23 years ago today (30th April 1994), the motorsport world was rocked by the tragic death of Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix. Realising his dream of racing in F1, Ratzenberger was in his third event for the MTV Simtek Ford team when a front-wing failure caused him to crash at the high-speed Villeneuve corner at almost 200mph.
Ratzenberger’s death would play its part in what would become one of sport’s blackest weekends. Today, we commemorate the memory of Roland Ratzenberger through the words of the man who partnered him at Simtek for that tragically brief period, David Brabham.
We had just returned from the first GPs of the year, in Brazil and then Japan, where our small, underfunded Simtek Grand Prix team got two finishes – quite a milestone. Two away races meant we weren’t able to test much; we were heading to Imola to develop the car and strengthen our technical understanding for what was going to be an exciting but hard season ahead.
I was living in Monaco at the time. My teammate Roland Ratzenberger also lived there, so we would run along the waterfront as part of our demanding fitness training. Roland was new to F1, he had reached his dream and was working hard to prepare for Imola. I was in my second year in F1, having driven for Brabham four years prior. We would run and discuss what we had learnt in the first two races and what we could possibly try when we got to Italy. Both of us couldn’t wait to get there. We would meet up for dinner and it was a good time for me to get to know him better.
It was clear that Roland was a top bloke, a person I enjoyed being with on social and work occasions. He had a wicked smile, the ladies thought so too. He was very focussed on his racing and determind to make this opportunity work for him. I was looking forward to the races ahead, he had signed for six races, so we had four remaining.
The start of the Imola weekend was like any other Grand Prix, the usual hustle and bustle, meetings and PR commitments. Nothing out of the ordinary, like all the other teams and drivers we just wanted to get out there and get going. During the Friday practice session, Rubens Barrichello had one almighty shunt, which shook the F1 paddock. Everyone was concerned as it looked nasty and we were all relieved to hear that he was alright, although unfit to race.
Throughout the practice sessions, Roland was complaining of the brakes not working to his liking and he was struggling a bit on pace. As I had more experince with carbon brakes, the team asked me to jump in his car to see what I thought. We changed seats and I went out. I didn’t have to do many laps, as straight away the brakes were not working properly, so I came back to a relieved Roland when I said, ‘these brakes are rubbish, they need changing’.
On the Saturday, Roland was happier. He was much quicker and we were close on times leading up to qualifying, I sensed he was keen to show the team his real pace, which I was sure he would. I went out for qualifying and I was pushing the car to the limit just to even get in front of Roland and the Pacific cars. We weren’t going to be quicker than the others though, the car just wasn’t quick enough. I came past the start finish line on another flying lap and I saw yellow flags and debris on the track between the Tamburello and Villeneuve corners. I knew immediately it was Roland’s car.
I saw purple on the bits lying on the track and I was concerned because the car was travelling at near 300kph. As I went towards the accident, I grew very concerned as it looked massive. I started to fear for Roland and the closer I got, the worse I felt. His car ended up in the middle of the Tosa corner, so everyone had to go around Roland’s car.
Marshalls were on the scene and I was keen to see if my teammate was alright. I wish I hadn’t. As I went round the car and looked, I immediately saw something didn’t look right. The position of his head was different and disturbing, I felt sick and had a strong sense he was gone.
I remember immediately changing my focus to get back to the pits and keep the tyres warm. This was a ridiculous thing to think, but my mind just didn’t want to think about what I had seen and focus on something else, like some kind of defence mechanism. I got back to the pits and I remember my wife, Lisa, standing there with a state of shock on her face and I went over to give her a hug. She asked me if I thought he was going to be ok and I remember saying ‘I think he’s gone’.
It was a very difficult time for the team not knowing if Roland was going to be ok or not, plus they were hoping that my assessment of the situation was not correct. When the news came it was the worst feeling I had ever had as a driver. Even though I didn’t like what I saw, it didn’t prepare me for the news that we were never going to see Roland again. We were completely devastated, shocked and felt numb. We pulled the shutter down in the pit garage and went to the back of the pits, unable to say much. We couldn’t really see the reaction from the rest of the paddock, being in a state of shock we couldn’t absorb what was going on.
It took a while for people to start talking, but the main thing we all wanted to know was why it happened. Clearly something broke on the car, which turned out to be a front wing failure. It would be easy to think it was because we were a small team and things like this might happen, but many top teams even today can have a front wing failure. We looked at the data, trying to understand what happened leading up to the accident and we could see that Roland had gone off the track the lap before. He then backed off and went side to side, as if to check the car was ok. He didn’t lose much time, so it was a bit strange, but enough for him to check. I guess he was then deciding if he should come into the pits or do another lap, he decided to continue.
I was asked in the evening if I wanted to race on the Sunday or not, the team and the FIA said it was my call. I had never experienced losing a team mate before, so I just didn’t know what to do. My mind was all over the place and I just couldn’t think clearly enough. For whatever reason, I suggested I do the warm up and see how it went and then make a decision. I don’t remember sleeping much that night, as I was also concerned for my wife who was with me that weekend, she was 18 weeks pregnant with our son Sam. I jumped in the car on the Sunday morning not really knowing if I was doing the right thing or not, I still felt numb and shocked from the day before, I felt like the whole world was looking at me.
I did the warm up, it was all a bit of a blur to be honest. We were faster than normal, I’m not sure why. It wasn’t like I was driving to the limit, I couldn’t as I wasn’t in the right state of mind, maybe they ran me with half tanks. I arrived back in the pits and I noticed that the team had changed, the heaviness had shifted slightly. Then I had a strong feeling that I had to race for them. I remember jumping in the car for the start of the race and feeling uneasy, but thinking this is what I had to do. I can’t imagine what my wife was going through, seeing me go out there after what happened the day before. It must have been very painful for her.
When the lights went green at the start I was already trying to avoid the accident with Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto, by which time I was starting to think ‘what the hell is going on this weekend?’. We were under yellow for a while, until the mess was cleaned up, and then we went off again. After a couple of laps I came around the Tamburello corner and saw yellow flags and dust in the air, with a blue car to my right coming to a stop. I wasn’t sure who it was, I thought it might have been a Tyrrell, but I never thought that it was Senna.
We all had to stop on the pit straight and get out of our cars. You could see all the drivers were in a state of shock, word got round it was Senna and it didn’t sound good, although no one knew how bad. It took a while to start the race again, I’m not sure how many drivers really wanted to continue, but a driver finds it hard to say ‘no more racing’.
The race restarted and I remember having a close battle with Eric Bernard in the Ligier, he was much quicker than I was on the straight but I was a bit quicker in the corners. I made my car very wide and it was a hard fought dice. Racing hard with Eric I was focused on my job, although the adrenalin was such that my right leg was jumping all over the place when I was on full throttle. That was a strange experience. We had a new gear cut system that race, we didn’t have semi-automatic box like most of the grid but it was a step forward from Japan. It caused the engine to cut in the race and so I had to turn the gear cut system off. When doing so, I turned the ignition off instead and the engine died. Eric nearly hit me from behind and I just managed to restart the engine and get going again.
My race came to an abrupt end not long after that with steering failure. I was very lucky not to have gone in the wall myself, how the steering never went in the corner I will never know. I came back to the pits and I was spooked, I just wanted to get the hell out of there and when I did, I felt like I was lucky to get out alive. If I think about the time I lost turning the gear cut system off and getting going again, who knows where I would have gone off, it may of been at the Tamburello.
People have said that because Roland died when Senna did, he has been somewhat overshadowed. That’s true to a point, but would we be talking about Roland for so long if Senna hadn’t died that weekend? Possibly not. The fact that he did means we will hear his name forever, because the Senna name will help us to never forget.