- July 04, 1960
- April 30, 1994
- Not Active
Roland Ratzenberger was a racing driver from Austria whose career ended with a fatal crash during San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. His death was only the beginning of one of the darkest weekends in the history of Formula 1.
He was born in Salzburg, on 4th of July, 1960. Interestingly, Ratzenberger often claimed that he was born in 1962, trying to prolong his career making him younger than he really was. The early years of Roland’s career were pretty good: he won titles in the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford Championships which allowed him to appear at the 1985 Formula Ford festival at Brands Hatch where he finished 2nd, while in the following year he won the race.
Roland stayed in the United Kingdom and participated in the British F3 for two seasons, finishing 12th in both. At the same time, Ratzenberger had some good episodes in the WTCC with the Team Schnitzer’s BMW M3. Driving the same car for Demon Tweeks team, Ratzenberger also competed in the final rounds of the 1988 BTCC season.
In 1989, the Austrian finished 3rd overall in the British Formula 3000, but debut at 24 Hours of Le Mans was probably the highlight of the year, despite him failing to finish the race. The following two attempts at Le Mans were again unsuccessful, but in 1992, he was runner-up in the C2 class and was 9th overall, sharing the seat of a Toyota 92C-V with Eje Elgh and Eddie Irvine. He did even better in 1993, clinching a class win while driving alongside Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka.
Driving at the 24 Hours of Le Mans wasn’t Roland’s sole duty during the early 1990s. He appeared at Daytona 24 Hours and then went to Japan to compete in various racing series, most notably in Japanese Formula 3000. During three years, Ratzenberger scored one victory in Japan, before getting an unexpected chance to fulfill his dream to drive in Formula 1.
There was an interesting, but not so funny anecdote during his stay in Japan. During the race at Fuji Speedway in 1992, Anthony Reid had a horrible accident during which his protection helmet was ripped off. Ratzenberger was shocked and angry with the scene he was looking at and with the fact that the race marshals couldn’t do anything. Pairing with a Japanese journalist, Ratzenberger helped write an article in a magazine explaining how low the safety standards are.
In 1994, he signed a short-term contract with the small Simtek team. The start of his F1 career was poor as he failed to qualify for the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos after mechanical difficulties, while in the following race, the Japanese Grand Prix, he was 11th at TI Circuit in Alda, taking advantage of the fact that he was the only driver on the grid who earlier drove at this track.
The next race in the calendar was San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. On 30th of April, during the qualifying session, he was killed in a heavy crash. Front wing on his car was damaged and due to high downforce, it went under the car. Ratzenberger couldn’t control the car and hit the wall at a speed of 315 km/h.
He was immediately airlifted to a hospital in Bologna, but the poor driver was already dead. That was the first accident with a fatal outcome at a Grand Prix since 1982 and Riccardo Paletti’s death in Canada. Ratzenberger’s death was a big tragedy and shock, but due to circumstances, this tragedy was quickly forgotten after another that had happened on the following day.
Sadly, Ratzenberger was remembered as a driver who lost his life a day before the death of one of the most popular Formula 1 drivers ever – Ayrton Senna. Since that day, no driver was killed at track accidents during F1 Grand Prix weekends. Roland Ratzenberger’s death, just as Senna’s, forced safety changes and many fatal outcomes were prevented.
Finally, the black weekend at Imola could have been even worse. On Friday, during the free practice, Rubens Barrichello had a bad accident in which his car landed upside down. The unconscious Brazilian swallowed his tongue but Professor Sid Watkins reacted quickly and saved Rubens’ life.