyrrell followed in 1997 and nine races at Stewart during 1998 brought very little in terms of results.  With career momentum having stalled, Jos ended up as a test driver for Honda’s return to racing as a Grand Prix team.  The plan was to spend 1999 testing, before returning to race in 2000.  Tragically team boss Harvey Postlehwaite, who worked with the Dutchman at Tyrrell, died from a heart attack at a test session in Barcelona in May 1999.  Honda decided to go down the engine route for a return and it left Verstappen in limbo again.

Undeterred, he returned full-time with Arrows for 2000.  He showed his excellence in mixed conditions by qualifying eighth at Silverstone, running sixth at the Nurburgring before suspension failure and finishing a stunning fifth in Canada.  Best finish was fourth at Monza, battling Ralf Schumacher and Ricardo Zonta for a place on the historic Italian podium.  This result was achieved in the dry too!  Placing 12th in the drivers championship, hopes were high for 2001 but the Asiatech engine disappointed.  Despite that, Jos charged through from 18th on the grid to run a sensational second in Sepang, only narrowly missing out on points.  He ran second again in Austria and claimed the final point with an aggressive pit strategy.  There were embarrassing moments too, such as ramming Juan Pablo Montoya out of the lead while being lapped in the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix.

Dropped by Arrows in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen for 2002, Verstappen took a sabbatical before returning with the minnows of the sport, Minardi for 2003.  Ninth in Canada was his best result and he was fastest in wet Friday qualifying at Magny-Cours.  Paul Stoddart wanted to keep him for 2004, but realising his prime had gone, Jos turned his back on Formula One at the end of the season.  Since the rocky F1 ride ended, Jos competed in the inagural A1GP series for Team Holland and has competed at Le Mans on two occasions.  Issues with his personal life including allegations of assault recently have effectively brought his racing career to a premature end.

Jos Verstappen left his mark on Formula One and the sport was never dull when he competed.  He was a competitor who tried hard and was never scared to push his machinery to the limit and beyond.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: Plucky Belgian Bertrand Gachot…whose misfortune led to the break for a certain German…

The Driver Files: Erik Comas

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The first driver featured in The Driver Files is the Frenchman, Erik Comas.

Erik Comas had a frustrating career in Formula One (Speed TV)

NAME: Erik Comas

TEAMS: Ligier (1991-92), Larrousse (1993-94)

POINTS: 7

GP STARTS: 59

BEST FINISH: 5th (1992 French Grand Prix)

ERIK Comas was part of the former French generation.  He came through the junior ranks alongside the likes of Eric Bernard and Jean Alesi.  In fact, Alesi only narrowly pipped him to the F3000 championship in 1989.  Erik bounced back to win the title the following season, adding to success in winning the French Formula 3 title in 1988.

With a proven record in junior formulae, Erik had forged himself a strong reputation and was signed by a Ligier team in 1991 that was going through a period of severe decline.  He was never the most exciting or vintage competitor, but had the ability to get the job done.  The 1991 Ligier Lamborghini was not a good car, proved by him failing to qualify for his first event in Phoenix.  Thierry Boutsen, a Grand Prix winner with Williams was his team-mate and he struggled too with a poor chassis.  Comas did well to match his more experienced team-mate, but neither driver scored a point.  Erik’s best result in his debut season was 8th placed in a carnaged Canadian Grand Prix.

Ligier switched to Renault engines in 1992 and things improved for both drivers.  This season turned out to be Comas’s peak in his F1 career.  He finished seven of the first nine events and came in the points on three separate occasions.  His best ever career result was a fifth place performance at his home event in France.  Sixth in Canada and Germany meant he finished equal 11th in the drivers championship, with four points.  However, his working relationship with Boutsen took a nosedive as they took each other off in two separate races; (Brazil & Hungary).  Both were fired at the end of the season, to be replaced by English duo Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell.

Before that though, Erik had a lucky escape during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix.  He had a mammoth shunt at the flat-out Blanchimont corner, which knocked him out.  Boutsen drove past the wreckage, but Ayrton Senna bravely stopped his McLaren, got out of his car and rushed to his stricken colleague.  He held Comas’s head still until the paramedics arrived.  Luckily, he only suffered concussion but his race weekend ended there and he never finished a race for Ligier again.

Staying loyal to French teams, Erik moved to Larrousse for 1993, partnered by the French no-hoper Phillipe Alliot.  He scrambled sixth place at Monza and qualified an excellent 11th in France, ahead of Riccardo Patrese’s Benetton and Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari.  However, the accident in Belgium the previous season seemed to have knocked any forward motions in his form.  As Larrousse’s finances seriously declined, Comas went backwards and plugged away through 1994, when he was partnered by many team-mates, including Olivier Beretta, Yannick Dalmas and Hideki Noda.  If anything, his career will be remembered more for a crazy incident on the fateful Imola weekend.

Following Senna’s serious accident, a member of the Larrousse team clearly didn’t realise the situation and allowed Comas out of the pitlane underneath a red flag.  He screamed through the flat Tamburello bend and was lucky to be flagged down without clobbering the medical helicopter or track officials.  The scenes were so distressing for Erik, he didn’t feel like taking the restart.  Although he got blamed for exiting the pits, it seemed like a team communication issue was the main fault.  Nevertheless, it was a ridiculous move and just added to the nightmare that was Imola 1994.

Comas managed sixth place finishes in Aida and at Hockenheim, but said during the year that he would retire from Formula One if he would end up being outqualified by a Simtek.  In Spa, David Brabham managed this and the Australian gloated afterwards, telling media; “I wish Erik a very happy retirement!’  He was replaced by the end of the season, with Jean Denis Delatraz taking his seat for the season finale in Australia.

Since Formula One ended for him, Comas spent several years competing in GT racing in Japan, as well as focusing on driver management, promoting further French talent.  He suffered from ill health in 2006 and effectively retired from all forms of racing.  Today, he runs Comas Historic Racing, which is a service that provides customers to pay and drive historic rally driving cars.

Erik Comas ended up having a frustrating Formula One career, which promised much after success in junior formulae, but ended with little joy.

NEXT UP IN THE DRIVER FILES: An Italian whose career ended thanks to one of the worst chassis/engine combinations in history – Stefano Modena