Ratzenberger, Senna and the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix - 20 years on.

This post was made in line with the 20th anniversary of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna over the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Everything here is original. And took ages!!
Roland Ratzenberger was just 34 when he died at Imola, 30th April 1994. His dream was to become a Formula 1 driver.


Born in Salzburg, Austria, he began racing in 1983, before winning both the Austrian and Central European Championship. He continued to enter multiple racing events over the next four years, entering Touring Cars, British F3 and British Formula 3000, where he found mixed success, but his talent was clearly in single seaters.

It was in 1989 however, that Ratzenberger was chosen to race in the Le Mans 24 hours for the first time. His first year at Le Mans was unsuccessful however, with his team, Brun Motorsport retiring after just three hours. Nonetheless, Ratezenberger persevered and continued to race for the next four Le Mans until his final Le Mans in 1993 where he finished fifth.

As well as racing Le Mans, Ratzenberger also raced in Japan. He joined the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship and won two races in two seasons. He also returned to the Japanese Touring Car Championship, finishing seventh overall in both 1990 and 1991. After this, similar to his European rise, he joined the Japanese Formula 3000 in 1992, and after a poor start, managed to win two races to finish seventh. In 1993, he continued and finished 11th.


It was then in 1994 he signed a five year deal to race for the newly formed Simtek team. He wouldn't even fulfil one year of his dream contract. His season began poorly in Brazil, where Ratzenberger failed to qualify, but he improved in Suzuka and thanks to his experience in Japanese racing he knew the track well, and was able to achieve a well deserved 11th place.

It was at the next race, the San Marino Grand Prix, that Ratzenberger tragically lost his life.

Due to the extensive history of Ayrton Senna, I have kept his section as short as possible.

Ayrton Senna was just 34 when he died at Imola, 1st May 1994. His dream was to become a Formula 1 driver.


Senna was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, originally born Ayrton Silva. At the age of seven, Senna learn't to drive his family jeep around their farm and was able to change gears without using a clutch.

He began racing karts in at Interlagos, Brazil's Grand Prix circuit at the age of 13 and he started his first race on pole position. In 1977, Senna had won his first championship, the South American Kart Championship. From 1978, he entered the World Karting Championship. It was here that Senna claimed his karting rival "Terry Fullerton" was the driver who he had most satisfaction of racing against. Fullerton never made it to F1 because of his family's orders but he became an extremely successful kart racer.

In 1981, Senna moved to England, where he began single seater racing, entering the British Formula Three Championship and racing for West Surrey Racing, five years before Ratzenberger would race for the same team.


After winning the title in 1983 from Martin Brundle, who raced for Eddie Jordan, he was offered seats from Ron Dennis and Bernie Ecclestone to race in F1. During his F1 testing for Williams he outpaced Keke Rosberg and many other drivers but McLaren and Williams had no space for Senna at their team. Lotus passed him up as their sponsors wanted a British driver and Nelson Piquet of Brabham called him a "taxi driver". Eventually he settled at Toleman and started his Formula 1 career.

Senna raced with Toleman for two years until 1985. In his two years, his best result came from the Monaco Grand Prix, where in soaking wet conditions, he cut the gap to Prost in 1st position by 4 seconds a lap. The race was stopped before he caught him but Toleman revealed the car would have stopped a few laps before the flag due to suspension damage.

He joined Lotus in 1985 and stayed there until 1987. In his first season he established himself as the fastest drivers on the grid, taking seven pole positions. In 1986, after winning the Detroit Grand Prix, two days after Brazil were eliminated from the FIFA World Cup, Senna asked a supporter for the Brazilian flag and drove a lap waving the flag. He has repeated this ritual every time he won.


In 1988, he moved to McLaren, and stayed there until 1994. It was his most successful team and he claimed three world championships there. In his first season, he was paired with Alain Prost, and with one of the best cars ever made, the MP4/4. They went on to win 15 out of the 16 races. Senna only won the championship by having more wins than his teammate.

For the next two years, Prost and Senna came head to head, sparking a rivalry. As it would take up too much text in this post, I have not gone into detail here .

Prost left the team for Ferrari in 1990 but Senna stayed. In 1992, Senna and McLaren were far behind the dominant Williams. At the end of 1993, after concluding the season with just two wins and Prost winning the championship, Senna decided to leave and join the recently successful Williams, hoping for success. Prost had now retired.

Despite taking two poles for two races in 1994, he failed to finish in the points for either. His next race was to be his last.


The San Marino Grand Prix was held in typical fashion. From Friday 29th April to Sunday May 1st.

On the Friday Qualifying Session, the first of three crashes took place. Driving for Jordan, Rubens Barrichello hit the Variante Bassa curb at 140mph, and was launched into the air. His car rolled and landed upside down. Teams feared the worst, but he survived, his injuries being a broken nose and a plaster for his arm. He sat out the rest of the weekend. Damon Hill recalled how all the drivers "brushed themselves off... reassured that our cars were tough as tanks".

The next day, 30th April, the first death to take place during a Formula 1 session for 12 years took place, with Roland Ratzenberger the driver. After taking a corner poorly and damaging his front wing, he looked set to come into the pits. However, he continued a flying lap, and on the high speed back straight, it broke, leaving his powerless to do anything, and the car struck the outside wall at 195 mph. His life was taken doing what he loved. But the session was restarted 25 minutes later and several teams, including Williams and Bennetton respectfully took no further part.

Ratzenberger's funeral was attended by the lieks of Gerhard Berger and at the time FIA President Max Moseley, who in 2004 recalled how because everyone went to Senna's, he felt somebody had to go to Ratzenberger's, so he did.

Ratzenberger's death, although often in the shadow of Senna's, would be a major turning point in F1, and it was his tragic accident that led to the introduction of the HANS safety device being implemented to every car, the device that could have saved Roland Ratzenberger's and has likely saved countless lives since.
Sid Watkins, the F1 Doctor at the time, recalled how Senna broke down into tears on his shoulder. Sid tried to persuade Senna to quit and go fishing together, but Senna responded "I can't quit. I have to go on". Senna qualified on pole for his final race.

However, just seven laps into the race, Senna lost control of his Williams car through the high speed Tamburello corner after a suspension failure and he collided with the concrete wall at 135mph after braking.In Brazil, three days of mourning were held..


It was both Senna and Ratzenberger's deaths that brought Formula 1 to worldwide attention, and all for the wrong reasons.

The events of that weekend brought numerous changes:
For the Spanish Grand Prix,
  1. the size of diffusers would be reduced,
  2. the front wing end plates would be raised,
  3. the size of the front wing would be reduced.
  4. Combined this would reduce the amount of downforce by about 15%.

For the Canadian Grand Prix,
  1. the lateral protection of the drivers' heads would be improved by increasing the height of the sides of the cockpit,
  2. the minimum weight of a Formula 1 car would be increased by 25 kg (changed to 15 kg by Canadian GP),
  3. the front wishbones would be strengthened to reduce the possibility of a front wheel coming loose and striking the driver,
  4. the cockpit would be lengthened to prevent drivers striking their head on the front of the cockpit,
  5. the use of a fuel pump would be introduced,
  6. the airboxes from the engines would be removed to reduce the airflow to the engines and thus decrease the power available.

Other improvements included more improved crash barriers, redesigned tracks and tyre barriers, higher crash safety standards, higher sills on the driver cockpit and a limit on 3-litre engines are among the measures that were subsequently introduced. The FIA immediately investigated the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, and the track's signature Tamburello turn, was changed into a left-right chicane."

In the end, there deaths were tragic and tarnished the sport forever. They will alayws have a lasting legacy, and luckily, safety improvements have come about from the events of that weekend.

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For many, including subsequent world champions like Häkkinen and Schumacher, Senna was and still is the greatest driver ever lived. He is remembered not only for his (some might even say God given) talent, but for his passion and his fearless attitude towards racing, his unwavering commitment to the sport itself.
I personally was very moved watching the Senna documentary from Asif Kapadia from 2010 and the bit from Top Gear in Season 15 Episode 5, also from 2010.
R.I.P. to both of them. That was the darkest weekend ever.

I will wear a black band around my arm as a sign of respect.

EDIT - On second thought, I will find another way to show respect since I don't have a band.

I will remember them as best as I can. :(
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Nice apex, I'll take it!
The deaths of those 2 drivers weren't in vain. Ratzenberger shocked everyone, but Senna caused massive change. The fact that we have now gone 20 years without a driver fatality is the main reason why I don't quite "get into" the mourning of this event as much as others do.

Think about it, the safety that occurred due to this was amazing. Look at the crashes we've had in the past 20 years and think how many would have been fatal if this image was a photo, which is why I don't like this photo.

Perhaps not being alive during Senna's life gives me this opinion, but look at some of the crashes we've had.

Luciano Burti, Belgium 2001. Sato/Heidfeld, Austria 2002. Ralf Schumacher, USA 2004. Alexander Wurz, Australia 2007. Robert Kubica, Canada 2007. Heikki Kovalainen, Spain 2008. Felipe Massa, Hungary 2009. Mark Webber, Europe 2010. Fernando Alonso, Belgium 2012. Narain Karthikeyan, Abu Dhabi 2012. etc

All of these were close calls, and could have been much worse if the Imola disaster hadn't happened.

It was a major disaster, and I wouldn't want a fatality to spur these kind of changes, but it did. Ayrton and Roland would probably be extremely content that their deaths helped to remove the fate they suffered.

Good can come out of a terrible situation. Here, it most definitely did.

Deleted member 161052

When Érik Comas, the driver who was saved by Senna, saw the crash, he withdrew from the race.
Νοw read the first post. Great text, although it had some mistakes, especially about Ratzenberger :) His deal was just a five race one, and that's why he was so desparate to go through to the race :)

But beautiful job :)
Great read and the part about Senna winning 7 world titles is highly plausible, though a moot point really. The one thing that guts me everytime something about Ayrton comes up, is that it could of been or should of been avoided. There was no way that Roland was alive after that impact and his death should of been declared at the circuit, not at the Hospital or the medical Helicopter, whether it was a mistake or deliberate, that decision cost Ayrton his life.

I understand that the tragedies that weekend prompted many safety features, that have since potentially saved many lives and not just in Motorsport, though a simple, responsible decision could have saved Ayrton from being an unwanted statistic.
Out of respect heres the full Senna documentary film:

One thing to note in this documentary is the ratzenberger part, especially the comments he was making to one of the pit mechanics.

Also in regards to car safety heres another BBC4 documentary about the really fateful years back in 60/70's and changed that were demanded even back then when it was much worse: