This week marks the twentieth anniversary of Formula One’s darkest weekend, the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. On Saturday 30th April that year the 33 year-old Austrian novice Roland Ratzenberger was tragically killed attempting to qualify his struggling Simtek car for the race the following day.
Ratzenberger came from a nation with a proud Formula One history, with names like Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda already enshrined in racing folklore.
The road to Formula One proved a long one for Ratzenberger. In 1985 he was Austrian and Central European Formula Ford Champion, an achievement that elevated him to the attention of eyes from Formula One when he also participated in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in England.
He returned after finishing 2nd in 1985 to win the festival outright in 1986, branding the achievement the ‘proudest moment of my life’.
After dabbling with sports cars Ratzenberger returned to single seaters to take 3rd in the 1989 British Formula 3000 series, before moving back into tin-tops and driving in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993. A highest finish of 5th with the Toyota team in 1993 was his reward.
Japanese Formula 3000 beckoned for 1992 while he was not racing sportscars, fighting and often beating fellow Formula One-destined drivers like Eddie Irvine, Heinz Harald Frentzen and Mika Salo.
Simtek were a struggling F1 backmarker and needed financial support, which by this point in his career Ratzenberger could provide. Team CEO Nick Wirth duly penned a contract for the first five races of 1994 and Ratzenberger was officially a Formula One driver. He failed to qualify in Brazil at the season-opener, but recorded his first classified finish in the Pacific Grand Prix at the TI circuit in Aida with 11th place. Optimism was high heading to Imola for round three.
Friday had brought the horrendous crash of Rubens Barrichello that saw the Brazilian end up in hospital with minor cuts and bruises, an incident of relative uninterest for those outside the racing fraternity. Ratzenberger ventured out for qualifying on Saturday with the aim of advancing from his provisional back of the grid start position but ran wide, damaging his car’s front wing. The following lap it broke free on the high speed run toward the Villeneuve corner, leaving the Austrian a helpless passenger when his Simtek struck the barrier at 195mph.
Roland Ratzenberger passed away from a basilar skull fracture at the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna, where 24 hours later another more high-profile casualty was to largely erase the Austrian’s fate from public memory.
FIA President Max Mosley chose to attend Ratzenberger’s funeral at his home in Salzburg, Austria, while the attention of the world focused on Ayrton Senna’s internment thousands of miles away in Brazil.
“‘Roland had been forgotten.” said Mosley.
“I went to his funeral because everyone went to Senna’s. I thought it was important that somebody went to his.”