Roland Ratzenberger – 26 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.

Ratzenberger was popular among other F1 drivers and drove to that fateful San Marino GP with JJ Lehto. 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. Book contributor, Willem Toet, admitted “I’ve done similarly risky things and got away with it so I know that sometimes luck is with you and sometimes not.” 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.

Perhaps Ratzenberger’s greatest legacy was F1 safety developments stemming from his death, like the higher cockpit sides shown above. This along with other measures saved drivers lives since.

Perhaps Ratzenberger’s greatest legacy was F1 safety developments stemming from his death, like the higher cockpit sides shown above. This along with other measures saved drivers lives since.

Ratzenberger’s death along with subsequent accidents forced the sport to unite in a way which it has not done before or since. Willem Toet knows from being an occasional team representative at technical (regulations) working group meetings since, that nothing unites stakeholders like the issue of safety. The resulting scientific approach towards safety 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 that would have happened without Ratzenberger’s accident triggering it.

Willem Toet with whom this blog has been written in collaboration with. He was Benetton’s Head of Aerodynamics during 1994 and has contributed extensively towards the book.

Toet added; “Somehow the ‘silent majority’ had become numbed to the devastating road toll, but a tragedy like Roland’s death motivated enough people in positions of influence to act, so that the consequences have been profound. Regrettably, tragedies will continue to happen and we can never stop working to stop them, but I’m pleased to note that under Jean Todt the FiA have not only continued but accelerated their safety work and research. Today, my thoughts are with Roland and his family.” There will be another blog commemorating Ayrton Senna tomorrow.

1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book, proudly dedicated Roland Ratzenberger. It aims to shed light on hirtherto unpublished facts & stories regarding that fateful year. It also explores Walkinshaw’s colourful past in detail. It is available from Performance Publishing’s website where you can also read a free sample of the book

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