On the morning of the San Marino Grand Prix on 1 May 1994, Ayrton Senna placed an Austrian flag in his racing car. The great Brazilian champion had planned to wave the flag as he passed the finishing line in victory. Senna wanted to share the moment of triumph with his fellow driver, Roland Ratzenberger, the young Austrian who died on the Imola track the day before. Senna never made it to the chequered flag. Like Ratzenberger, a Formula Onenovice who crashed and died while trying to qualify for only his second Grand Prix, Senna’s life was cut short on that fateful weekend in the spring of 1994.
Maurice Hamilton reported for the Observer on the death of Roland Ratzenberger, who died on 30 April 1994 during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola track.
“Grand Prix racing is dangerous enough without the swirling emotion which gathered strength here yesterday afternoon following the news that Roland Ratzenberger had succumbed to injuries he received when he crashed during practice for today’s San Marino Grand Prix. The first fatal accident for 12 years involving a grand prix driver initially brought with it a stunned reaction, intensified by the spectacular incident on Friday when the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello emerged with comparatively minor injuries after losing control of his Jordan and crashing at more than 120mph.
Both incidents heightened an awareness of the sport’s inherent dangers, masked in recent years by massive strides in technology and on-board safety, but now exposed by the violence of Ratzenberger ‘s collision as his Simtek struck a concrete retaining wall at close to 200mph. Once the initial shock had subsided in the paddock, the search for a scapegoat embraced a range of issues with the same misinformed reasoning which frequently accompanies the death of a boxer in the ring. The claim that the cars are too fast and too dangerous had a simplistic and familiar ring to it, but beneath such an emotional response lay genuine concern raised by the apparent cause of Ratzenberger ‘s crash.
The 31-year-old Austrian, attempting to qualify for only his second grand prix, was accelerating hard in sixth gear when part of the car – believed to be a nose wing – became detached. Whether or not he had partly dislodged the wing against a kerb earlier in the lap may never be known, but the effect of its absence was an indictment of the latest technology, which relies heavily on downforce – the effect of air passing over the car and its aerodynamic appendages. Without one or both of the nose wings, a car becomes virtually undrivable and refuses to respond as the driver turns the steering wheel.
Whatever the precise cause of Ratzenberger ‘s problem, the Simtek failed to take a right-hand curve which, under normal circumstances, would not present a problem, the car being forced on to the track by between two and three tons of aerodynamic load. Ratzenberger was helpless as the car slammed into the wall, the wreckage travelling 300 yards to Tosa corner. It is believed that, despite desperate attempts by the medical team to revive Ratzenberger, the initial impact may have broken his neck.
The tragedy has deeply affected the Simtek team, based in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and embarking on their first season of Formula One racing. Although a novice, Ratzenberger was extremely popular with all who knew him, particularly among the drivers who had progressed through the ranks with the Austrian when he lived a hand-to-mouth existence while racing in Britain. Even though his condition was not known at the time, Williams and Benetton chose not to continue their battle for grid positions, the mark of respect leaving Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher to share the front row, with Damon Hill having claimed fourth fastest time shortly before the accident.
The decision by Ferrari to resume practice in a bid to get on the front row was considered insensitive under the circumstances, but Gerhard Berger later gave an eloquent defence of his actions as he discussed the fate of his fellow countryman.
“I was sitting in my car, watching the pictures on the portable TV screen,” said Berger. “I could see how bad it was. I knew how critical the situation looked. For the first time, I found myself shaking after an accident. In our job you have to be prepared to see situations like this. But because the driver was Austrian and a personal friend, it was worse.
“You shouldn’t differentiate between drivers like that, but this does affect you in a different way. I felt sick. I got out of the car and went to the motorhome, where I was still shaking. You ask yourself whether you want to drive or not. The question is about racing it is not related to this afternoon and it would not make any difference to Roland.
“But, yesterday, when I saw Rubens Barrichello’s accident, it made me realise how close we are to life and death. So you ask these questions. Then you say: ‘Yes, I am going to race on Sunday.’ So you go out and try to concentrate on the job. It was difficult it was very hard.”
There was an ironic footnote to Berger’s carefully chosen words. Five years ago, he was exceptionally lucky to survive a fiery accident at a spot not far from where Ratzenberger ran into trouble. Berger’s Ferrari had ploughed straight into the wall in the opening laps of the race. It was later discovered that a nose wing had come off the car, leaving Berger as exposed as his more unfortunate protege yesterday afternoon. For some time now the FIA, the sport’s governing body, and leading teams such as Williams have talked about the need to reduce the huge amount of downforce generated by cars in their current guise.
If Ratzenberger ‘s accident was caused by a broken nose wing, then the terrible consequences may accelerate an overdue investigation into such an overdue move. In a statement issued several hours later, the Simtek team said: “He was a true all-rounder whose brave driving style and delightful character will be sadly missed by so many around the world.”
Four months after Ratzenberger’s death, Maurice Hamilton interviewed Simtek founder and car designer Nick Wirth, who spoke of the agony he felt about losing his friend at Imola.
“Nick Wirth celebrated his 28th birthday in Brazil last March. This was his first grand prix as a team owner and, contrary to popular expectation, the gangling, bespectacled founder of Simtek Research had not fallen flat on his smiling face. One of the Simtek-Fords driven by David Brabham had actually qualified for the opening race of the season. Wirth, his small team and their main sponsors, MTV and Russell Athletic, were in a splendid mood.
But they were under no illusions. The task before them would be made even more difficult by inexperience and a budget that amounted to 15% of the financial backing enjoyed by the likes of Williams and Benetton. Simtek neither expected nor received any favours – their arrival had been studiously ignored by the rest of the pit lane. Wirth could cope with that. What no one envisaged, however, was the vicious and unrelenting tragedy that, four weeks later, would overwhelm the team. It began during final qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Roland Ratzenberger, a Formula One novice, was killed outright when his Simtek veered off the track and smashed into a concrete wall at 180mph. It was the first fatality at a grand prix meeting for 12 years.
Wirth had watched the catastrophe swiftly unfold on a television monitor. “I’ll never, ever forget it,” he says. “To see Roland lying on the grass receiving a heart massage … your body behaves in very strange ways at times like that. You suddenly find that you can no longer function as a normal person. You literally lose control your legs turn to jelly and you feel you want to throw up, not because of the detail of what you’ve seen, but because of the emotions surging through you.
“When they finally brought the car back on a truck, I just didn’t want to look at it. I had to force myself. There was a massive hole in the side of the monocoque [chassis] where the left-front wheel had been forced inwards. In Senna’s accident the following day, the wheel came up towards the driver’s head with ours, it stayed low, which is what the FIA want it to do. Our car is one of the strongest in that area but, unfortunately, the impact with the wall was so severe that the wheel punched its way through the monocoque and into Roland.”
The strength of all Formula One cars has since been improved in that area. The actual cause of the accident was a failure of the nose wing structure, probably weakened by Ratzenberger clouting a kerb on a previous lap. If nothing else, this was a graphic indictment of the limitation placed on the number of laps completed by each driver during qualifying. Had Ratzenberger not been under pressure to make the most of each lap rather than waste two of them by making an unplanned call at the pits, he would probably have chosen to stop and have the car checked over. Wirth’s agony was compounded by the fact that he is unique among team owners in that he also designs the car. “I didn’t even know that the wing had fallen off and yet I immediately felt guilty. I don’t think people realise the responsibility associated with designing a racing car until this sort of thing happens. I somehow managed to sleep that night, but when Senna died the next day, even though it was not directly related to me, I cried and cried. I was an emotional basket case.
“That’s when I began to question it all. You ask if it is worth going through all of this emotion. But you have to pick up the pieces and carry on. The sponsors were absolutely 100% behind us – fantastic support. And most touching of all was that Roland’s personal sponsor, Barbara Behlau [founder of Barbara MC, a Monaco-based sports management agency] was so impressed by the way we had coped with the tragedy that she wanted to put more money into the team for the rest of the season. That helped us greatly, both practically and emotionally.”
Wirth’s biggest problem has been deciding precisely what to do with the relatively small amount of money he has available. While Wirth would not divulge the extent of his budget, as a rule of thumb a top team would expect to spend a minimum of £20m, including the luxury of a deal with a major manufacturer whereby engines are supplied either free or for a nominal sum. The less well-off teams have to struggle along on as little as pounds £7m.
‘”Do you spend it,” he asks, “on engines, or wind-tunnel work, more mechanics, better equipment or more track testing? I guess we are going to spend another $3m to $4m this year. Now if we had another million on top, we could achieve a great deal. It sounds a lot – it is a lot – but when you consider that you need around £25,000 for each engine rebuild, it soon goes.
“A day’s testing costs something like £25,000, but the amount you learn is unbelievable. That million could give us perhaps 10 days of testing, plus enough to build the bits from what you learn, and that would probably put us a long way up the grid. I want to qualify and run ahead of some of the established teams such as Lotus. We have the knowledge and the drive to do that. It’s just this tragic sequence of events which has set us back.”
The catalogue of horror continued through until the end of May. During practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, Ratzenberger ‘s replacement, Andrea Montermini, lost control of his Simtek and crashed headlong into a wall. Wirth’s anguish was aggravated by the increasingly naive comments being directed his way. “There was one particular individual in the media who suggested that our car shouldn’t have fallen apart like that. Where did he think the energy was going to go? I was trying to keep calm because, for about an hour after his accident, I thought Andrea had died as well and the same emotions that I had been through with Roland came back even stronger than before. Then to have this jerk make these suggestions really tested me.”
The Simtek, along with every car on the grid today, had undergone a mandatory crash test which does not come close to the 133mph impact suffered by Montermini in Spain. The fact that he survived with minor injuries to his feet was the greatest tribute to the integrity of the Simtek. On the other side of the ledger, however, yet another written-off car brought the bill for replacements alone to £600,000.
“It’s bloody hard,” says Wirth, reflecting on a lifetime of emotion crammed into four months. “The only thing that makes it easier is that you knew it was going to be hard. People expect you to go tits up. You have to show them that you are fighting on.”
On the first anniversary of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, Frank Keating visited the Imola track to report on the mourning within the Formula One community.
With harrowing, unrepentant exactitude it is a year to the weekend that the garish and tearaway business of motor racing was grotesquely freeze-framed into an eerie Pompeian stillness the moment its champion of cold-eyed invincibility and single-minded grandeur Ayrton Senna died in a 190mph crash in the name of sport. For a year motor racing has remained stunned, all involved unable to erase from their own heads that silence only interrupted by the dread flutter flutter flutter of the ambulance helicopter. Yesterday friends were still telling of the moment with blank stares as they remembered it. Senna’s car crashed into the concrete wall here at Imola at Sunday lunchtime last May Day. This week the still chastened sport has returned to Imola.
Tomorrow, if it passes without serious mishap, will represent the end of official mourning and the discordant hurdy-gurdy of the fairground can be turned up again to full volume and the old merry tunes on the cash register. The two successive top-lick curves on the course – where Senna and the day before, in a grim prophetic preface, Roland Ratzenberger died – have been significantly slowed by lower-gear chicanes and gravel traps.
Well separated now from the new tarmac track, the fencing above the low white wall that Senna’s car hit (it was a steel suspension arm from the front axle that fatally speared the driver’s right temple) is now a shrine garlanded with wailing Latin graffiti, flowers and favours, many in the green and yellow of his country. The barrier at which Ratzenberger died is only seconds from there at screaming full pelt, or a few minutes’ stroll. The younger driver’s parents have been given permission to erect a small memorial plaque at the spot.
The cataclysmic weekend a year ago was presaged by a first horrific smash at practice out of which debris Rubens Barrichello mercifully and absurdly walked unwounded. Yesterday the young man talked confidently about Imola and racing again tomorrow. He knows he is lucky to be alive but shrugs. “The crash became part of my past within days,” he says. “Coming back is difficult only because of Ayrton. In racing I am professional and my feelings cannot be human ones.”
The show goes on. And at last tomorrow Nigel Mansell steps back on to the scary rollercoaster after missing two seasons in the United States as well as, ludicrously, the first two South American races of this new Formula One season because the new McLaren they built for him had too small a seat for the wide-haunched veteran West Midlander. Mansell was courted back, apparently, for £7m by sponsors desperate to give the sport the sense of character and oomph suddenly perceived to be lacking. Probably lacking 12 months to the day. While he has been away and garlanded with greenbacks Mansell has lost none of his chippily wary Brummie directness and, even, grudgingly sounding charm.
More than ever Mansell is like Ambridge’s self-made Jack Woolley (‘but Caroline, do you actually think a jacuzzi is really Grey Gables?’) and yesterday he described his small seat as “just a design cock-up, really”.
The alterations to his carbon-fibre chassis have been only 25mm by 20mm but he says he is now far less cramped in his cockpit – “although don’t expect too much I haven’t yet had time to make the car anything like driver-friendly”.
Once he strangles it into friendship, the sport will wait to see how he gets on with his new team-mate, the apparently brilliant young Finn Mika Hakkinen. Mansell certainly adds the colourful headlines which are part of the exercise and, if towards the end of the season Hakkinen is surging ahead, then here we go again: “Oh Caroline, I honestly suspect they’re giving him more preferential treatment well, Peggy thinks so anyway.”
Even the Italians are not bad at attempting a reasonable Bremnerish impersonation of our Nige’s vowels. They have much affection for him here in this motor racing area after his years as il leone, also giving it his best roar when he drove for Ferrari. At last that marque, the old prancing horse from nearby Maranello, looks as if it might have a serious chance tomorrow for a first home victory in 12 years. Suddenly, they say, speed and reliability have come together. Certainly the possibility is already clogging up the roads all around – and a famous home victory would end the long and lamenting year of mourning at, and for, lovely Imola.