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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: 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: 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)