For quite a few fans of Formula One, we only remember Roland Ratzenberger for being the first death at the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Many an article has been written about Ratzenberger, but nearly all of them centre around Imola.
Roland Ratzenberger was a charming man with one of the brightest personalities on the grid, as many would attest to. He’s had his fair share of memorable moments. The time he raced against a puppet and lost. The time he stopped a knife-wielding attacker. The time he saved another driver on-track.
Roland Ratzenberger was born on the 4th of July, 1960. No American connection here whatsoever, though, as Roland was born in Salzburg, and was an Austrian resident through and through. Roland’s parents were disinterested in motor racing, however Ratzenberger’s grandmother was the polar opposite. Grandma Ratzenberger would give Roland his first experience of motor racing, bringing him to spectate a hillclimb event at the age of nine. Right away, Ratzenberger was hooked.
Soon after, the ultra-fast Salzburgring opened to the public right at Ratzenberger’s doorstep, and Ratzenberger would become a frequent spectator at multiple races held there. However, his parents were not only against Ratzenberger becoming a racing driver, they weren’t exactly rich enough to fund anything of the sort. When Ratzenberger joined a karting club at the age of sixteen, he had to find a secondary job at a bakery just to fund his payments to the karting club.
Eventually, at the age of eighteen, his parents gave Roland an ultimatum, to find a regular, decent job after high school and military service. Roland obliged… and found a job as a mechanic at Walter Lechner’s racing school. Even as a mechanic, though, Ratzenberger’s still found time to drive the car he’d been working on. Even as he moved on as a mechanic to several different Formula Ford operations, including Jim Russell’s Racing School, he was determined to get a grip on driving in his spare time.
Noticing his hard work, Lechner offered Ratzenberger a German Formula Ford drive in 1983, but a massive accident with Bertrand Gachot, out of all people, left Roland by the sidelines for most of 1984. Mind you, by this time, Roland Ratzenberger was 24 years old. And he was still just trying to break through in Formula Ford. His parents had no money to push him forward. He would need to get his ass into gear.
In 1985, he made his name known. He won both the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships and finished second in the German championship. He even made a move to Britain, stepping onto the podium at the Formula Ford festival that year. Out of 19 Formula Ford races that year, Ratzenberger won eleven. And that still wasn’t his biggest claim to fame that year. You see, as Roland stepped into Britain that year, people started cracking jokes about his name. You see, Roland Ratzenberger shared half of his name with one Roland Rat, a puppet rat that was a popular children’s character on ITV’s breakfast show, tv-AM. Playground-like jokes between the name similarities were tossed, and Ratzenberger found them all in good humour.
ITV invited the 25 year-old Austrian Formula Ford driver to film a segment with Roland Rat for national breakfast television. For Ratzenberger, this was probably his biggest career highlight so far, appearing on British TV while still in Formula Ford. Funnily enough, this segment was also Roland Rat’s final appearance on tv-AM before jumping ship to the BBC. As such, in as big a milestone as this for both human Rat and puppet Rat, the following spectacle was a sight to behold.
It was the prestigious Race of the Century between Roland Ratzenberger’s Formula Ford 1600 machine and Roland Rat’s bright pink, modified 1953 Ford Anglia, nicknamed the ‘Ratmobile’. The two-car showdown held at Silverstone certainly lived up to everybody’s expectations as Ratzenberger and Roland Rat had a thoroughly entertaining race. The highlights package was covered by Roland’s Roving Report and provides extensive race coverage that I’m just glad exists. I can honestly say I’ve never been so mad at a rat puppet before and I’ve never felt more sorry for a racing driver just trying to do his job.
Ratzenberger had a fantastic launch of the grid, though this was also because his opponent, Rat, forgot to start the engine on the grid in a rookie error for Roland. Roland Rat got the upper hand, though, when Ratzenberger had to pull into the pitlane to take a vital emergency call. Ratzenberger claimed this phone call was from Roland Rat, who had a carphone installed to his Ratmobile, as an intentional distraction, though stewards have yet to come to a decision on this. The stewards may have also been slow to dispatch marshals to clear a track invasion by stuffed animals at Club Corner, an invasion that cost Ratzenberger a chunk of time.
The stewards did overlook one massive rule infringement by Roland Rat, though. Video footage had surfaced of Roland Rat convincing a mechanic to fill Ratzenberger’s fuel tank with water instead of petrol during his pitstop, which no doubt contributed to the retirement that Ratzenberger suffered just metres from the finish line as the Ratmobile cruised past to take the victory. Ratzenberger was ab-so-lute-ly furious at the end of the race, but the race win was still awarded to the cheating rat bastard, Roland Rat. Despite the massive upset, Ratzenberger not only got sponsorship money from tv-AM, including this cheeky ad on his nameplate, but he earned himself some publicity, something that was vital for a Formula Ford driver like him. However, a TV appearance because of a cute name was only half the battle. He needed good results on track. Opting to ply his trade in Britain in 1986 to cash-in on his TV appearance, Ratzenberger took the plunge.
Alas, that year, Ratzenberger redeemed himself from his embarrassing loss to Roland Rat to win two vital races. The first was the Formula Ford Race of Champions, where Ratzenberger won in a field of 26 identical Van Diemen Formula Ford cars. The other was the Formula Ford Festival, an arguably more impressive victory. It’s been said that Ratzenberger’s team either walked out on him or ran out of funding just days before the race, leaving Roland with nothing but his car and a toolbox. However, Roland was such an endearing figure in the paddock, and soon mechanics and personnel from other teams helped Roland prepare his car for the Festival. After a series of heats, Roland Ratzenberger won the final ahead of Phillipe Favre to win the Festival, arguably one of the biggest achievements in junior category racing back in the day.
Suddenly, Roland Ratzenberger started to become the next young gun to watch. Well, not exactly young, he was 26. But still, people eyed him up to do big things, including Gerhard Berger’s manager, Burghard Hummel, who wanted to do Ratzenberger some favours. Things were coming up for Ratzenberger. And then they stalled hard.
The job offers for 1987 looked promising. As mentioned, Burghard Hummel, Gerhard Berger’s manager had some interesting ideas for Ratzenberger. The first would be in British Formula Three, where Hummel brought ATS onboard to sponsor Ratzenberger for the 1987 season at West Surrey Racing. Despite a few podiums, Ratzenberger didn’t really impress, and twelfth in the championship was not a good result. However, Hummel brought another drive for Ratzenberger in 1987: Touring Cars. Despite no prior experience, Ratzenberger was offered a drive in the World Touring Car Championship for 1987 alongside his British F3 endeavours. And, in all honesty, Roland did much better in touring cars, holding his own in a category of racing that he never competed in beforehand. He even scored a few podiums on his way to a tenth place in the championship, a result much better than his British Formula Three efforts.
However, the WTCC folded the following year following a spike in entry fees causing many teams to pull out, leaving Ratzenberger to focus on British Formula Three for 1988, this time with Madgwick Racing. And that year, Ratzenberger sucked. Well, Madgwick Racing in general sucked, but Ratzenberger didn’t really do much to impress with them. When a mid-season drive in the BTCC opened up for Class B team Demon Tweeks, Ratzenberger was quick to jump ship. And once again, Ratzenberger proved his worth in touring cars, winning his class in Thruxton on his way to fourth in the championship for his class and eleventh overall, despite having participated in only half the season.
He did move up to British Formula 3000 in 1989, where he performed respectably, scoring a win and finishing third in the championship, but that wouldn’t be his biggest move in 1989. That was the year he would attempt the 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside his old driving instructor Walter Lechner. Though he failed to finish that race, he still came in fourth in that year’s 480km of Spa in the same team. And yet, despite the successful transition to European sportscars, that stillwasn’t his biggest career move of the year. Roland Ratzenberger’s biggest move that year wasn’t the transition to the European sportscar calendar. Oh no. Ratzenberger was turning Japanese.
Yep, Ratzenberger moved to Japan. Seems like an odd career move for any driver, right? Well, Ratzenberger was pushing 29, and his hopes for a major drive still seemed far away. So when Toyota’s SARD team came knocking on his door, promising him a good sportscar drive with a decent paycheck, Ratzenberger was quick to move. All said and done, 1989 wasn’t a good season with horrible race results, but Roland still proved his worth in qualifying decently.
The next few years, Roland started to find considerable success in Japanese motorsport. He won the Fuji 1000 kilometres in 1990 and the Suzuka 1000 km in 1991. Roland’s father, Rudolf, remembers Roland calling back home after the second victory as the proudest and happiest he ever heard his son be. The victory in Suzuka also saw his popularity in Japan skyrocket, and alongside fellow foreigners in Japan like Eddie Irvine, Jeff Krosnoff and Mika Salo, Ratzenberger developed a bond with each of them as gaijins in the Japanese racing scene.
In addition to his sportscar successes, Roland got extremely busy in the forthcoming years in both Japanese Formula 3000 and Touring Cars. Taking on three series at one go, Roland sometimes competed in twenty-five races a year in three categories of racing. In addition to that, he found himself a testing gig for Dick Simon Racing in Indycars after an initial trial test saw him match Michael Andretti’s pace around Laguna Seca, so he also made the occasional trip to America for tests. This busy and successful stretch of results saw Jordan take interest in Ratzenberger while approaching their debut season in Formula 1 in 1991. Reports differ on who was sponsoring Ratzenberger at the time, with one source saying it was an Austrian beer company affiliated with BP and another claiming it was a Japanese company. One thing was for sure, though. As Ratzenberger was ready to put pen to paper, his sponsor pulled out, and his place was taken by one Bertrand Gachot.
However, Ratzenberger had carved out a decent life for himself in Japan, and Formula One became third on his list of priorities, behind Japanese racing and women. Lots of women. Roland could turn on the charm on any girl he met, according to some. He had an entire pocket book of ‘contacts’.
He even stole the longtime partner of another racing driver, leading up to their marriage in the winter of 1991-1992. That marriage lasted until… the winter of 1991-1992, just a couple of weeks. Ratzenberger’s minor regret from that marriage was him losing his little pocketbook of ‘contacts’, but he had no worries, he could still dazzle any girl he could. According to Simtek engineer Humphrey Corbett in the Remembering Ratzenberger documentary (about 11m20s in), he slept with a person from the MTV crew. Most people assume this person in question is the one Davina McCall, Big Brother host herself, though this bit is unconfirmed. No matter who it was, he told his engineers about his night with her in the form of a testing report, saying “the track was a little slippery” among other things…
However, another thing that people remembered about Roland in Japan was how selfless he was. On one occasion, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Ratzenberger entered a nightclub. There was a confrontation between Frentzen and another guy which saw a knife pulled on either Frentzen or a random female bystander. Either way, Ratzenberger selflessly stepped in and wrestled the knife away from the man. Details on this story are kinda fuzzy, but the general details seem concrete.
Another, more definite case of Ratzenberger’s heroics came at a Japanese F3000 test at Fuji. Anthony Reid had had a major off at 100R, the impact being so violent that his helmet came clean off his head. With a helmet rolling about, the car upside down and the track covered with blood, marshals thought Reid had died and thus didn’t provide too much assistance. Only Ratzenberger and fellow driver Paulo Carcasci stopped to extract Reid and take him to the hospital, where he’d make a full recovery.
All this success in Japan was grand for Ratzenberger up until 1993, when the All-Japan Prototype Championship, Ratzenberger’s main focus, was dissolved, leaving Ratzenberger with just one minor drive in Japanese Formula 3000. Understandably, with only one drive on offer with middling success, he wanted to try to return to racing in Europe. He asked Austrian journalists, with a little bit of money, to publish his results in Japan and hype his name up, as he planned to come back to Europe by the following year. Despite a terrible Japanese F3000 season, his stock in Europe grew as he finished fifth with Toyota Team SARD in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning his class. For 1994, Roland was all set to return to Europe. Where he’d go, he had no idea.
By the start of the next year, though, he’d finally reached a contract. And it was with an actual Formula One team.
Simtek were a windtunnel developer and third-party chassis builder for Formula One teams from 1989, but by 1993, Simtek founder Nick Wirth set his sights on his own Formula One team. Naturally, Wirth needed a hefty set of sponsors and some exciting drivers to give the team a good boost in their first year.
Roland Ratzenberger was eager to finally get an opportunity to race in Formula One, all be it at 33 years old, but better late than never. Even better for Ratzenberger, he had met one Barbara Belhau, a wealthy German entrepreneur and art collector residing in Monaco. Additionally, his old friend and advisor, Burghard Hummel, had contacted Wirth about Roland for the drive. In their first meeting, Roland offered Wirth a ride in his tiny Ford Fiesta. Ratzenberger promptly made Wirth sweat with terror as he took the Fiesta around all sorts of country bends flat out. With Belhau’s bucks and Ratzenberger scaring the shit out of him, Nick Wirth signed Roland on to a five-race deal to start the 1994. It wasn’t a whole lot of races, but it was still a taste of Formula One that Roland desperately wanted.
Right off the bat, though, Roland clicked with the whole Simtek team instantly. There was an immense amount of chemistry between him, teammate David Brabham and the mechanics and staff. The only thing they didn’t have, though, was speed. Simtek got caught out by the change in regulations for the 1994 season, and with limited funding, they were expected to struggle alongside fellow newcomers Pacific.
Indeed, for the first race of the season at Interlagos, Ratzenberger struggled through the slow turns and ended up failing to qualify for the race. This made him more hungry for the next race, the Pacific Grand Prix at TI Aida, a new circuit on the Formula One calendar. Aida was in Japan. Ratzenberger had years of experience in Japan. And he knew Aida very, very well. Though still struggling through the slow turns throughout the circuit as he would in his time in Formula One, Ratzenberger’s track knowledge helped him beat the Pacifics to the final spot on the grid. At 33 years, 9 months and 13 days old, Roland Ratzenberger was finally going to start his first Grand Prix.
And, come the end of the race, he had also finished his first Formula One race. He was five laps down in 11th and last, but I don’t think he could care less. I think Nick Wirth extended his five-race contract for one more race. He was ecstatic. He celebrated by buying a Porsche, immediately parading it by driving JJ Lehto to the following race. He had also bought a brand new apartment in Salzburg to move into. Even with class wins in Le Mans, his fame and popularity in Japan and a television appearance with a cheating rat bastard, Ratzenberger thought that this was the biggest moment of his career thus far. After all, he had started a Grand Prix. That was his dream. And Roland Ratzenberger got to live it.
The next race was at Imola. And, sadly, that’s where Ratzenberger’s story ends.