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Roland Ratzenberger: the tragedy Formula 1 forgot, after Senna

The Austrian died less than 24 hours before the Brazilian legend on the same track in Imola.

F1 drivers hold a minutes silence for Simtek driver, Roland Ratzenberger.
F1 drivers hold a minutes silence for Simtek driver, Roland Ratzenberger.
Image: EMPICS Sport

A STEADY STREAM of people visit Sao Paolo’s Morumbi Cemetery every day and pause at one particular gravestone. It’s no different to the others. Sometimes, the collection of mementos, flowers and flags will grow too large and will be gathered up by on-site staff and passed on to family members.

It’s a paradox, really. A serene, discreet final resting place for a sporting icon synonymous with showing off. For those that inspired us with their genius before leaving too soon, there’s a special significance attached to the shrine, the place of worship. Usually it becomes a bloated, gawdy, ugly tribute. But, even in death, Ayrton Senna remains unique.

In Maxglan, near Salzburg, there is another gravestone. It’s set in charcoal-grey marble and it stands out from the rest. There’s a detailed inscription, complete with a photograph. The words read “Er lebte fur seinen Traum”. “He lived for his dream”. A miniature racing-car helmet rests on top. It’s a paradox, really. A nondescript athlete, a sporting footnote, buried in a lavish grave. A career spent desperately vying for attention, Roland Ratzenberger finally achieved it in death.

Thousands of miles apart, Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger remain united in death. Just as they were 21 years ago.

The day before Senna died at Imola, he was preparing for his qualification heat. It had already been a turbulent 24 hours.

On the Friday, his compatriot Rubens Barichello was involved in a harrowing crash, his Jordan violently hitting a steep kerb and landing upside down. Knocked unconscious, Barrichello swallowed his tongue but miraculously escaped with just a broken nose as marshals got to the car quickly and tended to him. As Barrichello was brought to the medical centre, Senna appeared to offer his support.

FORMULA ONE GRAND PRIX Roland Ratzenberger. Source: EMPICS Sport

Roland Ratzenberger really shouldn’t have been at Imola. Born in Salzburg, he was a late developer in motorsport, only getting a start with German Formula Ford in his early twenties. From there, it was a steady ascent around the European circuit, going nowhere fast. British Formula 3, British Formula 3000, the World Touring Car Championship, the British Touring Car Championship — a litany of humdrum gigs. But, he enjoyed an impressive stint in Asia during the early 90s — a notoriously difficult and peculiar landscape.

He tapped into a new fan-base and, instead of disappearing, began to revel in his rebirth. He still harboured dreams of making it in Formula 1 and, as news filtered through to Europe about his strong showings, he finally got his chance with a brand-new F1 team.

MTV Simtek launched in 1993 with Raztenberger brought in as the team’s second driver ahead of the 1994 calendar. He was signed to a five-race contract but Simtek’s debut season began badly. Under-staffed and under-prepared, it was a worrying start. In Brazil, Raztenberger failed to qualify owing to a catalogue of technical glitches. But the next race proved the perfect fit for the Austrian. The Pacific Grand Prix at Aida in Japan was well-known to Raztenberger from his time spent in Asia. He qualified for the race and finished in 11th, albeit five laps behind the winner, Michael Schumacher.

Ratzenberger celebrated by buying a blue Porsche Cabriolet. He had made it. Next up was San Marino.

Grand Prix - San Marino. Source: Press Association Images

His father, Rudolf, saw it live on television. His mother, Margit, couldn’t watch. She was too afraid for her son, always. Returning home after a long flight from Mexico, Rudolf chose to watch the qualification from the bedroom of the family house. About to drift off, he heard the Eurosport commentator yell his son’s name. Startled, he jumped to attention. There was Roland’s Simtek, smashed, calmly coming to a stop. Rudolf knew immediately that Roland was dead.

Aryton Senna was watching Roland crash too. In the Williams garage, he took off his helmet and began to look closely at the live feed. He was concerned. He turned to his team-mates. “320 (kph)?” he asked. He knew, travelling at that speed, that Raztenberger was in trouble. He watched as medics pulled Ratzenberger from the wreckage. He watched as they attempted to resuscitate him. He watched until he couldn’t watch any more. He knew. He began to cry.

After their son’s death, Rudolf and Margit Ratzenberger travelled to the mortuary in Bologna. They had to identify the body. As they entered the morgue, they saw Roland. But beside him was Ayrton Senna. Rudolf asked if it was all just a stupid dream. His son’s idol now dead alongside him. Weeping, he leaned down and kissed his son on the forehead and whispered, ‘So long, boy’.

IMOLA FORMULA ONE GP Nicola Larini, left, holds his head and Germany's Michael Schumacher, right, wipes a tear from his eyes while talking with Benetton director-general Flavio Briatore. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The morning of the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna was in a meeting room at Imola. determined to push through safety changes in the wake of Ratzenberger’s fatal accident. When he hopped into his Williams on the starting grid, he brought an Austrian flag with him in the cockpit. He wanted to wave it in memory of his fallen colleague as he crossed the finish line.

Twenty years on, Ayrton Senna will be remembered for the genius he was. His legion of fans will make their pilgrimage to his grave in Sao Paolo and leave mementos, flowers and flags. But there is another grave, in Maxglan. And we shouldn’t forget about it.

This piece was first published on last year’s anniversary, the 20th. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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