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Roland Ratzenberger: The inside story of the Imola weekend

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Roland Ratzenberger: The inside story of the Imola weekend
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Apr 30, 2020, 1:31 PM

On April 30th 1994 Roland Ratzenberger lost his life when he crashed during qualifying for the San Marino GP, the result of the front wing of his Simtek coming adrift.

He’d started just one F1 race, at Aida a fortnight earlier, but at 33 Ratzenberger had amassed a wealth of experience, and was hugely respected by those he’d raced against on the way up.                                     

His path to the top had been a long one. One major step was taken on October 26th 1986, the day that Nigel Mansell's spectacular tyre failure in Adelaide handed that year’s World Championship to Alain Prost. It was also the day that Roland won the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, firmly marking himself out as a man of the future.

That evening the beaming Austrian celebrated in the Kentagon, the crowded bar at the top of Paddock Bend. Among the first to congratulate him was Johnny Herbert, winner of the previous year's event.

Inevitably the two men chatted about their hopes for the future. Roland had recently signed to drive for BMW in the new World Touring Car Championship, while Johnny was heading towards British F3 with Eddie Jordan. Both men had loftier ambitions.

“We talked about where the journey was leading us,” Herbert recalls. “He'd had the difficult times, and then won the Festival. I had won the Festival the year before, but then had a difficult '86 season in the FF2000 Quest.

“We just discussed how things can go so well and then turn against you - but if you had the right mentality, it was something you would always get over. F1 was the thing we talked about. We knew what the stepping stones were, we knew we were on the road, and we were just bouncing it off each other.”

Remarkably Herbert would be a Grand Prix driver within just two and a half years, but for Ratzenberger, that road would much more difficult. When he won the Festival he was already 26, although he'd lost two years on his CV in attempt to appear younger.

With no parental support he'd already spent an age trying to get his career off the ground, working as a mechanic for less talented drivers and instructing in racing schools. The BMW deal for 1987 was the first time he'd earned any proper money.

Always good at winning people over with his big smile and genuine charm, he later found enough sponsorship to compete in British F3 and F3000, and when he ran out of options, he moved into sportscar racing to keep his career afloat. The big break came in '91, when he landed a drive with the SARD Toyota team in Japan. He soon emerged as a major force, which led to chances in the domestic F3000 series.

He earned good money in Japan, but F1 remained his goal. When at the end of 1993 opportunities opened up for his friends and F3000 rivals Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Roland was happy for them, but inevitably a little envious.

“He loved F1,” says Irvine. “He was addicted to it, and it was amazing how much he wanted it. He had a great career in Japan, but he kept pushing for F1, especially with me and then Frentzen jumping across. It must have been tough for him, but it also encouraged him.”

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941

Photo by: Sutton Images

Roland's own chance would come with the new Simtek team, following an introduction by Gerhard Berger's manager Burkhard Hummel, an Austrian wheeler dealer who helped Roland informally.

Over the winter of 1993-'94 Roland put a deal together, having landed support from a wealthy Monaco-based German who had taken a shine to him.

“He'd got the backing of Barbara Behlau,” says Simtek boss Nick Wirth. “She had befriended Roland and decided that she should support his motor racing career. So she put a lot of the money up, which helped him to get the drive and us to get the team together. It was really with her backing, Roland's tenacity and Burkhard's help that the whole thing came together.

“He was a similar age to me, very driven, and I just liked him. From what we could tell he seemed to have the credentials, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Eventually a deal was agreed for Roland to drive the second car alongside David Brabham. He was finally an F1 driver – but initially his contract covered only the first six races, and others with money were circling around. He knew he had to do a good job from the start of the season.

“When I heard about it I was really happy for him, because I knew how hungry he had been,” says Herbert. “I knew how frustrated he was as a typical driver, knowing that a couple of us had got our way into it. He finally had the backing that he needed to give himself that chance.

“When I saw him I remember giving him a bit of a hug and saying, 'You've made it'. He said it's been a little bit tougher for me than you! He was probably the very last one who had been his own mechanic, working on his Formula Ford car, who got to F1.”

There was little time for testing, and Roland's chassis was only finished on the eve of the Brazilian GP.

“We started off with a big pile of bits in the garage, trying to build his car and nicking nuts and bolts from McLaren and Williams,” says Brabham's engineer Rod Nelson. “We didn't have enough bits to build the car, but we got him out.”

With two cars failing to qualify at each race – and Simtek fighting with fellow newcomers Pacific for the last spots in the field – the pressure was on. Beset by mechanical gremlins, and still learning his way around the S941, Roland was devastated when he missed the cut.

“It was you race or you don't race, you succeed or fail,” says Wirth. “Pressure like they don't have now. If you don't make it from Q3 into Q2, big deal. In ‘94 it was you do not race and you go home.

“With a new team, new cars, what we were up against, and then the pressures of the battle with Pacific to qualify, it was a bloody steep learning curve.”

However, Roland impressed the small team with his knowledge and approach.

“The whole car was just thrown together very quickly,” says his race engineer Humphrey Corbett. “We didn’t have any time to do any proper testing. It's not surprising that there were one or two problems. You knew he wasn't bullshitting you, he wanted to succeed as much as we did.

“I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, this guy knows what's going on in the car.’ He would also say, 'I need to find more time in myself,' which is very refreshing to come across in a driver. A totally top bloke to work with.”

Second time out in Aida Roland missed Friday qualifying after a crash in the morning. Nevertheless he made it into the field on Saturday. The following day he managed to bring the car safely home in 11th and last place.

“To get both cars in in Japan was an unbelievable thing, it really was,” says Wirth. “The odds were stacked against us.

“Everybody knew the provenance of the Pacific – it was a Rory Byrne car, and they had a Mario Ilien V10 engine. We had no chance. And to prove the doubters wrong was something extremely satisfying.

“I was so happy for Roland as well, because I knew how disappointed he was from Brazil, and how much it all meant to him. It was, 'Crikey, we're on the way now.'”

However Ratzenberger was frustrated in his own performance, especially in the slow corners.

“It was all in his ability to get the slow corners right, which just drove him nuts,” says Wirth. “In the high-speed corners he was bang on the pace with David, and was sometimes quicker.

“But he couldn't get his head round the best way to get an F1 car to go around a slow corner, and that's really what held him back. In terms of bravery and commitment, which is typically shown in the high-speed corners, he wasn't lacking any of that.”

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941

Photo by: Sutton Images

Roland drove from his Monaco home to the next race at Imola in his new Porsche, accompanied by his friend and Benetton driver JJ Lehto. He’d recently bought an apartment in his native Salzburg – having saved for years to afford it – and someone travelled to Italy to hand him the keys. After years of commuting to and from Japan, his life was changing.

“I think at the time his sponsor was thinking of extending the period that she was committed to,” says Wirth. “It was something like the first four or six races, and we’d see what would happen. She hadn’t been to the first two races, and turned up in Imola.”

On Friday Roland struggled with the brakes, and at one stage the team decided to put Brabham in his car.

“It was not the best scenario for either us to be in, trying to do F1 with a small team with very few resources,” Brabham recalls. “He was struggling a bit in terms of getting the best out of the brakes. He kept complaining about the brakes, he didn't feel that they were working properly.

“On the Friday I jumped in his car just to verify what was being said, because I had more experience of those kind of brakes. And they were shite, basically, and what he was complaining about was absolutely right.”

Roland was vindicated when the Aussie backed his assessment.

“Certainly after he got new brakes he made good progress,” says Brabham. “And I thought, ‘Great, there's some good competition within the team.’

“And all of a sudden he was there where he should have been. He was happier with the car, and he was happier with the brakes, and his pace was a lot closer. When he did go out with the new brakes his pace was a lot quicker, and you felt like his momentum was going to start to build, and he was going to push me, which would have been good for me too.”

“Friday night was real soul-searching stuff,” says Wirth. “We all knew, and I talked to Roland a lot about it, that he was going to have to dig really deep. And I think that was part of the whole thing that went off on Saturday; that intense pressure to get the job done.”

Meanwhile the big story that day was a huge crash for Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello. The Brazilian was lucky to escape with minor injuries after a nasty looking incident.

“I spoke to Roland on Friday,” says Herbert. “We just discussed what we'd seen, and how violent it was – ‘That was scary’. He mentioned that we should stick together a little bit more about the safety stuff.”

“That whole weekend there was a really bad karma hanging over that place,” says Wirth. “On Friday Rubens had a shunt, and there was just something wrong. Friday wasn’t smooth for us, there was just a funny feeling in the air the whole weekend.

“I don't believe in such things, but I remember going in on Saturday morning thinking something’s not right. I remember just not feeling happy about Saturday, for whatever reason. But we thought we were in with a chance of getting both cars in again.”

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941

Photo by: Sutton Images

With his car now working more effectively, Roland was indeed in an optimistic mood. Following Barrichello's accident the entry was down to 25, which meant that he had to beat just one Pacific – in effect that of the tardy Paul Belmondo – to make the grid.

“He was always very upbeat, and always very positive,” says Corbett. “He was certainly looking forward to qualifying. I think he felt that almost for the first time he could put in a good performance, and he was probably chirpier than he normally was.”

“If you look at the circumstances now, he was just so desperate,” says Wirth. “He had his sponsors there, Japan was the first time he'd got into a race, he wanted to do it again.”

Early in the session Roland was indeed faster than Belmondo. Simtek's data would later indicate that on a subsequent lap he had a minor excursion, and had then given the steering wheel a shake to ensure that all was OK, and to clean the tyres. He then went for another quick lap.

“I would have done exactly that,” says Corbett. “You're on a roll, you’re in the car, it feels quite good, left/right with the steering, make sure everything feels right, and then go for it again. Under normal circumstances, that would have been fine.”

“He didn't lose a lot of time, but it was enough for him to think, ‘I’d better check the car,’” says Brabham. “Looking at the data he'd zig-zagged and braked, and in his mind he'd be saying, ‘Do I come in and check it?’ I can understand why he didn’t. He couldn’t have felt if there was an issue with the front wing, and off he went. And that lap is when he didn't come round.”

“I remember sitting there watching him start that lap,” recalls Irvine, watching from the sidelines as he sat out a three-race ban. “I saw him back off and take off to start the lap. It felt weird, and as soon as the red flags came out, I knew something had happened, and I ran down to the Jordan garage to see the TV and see what was going on.”

As Roland headed into the Villeneuve corner the front wing had come adrift, probably after two of the four bolts that attached it to the underside of the nose had worked loose following a kerb strike. He ran off the road and hit the concrete wall at a terrifying speed.

“I went past the wreckage of Roland's car and my heart sank because it looked pretty bad immediately,” says Damon Hill. “Guys were standing around the car and waving us past, but there was no attempt to get him out of the car, and he looked limp.”

“I saw the red flags,” Herbert recalls. “I saw it was a Simtek, but I didn't know which one. As I got to him I slowed up and looked. I remember him being slumped, and thinking, ‘Shit’...”

It wasn’t long before the stunned F1 paddock learned that Roland had died. Bernie Ecclestone confirmed the news in person to Wirth and the team.

“It's a set of emotions that I wouldn't want anyone to experience,” says Wirth. “When you design a car, when you are as responsible as I was for so many things, plus meeting Roland, and essentially becoming a friend... It’s just an indescribable feeling of the world falling away from under your feet.

“It was just so difficult, this feeling of numbness. It's still difficult talking about it to this day. The hardest bit was when Bernie came and told us that Roland had died.

“That day we all lost a friend. Someone who was doing the best he could, and we were doing the best job we could with him. He decided to come to a team that could have been a no-hoper team, but he decided to go with us, and saw we were capable of beating our direct opponents, and the future held promise. It was just awful.”

“I engineered Paul Warwick as well,” says Corbett. “And I still have those two deaths on my mind the whole time. In the back of my diary I make a note of the day that Roland died, and the day that Paul died.”

“It was really quite emotional for me,” says Johnny. “I remember having a little cry back at the hotel after I heard the news.”

Herbert was one of the few drivers to attend Roland's funeral, joining Gerhard Berger in an overnight dash from the Ayrton Senna memorial in Sao Paulo to Salzburg. For Roland the road to the top that the pair had discussed on that evening at Brands Hatch had come to an end.

“What happened on the Sunday almost completely and utterly wiped away that day,” says Johnny. “That's why I went to both funerals, to pay my final respects. It was so unfair that he was taken away and he wasn't given that chance of competing in F1 properly.”

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek

Photo by: Photo 4

 

 

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About this article

Series Formula 1
Drivers Roland Ratzenberger
Author Adam Cooper