April 30th 1994, a date in Formula 1 history that is tinged with sadness, with heartbreak. The day before the legendary Ayrton Senna was to sadly pass away at Imola, another driver was to lose his life at the circuit in the most tragic way.
Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was in his first season of F1, but he would not make it past the qualifying session for the San Marino Grand Prix, as a massive crash at the Villeneuve corner was to cruelly take the Simtek driver’s life. It was the first fatality in a Formula 1 race weekend since Italian Ricardo Paletti in Montreal in 1982, and the first death of a racing driver on track since another Italian Elio de Angelis while testing for Brabham at Paul Ricard in 1986.
The Austrian had travelled the world to reach F1, struggling with budget for the most of it. He began racing in German Formula Ford in the early 1980’s, and won the prestigious 1986 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, a year after finishing second at the same event. He then would race in British Formula 3, the World Touring Car Championship, the British Touring Car Championship and British F3000 with relative success, especially in the 1989 F3000 campaign where he finished second in the championship.
His single-seater career resumed in the Japanese F3000 championship in 1992 after two years driving Sports and Touring cars in the same country. He also competed in four Le Mans 24 Hour events with a best finish of fifth in 1993.
Ratzenberger was signed by Simtek boss Nick Wirth to compete for the new-to-F1 team for the first five races of the 1994 season. His debut did not go to plan as he failed to qualify around the Interlagos circuit in Brazil, but second time around at the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida, he managed to qualify, albeit twenty-sixth and last, and over six seconds off the pace of pole man Senna. This was helped by the fact the Austrian was the only driver on the grid with previous knowledge of the Japanese circuit.
Unfortunately he would never start a race again. He had been due to compete for a fifth time at Le Mans with the Toyota team, and while Eddie Irvine was signed up to replace him, Ratzenberger’s name was left on the car as a tribute to the fallen driver.
Senna’s death the following day took some of the attention away from Ratzenberger, but it is just as sad a story as to that of the Brazilian three-time F1 champion. He had finally made his way to the pinnacle of the sport to see the chequered flag only once.
“The sad thing was that the Formula One world didn’t get to know him,” said Nick Wirth, to Autosport. “What level he would have reached I wouldn’t like to say but I don’t think it’s important really. His dream was F1.
“He’d be top of the list if you were going out for a drink. He had a lot of self-confidence but not in a nasty way. He wasn’t conceited. He wasn’t arrogant. He was just a great, great guy.”
It can be said that since that fateful weekend, no F1 driver has lost their life in an F1 car. But is still terribly sad twenty years on to have to write a tribute about Roland Ratzenberger. He had done enough to qualify for the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, but he would never see the green light.
He may be gone but he will never be forgotten.