4 July, 1960 - 30 April, 1994
And 30 April, 1994 was the day Roland Ratzenberger passed away. An unassuming, ordinary Austrian, who stood no chance when his Simtek ploughed all but head-on into a concrete wall at almost 200mph at the Villeneuve kink, a few hundred yards further on from the Tamburello, his was the first death in F1 for eight years, and the first at a Grand Prix meeting in twelve seasons. It was not only a cruel twist of fate for the versatile rookie, who was still finding his feet in the F1 paddock, it was an utter tragedy for his memory that the best driver of his era died the following afternoon.
And so, as Formula One returned to the Italian vineyards for the tenth anniversary of that dreadful weekend, we remember the other life that Imola snatched away, and offer this tribute. Roland Ratzenberger was born in Salzburg on July 4, 1960, although during his racing days he counted himself as being two years younger, for fear that his age made him unattractive to prospective team owners. The truth is that he was a comparatively late starter in racing - he did not begin competing in German Formula Ford events until 1983.
But even if the early stages of his career had a familiar ring to it, it was tinged with a hard-working ethic that would become something of his trademark, and which you would not find in either the merely well-moneyed or the especially talented. And, quite fairly, Roland fitted into neither category. How else can you explain the fact that in 1985 Ratzenberger won the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships, came 2nd in the German Formula Ford title, finished 4th in the British series, and also gained a spot on the podium at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch?
After finally taking out the Formula Ford Festival in 1986, and with personal sponsorship now coming from the ATS wheels company (the Grand Prix team of the same name having folded), Ratzenberger was taken on by the famous West Surrey Racing team for the 1987 British F3 campaign. This was the same outfit that, ironically, carried Senna to the 1983 title. Although Roland took a podium at Spa, he only finished the season in 12th, although in the F3 Euroseries he was 5th overall. The following year he ended the British F3 season in 12th again, this time for Madgwick Motorsport.
But by now he had also begun to display a versatility that few drivers would be able to boast. In 1987 he had also branched out into touring car racing, being employed by the Schnitzer team to race a BMW M3 in the World Touring Car Championship. Apart from the flexibility required to make the transition from open wheelers to tin tops, there was also the constant cross-entering and chopping and changing of driver line-ups that was a hallmark of European touring car racing at the time. That he finished 10th in the one-off title, including two 2nd places, was really quite a notable achievement.
At the end of 1988, however, Roland's climb up the motor racing ladder was coming to something of a standstill. The disbandment of the WTCC after 1987 temporarily ended his touring car career; he wasn't wealthy enough nor well-backed enough to buy his way into higher categories; his perhaps relatively average two seasons in British Formula 3 had shown that he was not the next big thing, and to be fair about it, that was probably true. And so in 1989 he was left to race in the second tier British F3000 championship, where he nonetheless placed 3rd overall including a win at Donington Park.
He also branched out into something new yet again, taking up sports car racing especially for the Porsche team run by Walter Brun, finishing 4th at Spa with Oscar Larrauri but retiring in his first taste of the Le Mans 24 hours. And, for a driver who was nonetheless focussed on eventually reaching F1 and who could have been forgiven for wanting to race nothing but single-seaters, it was possibly his versatility and willingness to race anything, anywhere that gave his career a lifeline. For the call came to Roland to journey to the Far East.
He was invited to race for BMW in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, and for the SARD Toyota team in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship. These days, to have no choice but to race in Japan is something of a career graveyard, but a decade ago it was very much a viable alternative, even if the Japanese scene was decidedly not as preferable as Europe. In all, he drove three seasons for Toyota in the JSPC, alongside the likes of Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Naoki Nagasaka, Eje Elgh and one Eddie Irvine, clocking up a win each in 1990 and 1991.
He also raced at Le Mans from 1990 to 1993, all but one of those starts for the SARD team, finishing a gallant 5th in 1993. He also spent two seasons in the JTCC, racing his BMW M3 to 7th in both 1990 and 1991, before returning to open wheelers with two years in Japanese F3000 in 1992 and 1993. Towards the end of his return year to single seaters, he scored two consecutive poles and a dominant win at Suzuka to prove that he did have what it took to be successful in this kind of racing. In 1992, he came 7th in the final standings, one place ahead of Irvine, but in 1993 he fell to 11th.
It was in Japan, though, that two of his other qualities shone through. One was his ingenuity, a trait readily found in the determined but impecunious. Freelance journalist Adam Cooper, who worked in Japan at the time, remembers how Roland used to ask him to keep the Austrian press informed of his results, in return for a small sum of money, such was the fear that Japan was something of a career black hole. The other more enduring memory of Roland was his sense of camaraderie with his fellow drivers; one of the common tributes after his death was that he had been a driver liked by all.
An Austrian abroad in England back in the 1980s, he had already come to know the likes of Damon Hill, and he was also mates with Perry McCarthy, someone who could have related to his sense of struggle against the odds. And of course he was not alone in travelling to Japan in the early 1990s. He was only one of several notable gaijins, including Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Salo, who not only stuck together out of necessity but developed some genuine friendships and a refreshing candour that would endear each of them to the F1 fraternity in the years to come.
But whereas the likes of Irvine and Villeneuve were not only frank but also brash in their own ways, Ratzenberger struck a chord with many because he was simply the everyday man on the street, an ordinary guy with an extraordinary warmth, a sophisticated sense of humour, an intelligent appreciation of his own abilities and limitations, and above all an enthusiasm for his sport few could match. As some have noted, his personality was of the 'old school', and he was not the corporate clone which too many drivers morph into these days.
Tellingly, one of the recurring tributes after his passing, both from fellow drivers and fans alike, was how ecstatic he had been just to make it into Formula One at the start of 1994. Sadly, you don't find drivers in F1 these days who, like Roland, deserve to be there but are just happy to be there because they know their place in the history of the sport. It is not a lack of ambition to be content with simply participating in F1; it is carving one's own marks in a rich legacy. These days, the grid is filled either with pay drivers or the overly-expectant young naïve, consumed by a win-or-bust mentality.
Which is not to suggest that Roland was not brave or determined. He was - but his was a determination tinged with a sense of perspective. Just how brave was he? Frentzen recounted an incident in Japan, when Ratzenberger came to the aid of a girl in a Japanese disco, confronting her knife-wielding attacker in the process. Simtek boss Nick Wirth also recalled just how resolute Roland had been to get his fateful drive: "I can't imagine too many F1 team bosses being impressed by someone trying to demonstrate their driving skills in a Ford Fiesta hire car, but he terrified the life out of me!"
And perhaps the last minute or so of his life also testified to his determination. As history will record, Roland went off the track at the Acque Minerali chicane the lap before he crashed. After weaving his Simtek to check that it seemed safe to continue, with time in final qualifying ticking away and his car not having displaced Bertrand Gachot's Pacific for the last grid spot, he went for one more fateful lap instead of coming into the pits. On the way to the Villeneuve kink, with the aerodynamic loads on his weakened front wing mounting too great, the front wings broke ...
Roland Ratzenberger was pronounced dead on arrival at Bologna's Maggiore hospital. His passing caused shock and fear to ripple through a paddock that had complacently come to believe that death no longer stalked a Grand Prix meeting, only for his accident to be cast into the shadows and for the terror to multiply only 24 hours later. The spate of safety measures introduced since then, from cockpit padding to narrow tracks, from more rigid crash tests to HANS, have all been attributed to Senna's crash, or maybe Wendlinger's or Hakkinen's. But surely Roland's death was not in vain, either.
In poignant ways Ratzenberger was not forgotten by the motor racing community. Whilst pole at Monaco was replaced by a Brazilian flag, an Austrian flag was painted on second spot. As the drivers paid their respects, the likes of Frentzen, Hill, Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger, and Simtek team-mate David Brabham made a point of gathering around the painted red and white flag. Simtek dedicated the rest of 1994 to their fallen driver and painted 'For Roland' on their airbox. Ratzenberger was also due to drive for Toyota again at Le Mans; his friend Irvine took his place, but Roland's name nevertheless remained on the door.
It may be a cliché, but it is nothing but the truth that Roland Ratzenberger died doing what he truly loved. Though a professional racing driver, he was arguably one of the last Grand Prix drivers to retain the amateur spirit. That he was versatile and skilled enough to justify his place in Formula One was one thing; that he carried himself with such a combination of dignity, determination, enthusiasm, humour and camaraderie was quite another. His death was a loss, not just for Formula One or motor racing, but for all those who live life to make the most of every opportunity. Rest in peace, Roland.
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