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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)