THE AUSTRIAN driver Roland Ratzenberger, who died on Saturday in a crash during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, typified the spirit that takes men to the highest echelon of motorsport.
Born in Salzburg in 1962, he began to establish his unusual name in the cut and thrust of Formula Ford, the traditional nursery slope of racing. By 1985 he had won the Austrian, German and European championships, and upon his arrival in Britain (the true hotbed of international motorsport) he already seemed a familiar character thanks to the television antics of Roland Rat. Whenever his leg was pulled about that he was unfailingly polite: he was a tall, good-looking man with a ready smile who always saw the best in people.
His dedication took him to victory in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 1986, and after two seasons of Formula Three starting in 1987 he faced the usual dilemma of those drivers who do well but cannot graduate directly to Formula One: where do I go next? In Ratzenberger's case the answer was Japan, where he raced saloon cars initially. He then graduated to Formula 3000, one rung below Formula One, as well as long-distance sportscars. In 1990 he triumphed in the Fuji 1,000km race, and he then followed victory at the Suzuka 1,000km in 1991 with third place in the Daytona 24 Hours classic a year later.
All the time, however, his sights were set on Formula One. In 1991 he tested the IndyCar champion Michael Andretti's Lola and lapped within a tenth of a second of the American star, but plans to move into Formula One with Eddie Jordan's emergent team went awry when his sponsor pulled out. Undeterred, he went back to Japan and continued his impressive progress in Formula 3000 before suddenly becoming a contender for the drive this year with Simtek that eventually took him to Imola. In the recent Pacific Grand Prix he made his debut, but typically he felt he could have done better than his eventual 11th place. Ratzenberger always did prefer to run rather than walk.
'He had an infectious sense of humour and was a racer who worked for everything that he achieved in motor racing, right from the time when he was his own mechanic in Formula Ford,' said the Lotus driver Johnny Herbert, who formed a strong friendship with him during their racing days in Japan.
Roland Ratzenberger was on the threshold of achieving his lifelong dream, and was that rare character: a hard racer who nevertheless had not a single enemy within the grand prix paddock.