April 30, 2024
Richard Foegele

It Happened 30 Years Ago

Today we remember F1 drivers Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger

May 1st will mark the 30th anniversary of that dark day at the San Marino Grand Prix where the World lost F1 drivers Ayrton Senna (and Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying 1 day earlier).

That infamous weekend at the “Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari” (Imola) was fraught with issues without a day of the three passing without major incident.

Depending on what generation you are from, remembering seeing Senna or just hearing about the Legend, Senna has become immortal to many.

Who were these two men of similar age (both born in 1960) with very much diametrically opposite careers who were lost forever 30 years ago?

Senna was in his 10th year of F1 with three world Championships under his belt. By contrast, Ratzenberger had only made one Grand Prix start by the time Imola rolled around in the F1 schedule.

Senna’s (Ayrton Senna Da Silva as he was known then) first exposure to European racing was in 1978 at the Karting World Championships in Le Mans, France. For him, karting represented a purer form of competition, so much so that well into his junior formula career he would venture back to compete in that discipline’s World Championship. Senna’s junior formula career spanned only three years (Formula Ford, Formula Ford 2000 and Formula 3), resulting in multiple Championships every year.

Senna (#17 above) considered karting to be a pure form of competition

For Ratzenberger, the start to his racing ambitions was much more difficult than Senna’s, who came from a family of means that helped fund the Brazilian’s early racing. Working at racing schools in both his native Austria (Lechner Racing School) and Germany (ISA), Ratzenberger honed his craft as instructor, mechanic and driver. By the time he finished his first full racing season in 1993, Senna was already looking to sign for Tolman in F1.

Despite almost winning the Monaco Grand Prix for Tolman at his first attempt, Senna would move to the JPS Lotus team for 1985 and secure his first win at the rain-soaked Estoril circuit in Portugal.

Sporting a black and gold JPS livery, Senna’s first F1 win was in 1985 at the Portuguese Grand Prix in Estoril

For financially challenged Ratzenberger, the 80’s were a struggle. Despite good results in Formula 3, budget would always be an issue. For 1987, Ratzenberger accepted a paid drive with the Schnitzer BMW team in touring cars. Despite not having to find funds to race, Ratzenberger felt that touring cars was a distraction from his ultimate goal of Formula One. He did what was necessary.

Ratzenberger driving the Schnitzer BMW touring car – yet another stepping stone in his prolonged journey to F1

Senna went from strength to strength, winning three F1 World Championships, despite constant battles with FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre, who seemed to favor Senna’s McLaren teammate Alan Prost.

Head of the Sport (FISA), Jean-Marie Balestre (right) had a close relationship with fellow Frenchman and F1 driver, Alain Prost (left), much to the chagrin of Ayrton Senna. They butted heads on many issues

For Ratzenberger, a mix of open wheel, touring cars and sports car drives at Le Man’s sustained him; however, by 1990, Japan’s deep pockets were calling. For perhaps the first-time, finding money was not an issue; a healthy mix of open wheel (F3000) and sports cars (Group C) saw Ratzenberger flourish in Japan.

Ratzenberger put in 4 years of seat time in Japan before landing a Formula One ride

For the 1994 season, both men would be in new F1 machinery, with Senna switching from McLaren to Williams and Ratzenberger finally securing the funding to join the brand-new MTV-sponsored Simtek team.  

Senna in a Williams FW16 (left), Ratzenberger (right) in a Simtek S941

On that fateful weekend at Imola, it seemed that both drivers had to dig deep to secure a good qualifying position. The Williams was handicapped by having its active suspension banned that year, while Simtek was racing on a miniscule budget, which meant that critical testing was almost non-existent. Both men never crossed the finish line.

Drivers observe a minute of silence for Senna and Ratzenberger

“Senna was the best driver who ever lived.” (Niki Lauda, F1 driver)

After 1994, Grand Prix Imola finally made changes to both “Tamburello” corner where Senna lost his life and the daunting “Villeneuve” chicane that saw the Ratzenberger fatality after losing his front wing. Formula One and the FIA went on to implement safety changes to ensure that there is never a repeat of the circumstances that caused that horrific weekend.

At Imola, the Tamburello (Senna accident) and Villeneuve (Ratzenberger accident) corners were hastily redesigned in time for the 1995 F1 season

For F1 enthusiasts, there are many excellent Senna documentaries that give insight into this Great Man. For the perhaps lesser known Ratzenberger, German film-maker Peter Levay has produced an superb multi-episode documentary covering Roland’s racing life that has just been released on YouTube. Go ahead, binge.

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About the Author

Richard is a life-long motor-racer with experience in photography, filmmaking and engineering. His friends sometimes affectionately call him "Foegepedia" for his knowledge of the sport.

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