The Tragic Weekend: The Story of Imola 1994

(This article is dedicated to Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, who we lost during this tragic weekend 25 years ago.)

There has been many Grand Prix weekends that rest in the minds of fans and drivers alike as being an amazing weekend for the sport, and ones full of memorable moments. Weekend’s like the Turkish Grand Prix in 2006 when Jenson Button finally took his first win or any of the thrilling title finales in Brazil when it all came to a head and marked some amazing memories. But there was that one weekend that was not only one of the most tragic and sad in the sport’s history, but one that ultimately shocked the sport to it’s core and forced change. Nobody will ever forget the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. It is just worth noting for those of you in fear, this article features no pictures or videos of any accidents or aftermaths.

New Williams recruit Ayrton Senna was on tenterhooks coming into the third round of the season at Imola, after two retirements left him trailing in the championship by 20 points to Benetton’s Michael Schumacher. Senna was struggling to get to grips with the FW16, which was being a handful for the team after their complicated computer systems that the team’s cars relied on in years prior was banned for 1994, however Senna still suspected Schumacher’s Benetton of having some of these aids still.

Senna told Murray Walker in an interview before the weekends proceedings at Imola that his championship starts here and of how vital it was that he wins at Imola to kick off his championship challenge. Friday’s practice shocked the paddock as Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello suffered a horrendous accident. He clipped the kerb on the Varianate Bassa chicane at 140 miles per hour, launching the car into the tyre barrier and flipping him over. Despite the brutality, Barrichello survived the impact thanks to the aid of FIA doctor Sid Watkins, and came away from the accident with only a broken nose.

It had seemed that F1 had once again gotten away with a big incident, as had seemed the pattern from recent accidents. However, during qualifying the next day it was sadly all about to change. Going all the way to the back of the grid was a young enthusiastic team, Simtek, piloted by David Brabham and Roland Ratzenberger. Ratzenberger, making his debut in F1 in 1994 had come off a high at the previous race in Aida, Japan, after qualifying for the race and finishing eleventh, an amazing result for such a small team and the Austrian driver was determined to qualify at Imola. Ratzenberger sustained damage to his front wing on a fast lap and eager to make a good result, went for a second lap instead of pitting to fix the wing. The wing failed going into the Villeneuve corner, sending Ratzenberger crashing into the concrete wall at nearly 200 miles per hour.

Ratzenberger would sadly lose his life in the accident. As Senna watched on in the Williams garage, we was just one of many people overcome with grief, sadness and disbelief that Ratzenberger had died. There hadn’t been a fatality at a Grand Prix in 12 years, and one could be forgiven that the sport was past drivers dying. Senna himself took it particularly hard, talking with close friend Watkins and as Watkins begged Senna to give up the racing and promised Senna he would go fishing with him, Senna simply replied “I can’t quit.”

Senna lined up on pole position for Sunday’s race, and anyone could tell that he just didn’t seem himself. He had spent that morning talking with friends Gerhard Berger and Niki Lauda, discussing a reformation of the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) in order to work together to improve safety and end driver fatalities in the sport. Senna and Berger went as far as the fast sweeping Tamburello corner that morning to see what they could do to change the corner. Berger was one of a few drivers to suffer a near fatal crash at the corner a few years prior and both drivers were fearing an inevitable death at the corner. They didn’t know just how close that was to becoming a reality.

Senna led away from the grid as the lights turned green, but the Safety Car was instantly out after Schumacher’s Benetton teammate JJ Lehto stalled on the grid and was hit by Lotus’ Pedro Lamy, both drivers walking away. Debris from the accident was sent into the crowd, but resulted in only minor injuries. The Safety Car, driven by Max Angelelli, was given the hurry on by Senna, who pulled up alongside the Opel Vectra and signalled with his hand to hurry up. The race resumed on lap six but as the cars negotiated the Tamburello curve on lap seven, Senna’s Williams jerked right coming out of the corner and speared into the wall. When the car came to a rest it was clear Senna was hurt an unconscious and was extracted from the car. The race was stopped as medics and marshals, including Watkins worked hard to save Senna. The medical helicopter landed on track and Senna was immediately rushed to the nearby Maggiore Hospital, but he too sadly passed away from his injuries. The race would eventually resume and would be won by a very sombre and dejected Michael Schumacher, whilst marshals found an Austrian flag inside the cockpit of Senna’s wrecked FW16 as they recovered the car, Senna had hoped to wave the flag in honour of Ratzenberger at the end of the race.

The world was shocked. Often declared as one of the best drivers in the world had just been killed, and not only that but the sport had lost a young promising rookie as well. These events, along with Sauber’s Karl Wendlinger nearly being killed in an accident in Monaco the following round made people question had Formula One become too dangerous to be viable anymore? Lauda and Berger pressed on at Monaco with introducing the GPDA, demanding changes to the safety of the cars and the circuits, such as Imola’s own Tamburello becoming its present form of a chicane, and was the base to start the standard of safety we take for granted in not just F1, but all motorsport today.

Since then, the sport has seen many horrific collisions, but thankfully the importance of safety has always been a paramount factor. Only one driver has been lost at a Grand Prix since 1994, with Jules Bianchi’s sad accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014 again throwing in the question of if enough is being done to keep drivers safe. One thing is for sure, Formula 1 will never be totally safe, but there is always improvements to be made. I often wonder how the sport would be today had these accidents not occurred, as the sad reality in F1, as with anything really is that positive change is only considered after such a tragedy, which in its own way is a terrible shame.

It’s been 25 years now since the loss of Senna and Ratzenberger, but they continue to be remembered by friends, family and fans alike. I personally remember Ratzenberger every year on my birthday as we share the same birthday, and although I was not born at the time of this weekend, it still is hard to read and write about. One thing is for sure however, is that regardless of Formula 1 and its ever changing future, drivers like Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger will never be forgotten.

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