Imola used to be one of the nicest Grand Prix events. Much more laid back than Monza and usually the start of the European Grand Prix season. Great circuit, friendly environment and of course for Italy, fantastic food in the very understated trattorias.
That all changed in 1994. It is hard to comprehend that this was twenty two years ago.
Roland Ratzenberger was a great guy. Affable, friendly with a great sense of humour, which hid a steely determination. Roland rose through the ranks the hard way, with very little finance behind him, he got into Formula One reliant on his ability. True he was driving for the new Simtek team at the back of the grid, but he was in Formula One, treading a similar path to many other drivers who worked their way through the teams to the top.
It was his name that first caught my attention. On UK television there was a puppet character called Roland Rat so you had to take notice of this Austrian with a similar sounding name who won the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 1986. In those days the Festival was very much one of the best motorsport events for the enthusiast, attracting some of the best international young talent in a knock out format with heats, quarter finals, semi finals and the grand final. Winners who went onto Formula One included Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, Jan Magnussen (Kevin’s father), Mark Webber and Jenson Button. So as a winner, Roland was in good company.
I actually met Roland a year later in his native Austria in the ski season. When I joined McLaren I thought that I had landed my dream job of working in Formula One. But Ron Dennis had other ideas for me. My first project was actually putting together a sponsorship proposal for Professor Sid Watkins daughter to compete in eventing on her horse, but that’s another story. At that time TAG had recently bought the watch company Heuer and one of the ways to promote the brand was through the Downhill Skiing World Championship. Their full time involvement with Formula One was to come later. The TAG Heuer skiing team consisted of Harti Weirather, Helmut Hofleher, Marc Giradelli and was managed by the same management team as Roland. Being Austrian, they all had a mischievous sense of fun and humour and whenever I saw Roland there was always a ready smile and a joke.
Roland had spells in British Formula Three and touring cars and moved to Japan in 1990. He enjoyed moderate success in the Formula 3000 Championship but did enough to earn a five-year contract with the Simtek Formula One team in 1994. He failed to qualify for the Brazilian Grand Prix but finished 11th in Japan before arriving at the Imola circuit in Italy.
The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was a most bizarre and ultimately tragic weekend. There had not been death at a Grand Prix for 12 years since Riccardo Paletti was killed at the Canadian Grand Prix. At Imola that weekend it almost felt that the previous 12 years was compounded into a bubbling cauldron of bad luck set to explode.
Firstly we had a sponsor who fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital. On Friday Rubens Barrichello literally flew off the track in his Jordan having been launched from a kerb at the Variante Bassa corner at 140 mph (225 km/h). He hit the top of the tyre barrier, and was knocked unconscious. Having been transferred to Maggiore Hospital in Bologna by helicopter for routine tests and observation, he returned to the track the next day, with a broken nose and a plaster cast on his arm, which forced him to sit out the rest of the race weekend.
On Saturday it was twenty minutes into the final qualifying session when Roland Ratzenberger failed to negotiate the Villeneuve Curva in his Simtek and hit the opposing concrete barrier wall almost head on. After the impact the engine cut out and there was an eerie silence as the car came to a halt with poor Roland fatally slumped in the cockpit.
The Formula One paddock went silent in a state of shock. Ayrton Senna was deeply effected by the tragedy. In his memoirs Professor Sid Watkins recalled Senna’s reaction to the news, saying that “Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder.” Sid tried to persuade Ayrton not to race the following day, asking “What else do you need to do? You have been World Champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.” Senna replied, “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.”
The season so far had not gone to plan for Ayrton. His dream drive with Williams was proving a challenge. Active ride and traction control had been banned at the end of 1993 which stripped Williams of some of the advantages they had from their previous two World Championships. In addition Ayrton was struggling to understand how the Benetton of Michael Schumacher was so competitive against the Williams and there were rumours of a hidden traction control on the Benetton hidden in the depths of a software programme. The pressure was on and Ayrton knew he had to deliver.
For those of us who had been in the red and white colours of Marlboro McLaren for the years of Ayrton’s championships, it was strange seeing him now in the blue and white colours of Rothmans Williams. The styles of the two teams were rather different. Whilst both had a family feeling within, McLaren went out of its way to cosset their drivers, whilst Williams left them more to get on with it and at this stage of the relations with his new team Ayrton must have felt it. In fact at the first Grand Prix of the year in Brazil he seemed to spend quite a bit of time in his old team’s garage!
The McLaren team stayed at the Hotel Castello in Castel San Pietro Terme, which was a twenty minute drive from Imola. We were always looked after very well, and once Ayrton had left the team he persuaded Williams to move there as well. I remember on the Saturday night, when we all were in a numbed state of shock, looking out of the window and saw Ayrton arriving back in the hotel from the track in his Renault Espace, and he looked very shaken and then stayed quite a while in Frank Williams room talking.
Ayrton had a routine of behaviour over a Grand Prix weekend. On Thursday when we arrived he was usually open and friendly. I used to have to sit down with him to go through the sponsor promotional schedule with him for appearances and dinners he was to attend. This was covered in some detail, how long they would take, when he had to be collected and what he had to do. Once agreed, the schedule was fixed and there was to be no deviation, you couldn’t slip in anything else and wow betide you if you messed up! However that didn’t work both ways, especially when you heard those terrifying words, “I know that I am obligated but ….!”
As the weekend progressed, he would become more and more focussed and single minded, to the point that he would be sitting in the car on the grid, with his helmet on, total concentration and almost oblivious to the crowds around him.
In 1994 it was different. If you watch the movie Senna, you see him on the grid, helmet off and visibly distracted. There have been all sorts of theories about his behaviour and I am not going to go into that, but he was deeply effected by Roland’s death plus he knew he had to push hard from the start to win.
At the start, the Benetton of J.J. Lehto stalled on the grid. Pedro Lamy, who started further back had his view of the stationary Benetton blocked by other cars and slammed into the back of Lehto’s car. Such was the impact that parts of the car and a wheel were launched over the safety fencing into the startline grandstand injuring a number of spectators.
This brought out the safety car. Unlike the high powered Mercedes sports cars used today, this was a saloon car which could not be driven that fast and as a result of travelling at slower speeds, the tyre temperatures on the F1 cars fell. In fact onboard footage from Ayrton’s car shows him almost overtaking the safety car in an attempt to make the safety car driver go faster.
Once the track at the startline was cleared of debris, the safety car was withdrawn and the race restarted with Ayrton leading Michael Schumacher. On the second lap after the restart, with Ayrton pushing hard, his car unexplainably veered off the track at Tamburello and hit the barrier and came to a stop. With debris lying on the track and the sad sight of seeing Ayrton lying motionless in the cockpit, the race was red flagged and stopped. The medical team led by Sid Watkins lifted him from the car and after on-site medical attention, he was airlifted directly to Maggiore Hospital in Bologna.
Interestingly in Italy it is seldom that a driver ever has been known to have died at the track, mainly for the legal reason that if that happened then the race would have to be abandoned. It was at 6:40 pm local time, it was officially announced that Ayrton Senna had died. The autopsy recorded the cause of death as head injuries, likely caused by an impact from a piece of suspension that pierced his helmet. It has been said that if the impact on the helmet had been a few inches either side then he may well have survived, as otherwise there was scarcely a bruise on his body.
A sense of shock engulfed the circuit. In the McLaren hospitality area, the test driver Jonathan Palmer, who also qualified as a doctor, carefully explained the procedures to the assembled guests, but a sense of numbness prevailed. For the teams, many, almost on pre programmed remote control, got ready for the restart of the race which Michael Schumacher won ahead of Nicola Larini in a Ferrari and Mika Häkkinen in a McLaren.
However the second restart was not without further drama. On lap 48, when Michele Alboreto pitted, the rear-right wheel of his Minardi came loose as he left the pit lane, striking two Ferrari and two Lotus mechanics who had to have hospital treatment.
The paddock was a sombre place and we couldn’t wait to leave. I went with Jo Ramirez the McLaren Team Co-ordinator, my colleague Peter Stayner and Nigel Geach one of the team’s sponsors. We were early for the flight so we found a little restaurant where we had a much needed couple of glasses of wine, to reflect on a very sad and tragic weekend. We all knew Ayrton in various ways and it was impossible to believe that he was no more.
Many of the teams were on a charter flight that night from Bologna Airport to Gatwick. Both the McLaren and Williams teams were positioned at the front of the plane and the team management were conscious that there might be the media waiting for us when we landed, but this was expertly managed by the teams press officers.
So bad had been the outbreak of serious events that we even wondered whether the plane would safely make the flight home. In fact what we didn’t know at the time was that the Pacific F1 team’s race transporter carrying the cars caught fire on its way back to the UK when going through the Mont Blanc Tunnel!
It was the most bizarre and tragic weekend, but actually it didn’t end there.
Two weeks later it was the Monaco Grand Prix and during the first practice session a deadly hush descended over the track as Karl Wendlinger had a serious accident as exited the tunnel and lost control of his car under braking for the Nouvelle Chicane. His Sauber hit the wall sideways with considerable force. Wendlinger’s head struck a water-filled barrier within the metal crash barrier. He remained in a coma for several weeks and did not drive in a race for the rest of the year, although thankfully he recovered.
It really did feel that the previous 12 years without fatal incident had had its revenge!