Imola 1994: A lasting legacy

18 years ago, Formula 1 had its most tragic race weekend in my living memory as not one, but two drivers were killed at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

Even before the deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and triple World Champion Ayrton Senna on Saturday 30 April and Sunday 1 May, respectively, there was a serious crash involving Senna’s compatriot, Rubens Barrichello, whose Jordan was launched into the air and hit the top of the tyre barrier after he slid over the kerb at Variante Bassa at around 140 mph during Friday qualifying.  The car rolled a number of times and came to rest upside down.  Barrichello was knocked unconscious, but fortunately suffered only relatively minor injuries; a broken nose and arm.  Commenting some 10 years after the event, Damon Hill – Senna’s Williams-Renault team mate at the time of his death – said “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt”.  As we all know, though, Barrichello had used up all the good fortune that weekend; Ratzenburger and Senna proved not to be as lucky as the Jordan driver.

Of course, the vast majority of the attention, both in the immediate aftermath of the race and in the years since, has focussed on the death of the Brazilian Ayrton Senna during the race itself, but the world should not forget Roland Ratzenburger, the other driver to die at Imola in 1994.  The Austrian, driving a Simtek-Ford, died in qualifying, the day before Senna, as he competed for the final slot on the grid, crashing at Villeneuve corner – itself named after a supremely talented driver, Gilles Villeneuve, who died some 12 years earlier while competing in the sport he loved – after his front wing became dislodged and went under the car, sending the 33 year old into the outside wall at close to 200 mph, fracturing his skull.  Indeed, it’s easy to forget that it was Ratzenburger’s death, rather than Senna’s, that sparked the reformation of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association (with Senna one of the first three directors) and the drive to improve safety in the sport.

Indeed, improved safety was Ratzenburger’s great legacy, the most visible reminder of which is the HANS devices that all F1 drivers, as well as drivers in other racing categories, use to prevent the type of skull fracture that killed the Austrian.  Given his reputation as one of the best ever F1 drivers, if not the best of all time, the death of Senna, whose Williams veered off the track at the Tamburello corner on lap 7 of the race, remains the most enduring memory from the 1994 Imola race weekend.

Senna, already deeply affected by Barrichello’s crash in Friday qualifying, cried at the news of Ratzenburger’s death.  His great friend, Professor Sid Watkins, the then head of the medical team, tried to persuade him not to race, but Senna commented to him that “there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on”.  It was this determination and his amazing will to win that made Senna a great racing driver, but his refusal to call it a day meant that he got into his car on Sunday to start his 161st, and final, Grand Prix from pole position.

A big crash at the start of the race, after Finland’s JJ Lehto stalled his Benetton and was hit by the Lotus of Pedro Lamy, sending debris into the crowd injuring nine people, meant that the safety car was deployed.  The safety car re-entered the pits on lap 6, and just a lap after that, Senna (who it would later be revealed was carrying with him an Austrian flag in tribute to Ratzenburger) went straight on at around 200 mph at the fast left handed Tamburello corner, decelerating to approximately 130 mph before hitting the tyre barrier.  The cause of the accident has never been determined without doubt, with some saying that the car bottomed out after tyre pressures had dropped under the safety car, while others have said that the steering column on his Williams FW 16 snapped, leaving the Brazilian unable to turn the car.  Whatever the cause, the result is the same; the tragic loss of a truly great driver, who died after suffering multiple injuries, including those caused after the 34 year old’s Bell helmet was pierced by a suspension arm from his car.

Improved safety was again the legacy, with the Tamburello being turned into a far less dangerous, and less challenging, chicane and the high cockpit sides we see in the Formula 1 cars of today – designed to help minimise the risk of debris striking the driver’s head – a stark comparison to the low sided cockpits of Senna’s era.

There is, though, still room for further improvements to driver safety in this respect, as we have seen after the incident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, where Felipe Massa was struck on the helmet by a spring that came loose from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn car, causing him a serious injury which meant he missed the remainder of the season.  The Massa incident serves as a reminder that Formula 1 must never be complacent about driver safety.

The FIA continue to explore options for protecting the driver’s head further, with windscreens, jet fighter style cockpit canopies and even front roll hoops being tested and evaluated as possible safety features for introduction in the future.  Fortunately, though, there have been no further driver deaths in F1 since Imola in 1994.  Long may it continue.

End note: Look out for the #F1Imola94 hashtag on Twitter today (1 May 2012) as we pay tribute to Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna.  Gone, but never forgotten.

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2 thoughts on “Imola 1994: A lasting legacy

  1. brilliantly written article Rob. I still remember being stunned by that weekend. Especially after the BBC announced later on the news of Senna’s death. A truly devastating weekend for motorsport. Glad to see that some good has come from these tragic events regarding safety. There has to be some element of danger/risk in the sport otherwise it’ll become too clinical. But this mustn’t come at the expense of anyone’s life. We don’t want a repeat of this at any time. 2 great drivers who will be forever missed. RIP.

  2. Thanks very much, Kenny. Absolutely – a tragic weekend the likes of which I hope never to see repeated. Safety has improved so much since 1994, but as you said, there will always be an element of risk in motorsport. It’s good to see that the FIA is constantly trying to make the sport safer – even if the results are sometimes a little aesthetically unfortunate (i.e. the stepped noses of 2012)

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