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Remembering Senna and Ratzenberger
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Remembering Senna and Ratzenberger
Posted By:   |  01 May 2009   |  4:06 pm GMT  |  44 comments

Today is the 15 anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna. The day before we lost Roland Ratzenberger. Thankfully these were the last fatalities in the sport.

I was at Imola that weekend. I had been working hard on research interviews for the autobiography of Nigel Mansell I was ghostwriting at the time. I’ll never forget the chill that weekend, it seemed that the weekend was cursed, with Rubens Barrichello being hospitalised by a huge shunt on Friday, then Ratzenberger on Saturday and Senna on Sunday. Also there was a big shunt at the start and a wheel went into the crowd, then another in the pit lane.

I spoke to Senna on the Sunday morning, with Allard Kalff, who was then commentating for Eurosport. Senna seemed very pre-occupied. I knew him reasonably well, having regular contact with him as a reporter for ESPN television and for Autosport. He was always generous with his time and willing to share insights into racing and the experience of driving. He was intense and fascinating, utterly ruthless and had a God given talent. I’d followed him all the way through the ranks, from Formula Ford and he was the best. Simple as that.

I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with all the great champions of the last 20 years, but Senna was something very special.

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44 Comments
  1. Nit says:

    Thank you James for mentioning that Roland Ratzenberger died in that awfully weekend, as it seems year upon year that everyone seems to forget about Roland Ratzenberger and that he too had died that weekend.

  2. james hannan says:

    “Thankfully these were the last fatalities in the sport”

    Track marshals, Graham Beveridge & Paolo Ghislimberti. Not drivers but tragic F1 fatalities and should not be forgotten or ignored

  3. Rein B says:

    Thank you for remembering Roland Ratzenberg, who sadly died in Imola on Saturday, the day before Ayrton Senna, in his MTV-Simtek F1. I will never forget Roland, he was a genuin nice guy. A passionate motor sport fanatic. Doing some Formula Ford racing myself in the early 80′s, I had the chance to meet Roland on several occasions. He worked at the time as a mechanic for the Austrian Lechner Formula Ford team. He had no money and he wasn’t racing, he was cleaning the cars with a smile. He just wanted to be close to the action and perhaps to spot a chance one day… He never gave up and with some Austrian Charme combined with a good portion of talent he got his chance. His dream became true, he raced in Formula Ford, made it to LeMans raced for while in Japan, and finally at the age of 33 he achieved his big goal F1! It still fills me with great sadness, to know he had to pay the ultimate price for his dream – like Ayrton Senna the very next day, and so many others before them. No more F1 fatalities since then, which is fantastic. It makes you wondering if Ayrton Senna, known as tough negotiator, stroke a deal with the big chief himself? Perhaps some kind of F1 Heaven-Concord-Agreement.

  4. Moog says:

    I remember saying to my brother before the race “which lap will Senna crash on this time?”. We watched the start of the race, saw the crash and then had to leave.

    When I got back in on the night, the news was just on and I just couldn’t believe it, I had to go and check Teletext to make sure it wasn’t a wind up.

    Gutted…

  5. Luca says:

    I was watching the race at home when the Williams “went straight on” at Tamburello. I don’t know why but I felt certain that Senna was dead. So sure, in fact, that I stopped watching the broadcast to call Autosport’s publisher and discuss what special measures we might have to take.

    My principal responsibility was the graphical treatment, but I was also one of the senior editors on staff that weekend and I started thinking about the cover treatment as soon as I got in the car. It was unusual because Senna was clearly the lead lead story but there had been another fatality that weekend and I did not want that to be ignored.

    All the way in, I kept thinking: how many people had watched him die? Was this the biggest live audience there had ever been for a death on television? And while I am now grateful to be able to add this note to your blog, I am equally glad that Senna’s accident happened in the days before the blogosphere and that the event was spared the tusnami of comment it would generate now — and that the image we have of Senna was spared the ignominy of all that chatter.

    I recall that the team all got in ridiculously early and we all worked with an eery earnestness through the night. It’s not often a little sporting weekly has the biggest story of the weekend in its hands and we were all emotionally involved in the loss of such a stellar figure as Ayrton. We felt responsible to do the best job we possibly could. We wanted to get it right.

    Finally we settled on “Death at Imola” as our headline. I had won the argument that out of respect for Ratzenberger, we should sacrifice the stronger headline “Senna dies”. I have thought about that evening whenever the anniversary has come around and wondered if we got it right. I know we tried to.

  6. Carl says:

    RIP Ayrton and Roland. I hope we never have another fatality in the sport.

  7. StJimmyL says:

    NOBODY COMMENT ON THIS STORY AS A MARK OF RESPECT TO THOSE WHO HAVE LOST THEIR LIVES FOR ENTERTAINING THE PUBLIC. x

  8. Snail says:

    The day before we lost Roland Ratzenberger.

    Isn’t English a wonderfully ambiguous language? I expected to read the word “after” rather than “before”. Both are valid sentences. Flexibility in language design is a blessing and a curse, just like with computer programs….

    Watched Senna coverage on BBC website today. Senna won a WDC by crashing into his opponent, which was deliberate (by Senna’s own admission in an interview afterwards).

    Why is it that this action is not seen in the same light as other people doing the same thing? The difference being the other people’s car was damaged and out of control and Senna’s case the car was fully functional and deliberately driven that way.

    Not taking anything away from his driving, but having watched the footage of Senna’s crash and seen his interview, its a poor way to win a WDC. He could have easily beaten him by racing him properly, given what I saw (that opening lap of ’93 was awesome).

    I finally understand why Lewis’s helmet is yellow.

  9. jw1980 says:

    James,

    very interesting statements here. Its very difficult comparing drivers from different generations but do you think Senna was better than Schumacher?

    The key difference between Senna and Schumacher was that Senna took on a truly great teammate in Alain Prost and got the upper hand on him. Lets not forget that Prost is probably a top 10 driver of all time as well. Schumacher’s teammates in comparison quite frankly do not bear comparison.

    Statistically Schumacher achieved a lot more and making Ferrari in to world champions was no small achievement.

    However, as Jacques Villeneuve once stated (I believe) had Senna not died it’s highly likely that he would have won the world championship in ’94, ’95, ’96 and ’97 and then perhaps retiring at the same time as Renault pulled out of F1. Who knows whether Schumacher would have gone to Ferrari in 1996 had Senna stayed alive.

    Senna was incredible.

  10. Andy Whyte says:

    Thoughts are with the Ratzenberger and Senna families.
    Also with the family of the Police officer who was killed by the loose wheel that went into the pit lane :(

  11. Mooks says:

    I was only 12 when he died, but I remember watching the coverage over the whole weekend. It wasn’t a nice experience to say the least.

    To quote Brian May singing, ‘one by one, only the good die young’, shouldn’t be the case.

    Ratzenberger was bad enough that weekend, but Senna got the headlines for obvious reasons. I was torn apart, even though I had never met either of the fine gentlemen.

    It haunts me to this day, I dread to see the footage again. I can see it in my head as clear as day. For this I’m pleased that no one else has been in the same situation since. I thought Kubica was going to be the same when he had his crash, but thankfully not.

    If anything, lets hope that the passing of these gentlemen, will be the last F1 related fatalities.

  12. tEQUILLA sLAMMER says:

    Just read the Daily Mail artice….complete rubbish…..he says Ayrton “misjudged” the corner!!! More friends of williams trying to lead everyone up the garden path after 15 years!! Can you let him know that it was the steering column failure that sent him into the wall, and not tyre pressures/heat, aerodynamic variables or any of the other dozen excuses thrown up to get Wallys off the hook!!!

  13. matt h says:

    Worth mentioning that he was the last *driver* fatality in F1. The death of the marshal in my opinion was equally tragic as he was simply an enthusiast – without the rewards of a racing driver.

  14. Robert says:

    Thanks for the insight, James. That weekend was one that I will never forget, even though I was far more removed simply watching it on TV. A truly horrifying weekend.

    Senna, we all still miss you.

  15. Barry says:

    I find it sad that when this race is talked abut Roland hardly gets a mention outside of F1 circles. His life was just as important as Ayrton’s was, but since he wasn’t as big a name the mainstream media mostly forgets about him.

    At least the real F1 fans will keep his life in their memories too, the same as we do for Ayrton.

  16. Nick says:

    Glad you remembered Roland Ratzenberger.

    Being in Austria now, I can’t read German, but flipping through the newspapers yesterday (looking for his name and pics) – seemed like the 15th anniversary of the death of one of their own countrymen didn’t even warrant a mention.

  17. PaulL says:

    I think one of the great regrets from Senna’s death is that it occured during the season him and Schumacher were destined to go head to head for the championship.

    With the exception of an on-form Mansell, I think Schumacher represented the greatest challenge to Senna’s completeness and greatness. Both were so single-mindedly committed and ruthless. It would have been so enthralling to watch them compete. We certainly had a good appetiser for it in 1992 and 1993.

    I’ve never read James’ autobiography on Schumacher, but I might have to at some stage, to get his thoughts on Schu’s relationship and competition with Senna. From what I’ve read it was apparently slightly akin to Alonso and Hamilton. As much as I’ll cheer for my “right characters” and jeer the “wrong” ones, people like Schumacher and Hamilton really make the sport special.

  18. AMS says:

    Thanks for this James. I remember that day like it was five minutes ago. The saddest day of my life.

    No matter what others say, Ayrton Senna was the greatest of all. He is up there with Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost.

    Unfortunately, two drivers had to die for the FIA to do something with regards of safety. They (FIA) were fortunate that nobody else died between 1986, when Elio de Angelis died during testing, and the fatal weekend at Imola in 1994. And while I acknowledge that the F1 is safer now, the fact that nobody died since than is down to luck too. I hate when people say that Kubica was OK after the crash thanks to the new safety rules. This is rubbish. Kubica was lucky.

  19. Jon W says:

    The news of Senna’s death was I think the only time I have genuinely felt disbelief at a news item.
    I had watched the race and seen the crash, I had also seen many heavier looking impacts before then that drivers had survived, such as Berger’s also at Imola, ironically. I couldn’t believe that Senna had gone.

    I have just read that a furled Austrian flag was found in Senna’s car after the crash. He had planned to raise it in honour of Roland Ratsenberger after winning the race.

    I never knew that before and it makes me feel quite emotional.

    Senna was the best.

  20. Andy Truelove says:

    A quick comment only to say RIP to everyone killed on that awful Imola weekend. Probably like many others I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news on Saturday and then again on Sunday. We should all be relieved and thankful for the safety advances and the work of Prof Watkins that the sport we love following has a smaller risk than ever hanging over it.

    I saw the recent documentary about Jim Clark on BBC4. The most chilling part is a section where they show the driver line up for one F1 season at the start and then take away the photos of the 7 who died that year. Thanks to whoever you believe in that those days have gone.

    Here’s to a safe and fascinating European season ahead!

  21. Peter says:

    Lovely to see Ratzenberger mentioned as well, where so many others have to their awful mistake not.

    RIP Roland and Ayrton

  22. Andy Whyte says:

    In reply to Barry regarding Roland not being mentioned very much. It’s sadly true.

    My father used to publish an F1 magazine called F1 News. The issue after that tragic weekend the front cover featured Ayrtons helmet, but inside there was an equal amount of coverage over the 2 deaths.
    The Ratzenberger family wrote a letter to my father thanking him for their kind considerate words.

  23. Caan says:

    Senna was by far my favourite driver all time. I disagree with people who believe he would have continued in f1 for another 4-5 years. What happened in 94 was a repeat of the mid 1980′s when Senna came onto the seen. We had a driver who pushed the bar higher again. There were great drivers in the 1980′s especially Prost who could match Senna as a complete driver, however Senna knew like everyone else that for pure speed there was no driver who could match him. However in 94 we saw a driver not only match him but also beat him in an inferior car (Schumacher). This lead to Senna making mistakes. I think Senna’s time was coming to an end and he may have retired at the end of 94 or 95.

  24. Alfalfa says:

    Does anyone know how many years Senna’s Williams contract was for, when he signed it in 1994? That’s something I’ve always been curious about.

    Senna’s death was obviously a big tragedy for F1 given that he was one of it’s greatest drivers. But Ratzenberger was a young talented driver who had shown a lot of potential on his way to F1 and was robbed of achieving his ambitions!

    RIP Ratzenberger & Senna.

  25. Ray says:

    I hate to be a little negative here since we are remembering Senna’s death. But people ( for understandable reasons) tend to remember the good parts of Senna and fail to note that he was the most criticized driver of his generation. Apart from introducing atrocious driving ethics, later emulated by MS, he would conduct himself very badly out of the car in some instances. When the car/team wasn’t competitive he would relentlessly criticize them in the press for example . He once threw down a telemetry printout in the garage in disgust and was accosted by a senior Honda engineer.
    Re: Senna VS MS — People can rightly claim Senna beat superior teammates, but Schumacher was head and shoulder above as a team leader, and is probably the most complete driver we’ve seen. As for people speculating that had Senna lived he would’ve won ’94-’97 titles, let me point out that it assumes events in those years would’ve been the same as we know. We assume Senna wouldn’t have faced superior cars (maybe other teams designing/reacting differently as a result of Senna’s domination.), wouldn’t have had reliability problems, no injuries etc. etc. There are simply too many variables.
    To James Allen: I absolutely love your blog. My best wishes.

  26. Suzy says:

    I agree with Ray.

    It is extremely pointless to go on about how Senna would have won three, four more titles if he hadn’t died. I’m not even sure he would have won 1994…
    Of course, Schumacher beat Hill by only 1 point, but that was because he was banned and DQed from four races. To ban him from two more races for Silverstone was arguably a political decision as he had a massive lead in the WDC, so the FIA had to do something to make it exciting. (Of course, it was Schumacher’s and Benetton’s fault that day gave them a golden opportunity to hit them hard.) But if Senna hadn’t died, he probably would have been closer to Schumacher hence the FIA wouldn’t have banned Schumacher to make the season exciting.

    Of course, it could have happened that 1994 would have been Senna’s fourth title. But it also could have happened that it would have been the year when he would have got beaten by a younger driver for the first time in his life… Let’s not forget that Schumacher could beat him in the WDC already in 1992.

  27. Tim says:

    i was 11 years old watching the race in my parents bedroom because everyone else in the house couldn’t stand the noise of “cars going round and round endlessly”… (phillistines).

    needless to say, my shellshocked demeanour for the rest of the day was either unnoticed or ill-understood.

    it was a black day which has left a hole in the sport which has so far not been adequately filled and perhaps never will be.

  28. brown eyed girl says:

    Was just catching up on reading james blog when I noticed this.

    I was 9 when I happened and my memory of it is only limited. Being 9, a girl and an only child tv was dominated by what my dad wanted to watch and so all ways had it on the big telly in the lounge. I remember going in there every so often out of curiosity (before the bug properly took hold on me) and I do have a vague memory of the screen showing a helicoptor on the race track.
    I guess the thing that stuck with me was how quiet my dad was, I didn’t really understand what was happening but to a 50 year old man I cn imagine the sight of someone you followed week in week out laying there whilst they desperately attended to him must have been shocking not to mention the effect the whole of the weekend must of had

    I also remember being a little older and by now I was into the sport and with my dad at his mums for sunday lunch, just as we were eating we were watching the warm up lap for the british grand prix. Dad was a schumacher fan…. I was far from. So when he appeared to just not turn the corner and drive into the tyres I could help but laugh a little thinking ‘smug idiots messed it up before the race has even started’ but again dad went quiet until it was clear he was mainly fine.. Then I felt ok to continue the mocking, but for a moment I’m sure many fans including him couldn’t help but see the similarities.

    Re how it happened. I watched one of those ‘what really happened’ science/ techy shows and although there was obviouslt much discussion as to the stearing collumn that has only been adjested thenight before I’m sure they said it was more to do with the clearance height of the car and the effect that cold tyres had on this therefore suggesting that the safety car prior to the incident had lead to a decrease in tyre temp, decrease in height from the ground and that as senna came up that that corner the bottom of the car came into contact with the track leading to no down force, no grip and no overal contropl of the car until it was too late. The reason I think I remember that is because as he was heading towards the wall he eegained control the the action of trying to correct the problem maybe have lead to a worse crash than had he just continued straight on.
    I might be wrong but I’m sure someone will be quick to tell me.

    Anyway v sad day and yes glad no more deaths like theirs since although that’s more through sheer luck as I’ve seen several crashes even in the last couple of years where drives werre bloody lucky yo walk away… Take culthard and webber (I think) a few years back when one car few over the top of the other just inches from the cockpit and therefore drives v exposed head… Uuuugh makes me shudder

  29. Paul W says:

    James,

    I watched the whole event unfold live on the tele, and I recorded it as well. I’ve never watched that recording as of yet, it sits in my cupboard gathering dust, such was the impact of the whole weekend.

    Two things I would just like to say and I dont know what you think, but as I watched Senna’s career unfold over the years It always struct me that Senna had a preoccupied mind, his face always looked haunted, more so as he got older, I think he knew he was going to die?
    Secondly, he spent most of his career wanting to beat Prost, which he did on many occasions, but when we look back in years to come, the history books will show that Prost won more titles than Senna, so realy Prost had the final say.

    I was very moved that Prost carried his coffin at the funeral. Respect were its due.

    RIP to both Senna and Ratzenberger.

  30. rpaco says:

    brown eyed girl
    Unfortunately next year when tyre warmers are banned we shall see a lot more of those accidents.

    Of course the car safety cell design is much safer nowadays. The main problem now being to slow the deceleration rate of the driver’s body inside the cell. Helmets have progressed with the movable shell inside the helmet and of course the HANS device.

    What about airbags? Obviously not from the steering wheel but from the sides. They come in any shape/size you want now, I recall working on the Rover 75 replacement trying to find a suitable cable route, but everywhere we suggested there was an airbag, in the event of an accident the vehicle must have turned into a bouncy castle. :-)

  31. Roy says:

    I remember finishing the garden just before the grand prix on a sunny Sunday afternoon prior to the start of the race and then I sat down to watch the start of the grand prix,this was a race I’m sure Ayrton would begin his attack on the world championships with a win and and good fight towards the championship,and so the grand prix started with a collision of which I thought the race would be red flagged and stopped and I was surprised the race continued behind the safety car,and then for a few laps the cars ran slowly behind the safety car until the track was given the all clear for Ayrton to cross start line and crank up the Williams to full throttle and storm of way ahead of the other drivers which was his trade mark but I don’t really know what happened next but I thought,ok big crash and I assumed Ayrton would get out and look at the damage to his car but like many was in shock as he stayed in the cockpit,and hours later got the news that we had all dread and that’s now history,the next day I went to the Williams factory to pay my respects and lay some flowers by the factory gate and had the chance to say a few words to sky news for my thoughts of such I did,so now it been 15 years since the great man died and the name Ayrton will always survive even if a certain motorsport magazine fails to mention this,and what do I do about it,well I wear the famous senna S badge on any coat I wear and much more and most importantly I chat with my son each day who’s name is Ayrton

  32. Scot says:

    Thanks for not forgetting Roland and Ayrton, James. To have their lives both cut so terribly short was quite appalling – but they both died in the sport they loved. Always loved and never forgotten, RIP, guys. Lives sadly so short – but not forgotten.

  33. Martin P says:

    Very true Matt. I believe it was the marshal’s wife who made the statement afterwards…. “He was in the right place, at the wrong time”.

    It’s time there was a suitable memorial for all the men who’ve died for the sake of the sport they and us love.

  34. Don says:

    RIP Senna and Ratzenberger…. My thoughts are with the Senna family, but more so with the Ratzenberger familly, because Roland’s death has has been totally overshadowed by the Senna’s death 24hrs later.

    I’ll never forget watching that race.. the feeling of numbness that echoed about our sitting room and every sitting room of ever motor racing fan.

    After the death of Roland Ratzenberger, I think everybody just wanted the weekend to be over as quickly as possible… the least we expected was to also lose the world’s most naturally gifted driver.

    Now when there’s a very heavy shint and the driver’s head is slumped forward in the cockpit in the moments immediately afterwards the crash – that dark May day flashes into my mind – just for a split second.

    But thanksfully F1 safety has come on 100 fold in those 15 years. Today I was watching the Senna accident on YouTube and was amazed it took almost 2 minutes before Medical Team reached Senna’s car. Nowadays the cars are still sliding to a halt and the medical car is there assessing the situation.

    Again RIP Senna and Ratzenberger

  35. James says:

    Looks like you’ve just broken your own “mark of respect”. All thoughts are appreciated on this blog, which I’m sure James and the moderators will agree….

    Anyway, a tragic day for motor racing and sport as a whole that day. We can all wonder what F1 would have looked like if he hadnt died on that fateful day, but then would F1 have been any safer. Perhaps, in the end, Senna and Ratzenberger paid the ultimate price, but have helped save many lives since as a result of the improvements on modern F1 cars.

    Both died a long time ago, but their spirit very much lives on.

  36. Snail says:

    Dude, that is excellent. Lots of respect from you to them (and to you) for that.

  37. Kenny says:

    What a great four or five years of racing it would have been- Senna and Schumacher, with Hill, Villenueve, and Hakkinen in the mix as well.

  38. Robin Capper says:

    Luca, you got it right.

  39. MS says:

    Of course Kubica was lucky, but I’m absolutely sure that without HANS he would have died after hitting that wall. Yes, he was lucky, but new safety rules also helped save his life. Like you say though it is a shame that Ratz had to die before HANS was introduced.

  40. Daniel Hoyes says:

    Snail, the difference is that Senna freely admitted what he was going to do. He was honest at least. Others have attempted take the high-ground and deny their actions afterwards, which takes it to another level of arogance. It’s not a massive difference, certainly not from a sporting point of view, but from a personal point of view it didn’t get in the way of people warming to him as a character.

  41. John H says:

    Snail, I’ll go through your paragraphs:

    1) ‘Before’ is the correct word. ‘After’ is the opposite. What are you going on about?
    2) Ever heard of Jean-Marie Balestre?
    3) He was honest about it.
    4) See above
    5) Lewis’ helmet is not yellow because of Senna. It was so that his dad could pick him out easily in his Karting days.

    In summary, all 5 paragraphs you have written I disgree with. Senna was amazing.

  42. Ray (different one) says:

    Suzy – the 1992 McLaren was a dog of a car, and Senna did extremely well to win the races he did in it that year. So that comparison is meaningless.

    it’s all what if’s, but I don’t think Senna would have won in 1994 either, as he would have given Schumacher a far too big lead early on, and the Benetton of 94, despite what people suggest, was a match for the Williams, as it was in 1995. MS was not in an inferior machine.

    However, I do believe Senna was more gifted than MS, a faster driver AND more ruthless on the track (but not as calculating and level headed as Schumacher was, or as ruthless off track), and he probably would have won the 95/96 titles.

    I like to think at that point, a young hungry MS would have reached the point where he had engineered himself into the Williams as well, both would have been up for it at that point, Senna was never afraid to take anyone on in equal machinery and I think a 27 y/o Schumacher would have fancied himself against a 37 year old Senna.

    And that would have been a battle I’d have paid to see.

  43. James Allen says:

    Thanks for that insight, Tim

  44. brown eyed girl says:

    i can see your point, although there have been many improvements essentially there are still many areas of risk for an F1 driver – rocketing round a circuit at 200mph is a risk assessment fanatics idea of a nightmare.

    Problem with airbags is the possibility they could either malfunction or go off at the slightest shunt – take hamiltons shunt of alonso last year or how RB threw his brawn around a few weeks ago bumping it into everything.
    So at what level impact would it be deployed? obviously everyones initial response will be to say at an impact of server force BUT (and i hate to use this example but it is rather good) if you take the case of Natasha Richardsons recent and sad death, that was caused by an impact of such small force. I know its not the best comparison but my point is any small accident if it effects the person in the wrong way can be incredibly serious.

    come on we all know the first race that something like that is introduced nakajima will have set it off by lap five potentially causing a far worse accident :)

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