Roland Ratzenberger – 24 Years On
F1 is filled with irony, but the hand it dealt Roland Ratzenberger on 30th April 1994 was a particularly cruel blow – even by the sport’s standards.
The Austrian, just weeks into his dream job, was attempting to qualify for his second Grand Prix with the new and underfunded Simtek team. During a fast lap he had a minor off-track excursion and instead of coming into the pits to check for damage he weaved the car, perhaps trying to judge for himself. Believing the front wing was OK, Ratzenberger carried onto another quick lap. That would prove to be a fatal error. As he approached the fastest part of the track his front wing failed under the heavy loading, and the Simtek ploughed straight into a concrete wall at 195mph. Ratzenberger was killed instantly and it was horrible seeing his limp head rolling from side to side, as the car bounced over a kerb and came to a stop. The popular Austrian had spent the last 11 years plugging away in the lower categories of motor racing just to get into F1. In that time he had built himself a reputation as a hardworking and a universally loved driver, so it was sad he could not reap the rewards of his efforts. However, it is comforting to know that Ratzenberger fulfilled his ambition to get into F1 and died doing what he truly loved.
The final spot on the starting grid at the 1994 San Marino GP was left empty out of respect for Ratzenberger. Whilst his team bravely carried on with the event simply because they felt that was what Roland would have wanted. The decision on whether or not Simtek raced was left to their other driver, David Brabham, who later recalled: “I only raced because I needed to pick the team up, to help them get through the situation.” The sport, however, was in shock, this was the first race meeting fatality in twelve years so it was a crushing blow to a generation who had never experienced such a loss. Ayrton Senna, was deeply affected and on the grid for the race the following day, he had put an Austrian flag in his car to wave after the race in tribute to Roland. As you probably know, he never got the chance.
Within the stunned paddock, the drivers came together in search of answers. Niki Lauda urged Senna to use his position as the sport’s most famous driver to lead a reformed Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) and lobby the FIA for better safety standards. Looking back now it’s clear Ratzenberger’s death was the initial spark which ignited the constant improvement of safety standards within F1. Not only can the re-formation of the GPDA trace its roots to Roland’s tragic accident. But in its aftermath, we saw the formation of an Expert Advisory Group which looked at improving F1 safety in other areas. It went on to develop measures like the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device which attaches to helmets to avoid whiplash or worse, higher cockpit sides and much more.
Moreover, Ratzenberger’s death along with subsequent accidents forced the sport to unite in a way which it has not done before or since. Roland might have been saved with higher cockpit sides (might) A HANS might have helped but not definitively. I believe (not certain) that the damage was to the side & a HANS primarily works for frontal impacts. HANS wasn’t introduced into F1 until 2003. It had some resistance from drivers, despite being well proven in the US but it was more a case of having to change. Manufacturers involved in junior series such as Formula BMW mandated it because they could see importance of utmost safety for their brand. Formula BMW was a starter class & with kids straight out of Karts, who actually loved the idea of wearing the Hans. Gradually the new generations that have ended up in F1 accepted it, as they’ve never known anything else. Higher cockpit sides were developed by Sauber in the aftermath of Karl Wendlinger’s accident, at the following race in Monaco 1994, where he suffered a side impact to his helmet. His brain was damaged because it bounced one side of his skull to the other.
Also related to Wendlinger’s accident was the immediate ban on speakers inside helmets. Everyone had to use earplugs from this point onwards. Those speakers with heavy magnets were deemed unnecessary & dangerous – in fact Karl’s injury wasn’t helped by them at all. It’s hard to believe (but true) that this ban was fought, purely on the basis that there wasn’t sufficient volume in a set of earpieces compared with speakers. Sid Watkins was the driving force behind the creation of the FIA safety group & specifically he targeted helmets first. Wendlinger & Ratzenberger’s death were significant but not as much as Senna’s death in driving this on. This resulting scientific approach towards safety within F1 also improved the average road car – thus saving 10s of thousands of men, women and children across the world. After the Expert Advisory Group was formed at the following race (Monaco 1994) it looked at what governments were doing to prevent people being killed on roads, with a view to learning lessons for F1.
To its considerable surprise, it found nothing had changed since 1974 as safety proposals were being blocked by the industry part of the European Commission who were under the influence of the car industry. Max Mosley, the FIA president at the time, changed this within Brussels and in 2014 he told Autosport Magazine; “It’s reckoned that since 2000, there have been 100,000 fewer killed (on everyday roads) than would have been if there had been none of the measures. And about 40 percent of that is a combination of the laws that were brought in the EU after we overcame the industry lobby, plus the influence of Euro NCAP, so that’s really significant.” It is questionable whether all this would have happened without Ratzenberger’s accident.
1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book, proudly dedicated to the memory of Roland Ratzenberger. It investigates the various politics and allegations, of F1’s most turbulent season ever. A free sample of the book can be viewed here.