Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Formula One's forgotten man: 20 years on from the death of Roland Ratzenberger

By Matt Majendie, for CNN
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
It is two decades since the death of Roland Ratzenberger at Italy's Imola circuit. The Austrian Formula One driver was killed on April 30 1994, 24 hours before three-time world champion Ayrton Senna lost his life. It is two decades since the death of Roland Ratzenberger at Italy's Imola circuit. The Austrian Formula One driver was killed on April 30 1994, 24 hours before three-time world champion Ayrton Senna lost his life.
HIDE CAPTION
The life and times of Roland Ratzenberger
The life and times of Roland Ratzenberger
The life and times of Roland Ratzenberger
The life and times of Roland Ratzenberger
The life and times of Roland Ratzenberger
The life and times of Roland Ratzenberger
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roland Ratzenberger died in qualifying on the same tragic weekend as Ayrton Senna
  • The 33-year-old hit a wall at 200 mph at the Imola circuit
  • His former friend and rival Johnny Herbert calls him 'the forgotten man of F1'
  • Austrian driver's parents plan return to Imola to mark the 20th anniversary of his death

Follow us at @WorldSportCNN and like us on Facebook

(CNN) -- Just four Formula One drivers turned up to Roland Ratzenberger's funeral after his death during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix on April 30 1994.

The 33-year-old Austrian driver's passing was overshadowed by events that took place 24 hours later when three-time world champion Ayrton Senna was killed in Sunday's race at the Imola circuit.

On the 20th anniversary of that tragic weekend, it's Senna's death that still haunts the sport while Ratzenberger's fate has largely been ignored.

"He's the forgotten man of Formula 1," said former track rival Johnny Herbert, who was one of the drivers at Ratzenberger's funeral. "Forgotten to many, but not to me."

I miss him even now. I think about him at certain points particularly at the European races. Monaco's always one.
Johnny Herbert

Ratzenberger was competing in only the third grand prix of his F1 career when the mountings on his Simtek car's front wing became dislodged on his warm-up lap after hitting a curb in qualifying.

Exiting the Tamburello corner, which would become synonymous with Senna's fatal accident, on the next lap, the wing broke and he went careering into a concrete wall at the Villeneuve Curve head on at 200 mph.

While Senna's death spawned all manner of books and an eponymous documentary of his life, Ratzenberger's was a mere snapshot in that superb film.

And while an estimated three million people flocked to the streets of Sao Paulo for Senna's funeral, about 250 people were in Salzburg as Ratzenberger was laid to rest.

Herbert was among them, paying his respects to a friendship that first started in 1985 when the pair were vying for victory in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival in England.

Niki Lauda on F1's most dangerous years
How do drivers get to F1?
Remembering Maria de Villota

"I always think about Roland," three-time grand prix winner Herbert told CNN. "I miss him even now. I think about him at certain points particularly at the European races. Monaco's always one.

"The year before he died we had a nice dinner there -- then he was trying to get into F1. I remember him saying he was the better driver and I'd only got into a drive with money. I was like 'bad luck, I'm here you're not', that's just the kind of craic we had.

"He was a good friend, and we'd spoken of our dreams for many years. I'd got to F1 before him but that season it was great to see him. He had this very happy face, he had that 'I got there' face."

Family tragedy

Rudolf and Margit Ratzenberger moved into their son's Salzburg flat after his death as a way of ensuring their son's memory is not forgotten.

The home is littered with motorsport trophies from the junior formulae in Japan, Germany and England, pictures of their seemingly ever-smiling son on the mantelpiece.

The couple have been to Imola just once since their son's death 20 years ago to see the place where he lost his life but they will return this year for a four-day memorial to their son and Senna.

"It's still heavy," says Rudolf in broken English, "but this year we return. It's a celebration of his life, a memory. Yeah, it will be difficult to go back.

I've never wished that he didn't do Formula 1, no, because that was what he wanted to do, that was his dream.
Rudolf Ratzenberger

"It's 20 years since, 20 years of Roland living in that moment. But we live in his flat so Roland is always by us.

"But we also say goodbye to Senna, whose death was very difficult for us too, very heavy, especially when we heard he had the red flag of Austria in his car he planned to fly from the cockpit for the win for Roland.

"That's a very special moment for us amid the sadness."

Rudolf admits time has been a healer and that there is no bitterness towards the sport.

"We were just happy that he'd achieved his dream to be a driver in Formula 1," he added.

"It had been a long time driving in Japan, Germany and England to get there. I didn't see one of his grands prix.

"I've never wished that he didn't do Formula 1, no, because that was what he wanted to do, that was his dream. We were very happy for him, it was what he loved to do."

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were long-time rivals before they became teammates at McLaren. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were long-time rivals before they became teammates at McLaren.
Winning pair
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
United in rivalry: Prost and Senna United in rivalry: Prost and Senna
Who is the greatest F1 driver ever?
A promotional image for the new Formula One film "Rush." Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays the hedonistic James Hunt (left) while Daniel Bruhl plays his on-track nemesis Niki Lauda. A promotional image for the new Formula One film "Rush." Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays the hedonistic James Hunt (left) while Daniel Bruhl plays his on-track nemesis Niki Lauda.
'Rush' the movie
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
Rush movie premiere Rush movie premiere

Ratzenberger, who was so delighted on making it to F1 he handed out pin badges with his helmet on it to supporters, is buried in the family grave with a small replica of his helmet and a picture of him on the tombstone, with the final words summing up his father's aforementioned words translating as "he lived for his dream."

Horror crash

The couple were at home having just returned from holidaying in Mexico and were watching qualifying in bed when the tragedy struck.

They watched as their son came to a halt, his head slumped to one side, part of the car's monocoque ripped aside before later footage showed his heart being pumped by the medical crews.

"I remember his head being sloped to one side and part of the monocoque was open," recalled Herbert. "I remember thinking I'd just hoped he'd been knocked out. Sadly that wasn't to be.

"It was so sad as he was such a nice guy but at least he died doing what he loved doing. I know he knew the risks, we all did.

"If that had happened to me, he would have wanted the others to carry on, which we did in the end. Yes, he died too early and it was so unfair but it was something we accepted although you never thought about it."

Author and journalist Maurice Hamilton was commentating at the time of the crash for BBC Radio.

The mood was absolutely terrible. I'd been in the sport long enough to have experienced deaths before but it was still such a shock.
Maurice Hamilton, motorsport journalist

"I'd only met Roland once at the previous race weekend in Aida in the Austrian TV commentary box," said Hamilton.

"I was struck by his nice smile, he was very handsome. It doesn't take long to get a first impression of someone and mine was very good.

"When the crash happened, it looked bad, it was such a vicious crash. There wasn't a lot you could say at the time in commentary.

"I then went back to the press room to write it up for the Observer newspaper and it was then the announcement was made. I remember the mood was absolutely terrible.

"I'd been in the sport long enough to have experienced deaths before but it was still such a shock, the first F1 driver death for 12 years."

Herbert, Gerhard Berger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger were the only F1 drivers of that time to attend Ratzenberger's funeral, along with then FIA president Max Mosley.

In defense of his F1 peers, Herbert says, "no one really knew him but also people had different ways of dealing with things.

"Eddie Irvine for example decided not to go to either Ayrton or Roland's funerals. I decided it was important to pay my respects to a guy I don't think had a single enemy".

Herbert continued: "He was almost a gentleman racer of a bygone era. In those early days, he was the driver, team boss and mechanic all in one. He deserved his break in F1 and he got it.

"It's just such a tragedy even today."

The sport paid its respects at the subsequent race in Monaco, with a Brazilian flag laid out and an Austrian flag painted in the front-row grid positions.

The Simtek team, meanwhile, committed to the rest of the season with the words 'For Roland' written on the car's airbox.

But whereas Senna is understandably still revered and often talked about, Ratzenberger's memory has faded over the past two decades to all but a few.

Read: Remembering Senna - king of Monaco

Read: Ayrton Senna's greatest F1 moments

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Track the buzz of the 2014 Formula One season, race by race, with all the latest social reaction from motorsport experts.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Formula One is not likely to go hungry in Hungary as master chefs cater in volume for drivers, teams and VIP guests.
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
It's the elephant in the room of Formula One. What's the prognosis legendary driver Michael Schumacher?
updated 7:10 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
It stimulates all five senses, creating an unparalleled experience for drivers and fans alike. Take a tour of Monaco with Mark Webber.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
To be a champion you must win a title -- but to become an F1 legend you must win races at Monaco, the calendar's most testing circuit.
updated 10:59 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Caterham F1 reserve driver Alexander Rossi takes you on a tour of the Monaco racing circuit.
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
The Formula One driver transcended his sport and even 20 years after his death, Ayrton Senna commands the adoration of fans worldwide.
updated 11:00 AM EDT, Thu May 1, 2014
TO GO WITH AFP STORY IN ARABIC BY SUHEIL HOWAYEK: (FILES) Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna adjusts his rear view mirror in the pits 01 May 1994 before the start of the San Marino Grand Prix. Senna died after crashing in the seventh lap. Some 45 drivers, including Senna and Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, have been killed during Formula One races whose tracks are dubbed by some as the 'circuits of death.' AFP PHOTO/JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU (Photo credit should read JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU/AFP/Getty Images)
F1's greatest racer was killed during the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1 1994. The sport hasn't been the same since.
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
Just four F1 drivers turned up to Roland Ratzenberger's funeral after his death during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix on April 30 1994.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
For a championship with a distinctly Iberian streak, it is no surprise that South America should be high on MotoGP's list of territories to conquer.
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Susie Wolff, pictured, will become the Formula One's first female competitor in 20 years when she takes part in the first practice sessions at the British and German grands prix in July.
Too weak. Can't handle the pressure. Susie Wolff has heard it all -- but she is determined to become the first female F1 driver in 20 years.
CNN's Amanda Davies visits the headquarters of Mercedes, the dominant team in Formula One this season.
ADVERTISEMENT