Senna anniversary: The death of Roland Ratzenberger – Imola's forgotten tragedy

His fatal accident, 20 years ago today, was overshadowed by that of Ayrton Senna the following day. But he did not die in vain

Roland Ratzenberger's death runs to one minute and 16 seconds on YouTube. Viewed today, exactly 20 years later, as an exercise in grim foreboding it is hard to imagine how Alfred Hitchcock might have done it better.

A graphic in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen reads SENNA. The man with around 24 hours left to live sits in pole position at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. His is the time Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and the rest are chasing down.

In bright tones, the commentators from Eurosport discuss the minor miracle of the previous day's practice, when Rubens Barrichello's car leapt clear of a metre-high safety barrier and crashed near full on into a fence, put there to prevent flying debris hitting the crowds.

Barrichello, a Brazilian like Senna, now a veteran racer but then a young man, was knocked unconscious. Quick medical intervention saved his life.

"Well, if that had happened in an aluminium car 10 or 15 years ago, the accident damage to the guys in them would have been far worse," cheerfully imparts David Price, the guest in the commentary box, and a leading figure in motor racing car design. "To see Rubens walking about this morning was a delight, really, after the level of the impact yesterday."

As Price says those words, Ratzenberger dies. He was 34, the same age as Senna. Except this was only his third Formula One grand prix, and he was contracted for just two more. An Austrian who had spent many years in the lower echelons of motor racing, his dream had taken the entirety of his youth to realise.

Ratzenberger during practice at Imola on 30 April 1994 (Getty) Ratzenberger during practice at Imola on 30 April 1994 (Getty)
The camera cuts to a replay of his shattered Simtek car as it rolls slowly back out on to the track: "And Ratzenberger has had a heavy shunt indeed." The driver's head in its helmet is lolloping to one side. He was already dead. Perhaps a second before, a piece of broken-off bodywork trapped under his car had prevented it from turning, and he smacked into the wall at the Villeneuve Corner at 200 miles an hour, puncturing his skull, and dying instantly.

Ratzenberger was pronounced dead before he made it to the helicopter to be airlifted to Bologna's Maggiore Hospital, the same journey Senna would make the following day.

"We don't know what's gone on," is the last word from Eurosport's trackside voice, the body now removed, the half-obliterated vehicle being lifted off the track. "But in essence, the chassis of that car is intact. It's stood up to the impact extremely well."

Max Mosley, then president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, was one of the few figures in motor racing who went to Ratzenberger's funeral in Austria, instead of Senna's in Brazil.

"It was a small, sad, affair. A little bit more than a family thing," he said. "His partner was there, his parents, figures from Austrian motor racing.

"A lot of famous drivers were long-standing friends of Ayrton's so it's completely understandable they went to Ayrton's, but I just felt he was being neglected.

"Like all funerals, it was very, very sad. All you can really do is shake hands and express condolences, but there's no real conversation.

"I knew him quite well. The fact that he'd worked his way up, and got the job done, I admired. But he hadn't had a chance to enjoy any of the success yet. Ayrton had a short but amazing life. [Roland] had finally got there, but never had time to enjoy it."

Ayrton Senna, who would die the following day, talks to his friend Professor Sid Watkins after the Ratzenberger accident (Getty) Ayrton Senna, who would die the following day, talks to his friend Professor Sid Watkins after the Ratzenberger accident (Getty)
It is tempting now to see that terrible weekend at Imola in northern Italy as a tragic boundary between two ages in Formula One. Death isn't part of the sport any more. In 1933 at Monza, three drivers died on a single day. In 1973, the death of the Frenchman François Cevert, in practice for the United States Grand Prix, scarcely cast a shadow over the victory celebrations.

In the 20 years since Imola, no one has died in a Formula One car. But no one had died in the 12 years leading up to it either, and there were already many claiming the sport had become "too safe".

"Up to then, most people said it's quite safe enough," said Mosley, "People were saying even then that it was too safe, that it had been sanitised."

The sport changed rapidly, not least in the introduction of Hans helmets, instantly recognisable now, that hold the head and neck firm, with cushioning around the shoulders.

Mosley admits that the changes that happened in the immediate aftermath of that weekend, "wouldn't have just happened anyway".

He also claims that the huge decline in deaths on the roads in Europe is in many ways down to improvements in technology and standards that were a direct consequence of changes made in the "panic" that followed Imola.

"Quiet and unassuming" are the words that have attached themselves to Ratzenberger in the years after his death. For Mosley, "That's a cliché, yes, but that is exactly what he was. Many of the best drivers are very insecure about their ability. That's what drives them on."

Certainly, Ratzenberger died doing what he loved, and he knew better than most the struggle it had been to get there. Twenty years on, the sport is in vigorous health and, in no small part thanks to both the lives that were lost that weekend, so are its drivers.

Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test