Imola, San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 – The setting for one of the darkest weekends in Formula 1 history. The weekend saw major accidents and tragically, fatalities over the course of the weekend that not only impacted the sport, but on a global scale.
The setting for the third round of the 1994 Formula 1 World Championship took place at the infamous Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, situated near the small Italian town of Imola.
It was a weekend that would forever changed the way Formula 1, Motorsport and safety operated due to the fatalities of both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.
The deaths of Senna, Ratzenberger, along with the crash from Rubens Barrichello during Friday Practice, the debris injuring nine spectators at the start of the race from JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy‘s crash and Michele Alboreto‘s wheel failure that injured mechanics from Ferrari and Lotus, sparked changes to ensure such weekend would never happen again.
Ratzenberger’s death on that Saturday was the first driver fatality in the sport since 1982 and Senna was the last in the sport until the untimely death of Jules Bianchi in 2015, tragically passing away nine months after his accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
What Changed After Imola 94?
Following on from the weekend of Imola 94, the FIA, Charlie Whiting and Professor Sid Watkins worked tirelessly through months, years and decades into introducing and researching new safety methods, regulations and standards in place.
The cars during the 1994 season were made faster due to the introduction of refueling, meaning cars can run quicker more frequently compared to carrying all the fuel throughout the whole race, gradually getting lighter as the race went on. The cars also saw a mass of electronic bans such as the active suspension, anti-lock brakes, traction control and launch control.
Several more changes were implemented in the weeks following the San Marino Grand Prix, with further rule changes coming for the 1995 season to improve driver safety and reduce speeds. Front wing end plates and rear diffusers were reduced in size, holes were cut into the side of the engine covers in a bid to reduce the power from the engine and a plank was introduced underneath the car to increase the ride height. Crash tests were to be made more stronger and teams must pass them to ensure their car is safe and meets the regulations.
Many circuits on the F1 calendar went under major layout changes to ensure the cars slowed down. One particular noticable change was at Spa-Francorchamps, when they installed a temporary chicane at Eau Rouge for the 1994 season.
Imola went through a series of changes with installment of multiple chicanes at Villeneuve and Tamburello. Further changes were made with at Variante Bassa, making into a one chicane after a straight, compare to the double chicane used for the race in 1994. Imola today, has removed the chicane complex completely and replaced it with an extended long straight leading to the start/finish line.
Track designs have changed to focused on great racing, but also in an event of an accident, give drivers the chance to slow down with additional run off areas. Traditionally, tracks often used grass or gravel to slow cars before hitting the wall, but in some instances this wasn’t always the case, sometimes creating a roll because they’ve hit a bump in the gravel trap or on the grass.
Now the FIA and circuit organisers use tarmac run-off areas, so if a car does go off track, they can simply return without picking up too much debris of damage along the way; It also helps to slow cars down before they hit a gravel trap or grass.
Barrier technology has seen a massive jump with the inclusion of TecPro barriers, designed to absorb the energy generated from car making contact. Both Ratzenberger and Senna hit concrete walls in their impact, suffering high g-force’s when they first hit the solid barrier. While concrete walls are still in use today, they are mainly used in narrow street straights such as Albert Park, Baku City Circuit and Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore and have plenty of protection in vulnerable areas.
Following from Alboreto’s loose wheel incident in the pit lane, a speed limit was introduced to slow cars down and prevent high speed incidents. Accidents have still occurred in the pit lane, with refueling fires, loose wheels and crashes, but the pit lane has become a more safer environment to be in.
Research was carried out on drivers’ helmets and head movement during a high speed impact. In October 1996, the FIA researched looked in to the HANS neck safety device and whether the device was capable of protecting the driver in head-on collisions. HANS devices were first released back in 1991 to restrain the head and neck in head on collisions, avoiding basal skull fracture, but was only picked up in the late 1990s by the sport, with the aim of making it mandatory for all drivers to wear in their final report in 2000. By 2003, the FIA ruled HANS as a permanent safety feature in F1 and has helped protect drivers in accidents over the last two decades.
In addition to the changes made to driver safety, F1 cars are now fitted with tethers on the wheels to stop them from flying off the car in an accident. Helmets have gone under major changes to withstand the small debris striking the driver head-on.
Further research and development on helmets have taken place surrounding accidents such as Henry Surtees, who tragically died after a loose wheel struck his head during a Formula 2 race in 2009.
In that same year, Felipe Massa suffered an accident in Hungary when a loose spring from the car he was following struck his head, as a result of this helmets now have additional protection with a zylon strip added between the gap of the helmet and the visor. For the 2019 F1 season, the FIA announced an evolution of the standards for the sport and for helmet manufacturers such as BELL, Arai, Stilo and Schuberth to follow.
Debris striking the drivers’ head has long been a hard case to solve within single-seater racing. The FIA wanted to introduce a ‘shield’ around the drivers’ head, following on from the deaths of Justin Wilson in IndyCar and accidents such as Surtees and Massa from happening again. The Halo system was designed to protect and resist large debris from striking the drivers’ head and deflect any incoming debris from reaching within the cockpit. It has proven its worth in accidents in the 2018 season, but the technology of cockpit protection is forever improving and new concepts will be made over time.
How The Media And The World Reacted To Imola 94
The death of Senna was not only a tragedy for F1, but for the whole of Brazil. Senna was idolised for being more than just an athlete. He was a person who gave back to his country, helping unprivileged children in his home country. After his death, it was revealed that Senna donated millions of his own fortune to help those children. In the same year of his death, Instituto Ayrton Senna was formed as a charity dedicated to children and run by Ayrton’s sister, Viviane to continue the work he had put into helping those in Brazil
The funeral of Senna was seen as a national tragedy, with the Brazilian government declaring three days of mourning. His funeral took place in his home town of Sao Paulo, with over three million people lined up on the streets as his coffin headed towards Cemitério do Morumbi, where he was buried. Senna’s funeral saw key figures such as Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Ron Dennis attend, compare to Ratzenberger’s funeral where FIA President Max Mosley, Johnny Herbert, Simtek team-mate David Brabham, Gerhard Berger, Heinz-Harald Frenzen and Karl Wendlinger were the only members of the F1 community who attended.
The aftermath of Ratzenberger and Senna’s death was heavily picked up by worldwide media coverage as for the first time in a generation, an F1 driver has died during a race weekend.
British commentator Murray Walker called Senna’s death the “blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember”. A month after Senna’s passing, the Brazilian National Football Team won the 1994 World Cup in the United States and dedicated their victory towards the three-time world champion. In 2014, the Corinthians, Senna’s favourite football club, wore helmets of Senna prior to the game against Nacional in the Copa da Brasil.
The aftermath of Senna’s accident saw years of court proceedings with Williams and the Italian court, who were charging key personnel at Williams over manslaughter. These court charges first occurred in 1997 and ended in 2007, 13 years later after the accident. The Italian Supreme Court saw the incident as ‘preventable’ due to evidence of possible damage to the steering column. Adrian Newey, the chief designer of the FW16 was found not guilty over the case whilst the Italian courts ruled out the acquittal of Sir Patrick Head. Head was not arrested however because of the Italian’s statute of limitation for manslaughter had beyond past.
How Imola ’94 Still Has An Effect – 25 Years Later
25 years from the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix safety has improved for drivers, mechanics, fans and marshals, all because of the FIA’s work and research to ensure a repeat doesn’t happen again.
The improved safety measures have prevented fatalities from huge accidents and seeing drivers walking away from spectacular crashes with minor or no injury. Since 1994, F1 has lost four people in accidents. Three marshals: Paolo Gislimberti, Graham Beveridge and Mark Robinson. and one racing driver: Jules Bianchi. All four individual’s losses accelerated the push for further safety and since 2015, no individual has reported to have lost their live at a race circuit in F1.
Circuit builds now have to think of the aspect of safety and make sure that the permanent race tracks has plenty of run-off space between the walls and the track, as well as allowing a protective distance from grandstands to the track to avoid any debris from reaching fans. Catch fencing was in place during Imola in 1994, but since then circuit organisers have improved this so they’re more tougher, higher and capable of catching more debris.
Barriers for race tracks are now more safer, with high technological protection barriers to protect the driver from heavy impacts. TecPro barriers often used in modern facilities have played a strong role in shunts and around street circuits such as Baku and Monaco.
The legacy of both Senna and Ratzenberger and the events of Imola still linger in the minds of fans today. Tributes from all of the Motorsport community ranging from drivers, teams, journalists, fans and publications always pour out every year, with a new story surrounding the two drivers’ being revealed every year. Senna in particular, has largely been an iconic figure to most of the current racing drivers today such as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso for his outstanding success with McLaren, his will to win and unique philosophy as a racing driver.
Senna’s death in particular was the first kind of a generation to witness an iconic figure lose their live at a Formula 1 weekend. The reaction of his passing was worldly recognised and still today, the Senna colours are present from fans and memorabilia within Grands Prix and venues.
The Senna name returned to F1 between 2010 to 2012 with Ayrton’s nephew, Bruno Senna racing with Hispania Racing, Lotus and Williams. Today, Bruno has tied connections with McLaren, the team Ayrton won all three championships with.
Both Ratzenberger and Senna’s legacy still lives on today – the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the venue for the Spanish Grand Prix, plans to tribute both drivers by giving a flag, combining both Brazilian and Austrian flag to the race winner to take onto the podium. A tribute that Senna never fulfilled at San Marino 25 years ago, when the Brazilian carried an Austrian flag with him in the car during the race at Imola, hoping to wave the flag when he reached the podium.
The work done by the FIA in the aftermath of Imola 94, particularly from Charlie Whiting and Sid Watkins helped shaped the way the sport has become a more safer environment and continues to do so today, even after the passing of both Watkins and Whiting in 2012 and in 2019.
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix will forever be remembered as the weekend where two F1 drivers lost their lives, but what followed in the weeks, years and decades has helped shaped safety within F1, the FIA and motorsport to new heights and has increased the likelihood of when an accident occurs, the driver, fan, mechanic or marshal will walk away.