Roland Ratzenberger: The Tragedy Formula 1 Forgot

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Roland Ratzenberger – the driver the world forgot.

There is a grave in Morumbi cemetery in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The gravestone is no different to the others there. A brass plaque on a circular lawn, surrounded by other identical brass plaques on identical circular lawns. A steady stream of visitors pass by the grave to pay their respects. They stop to read the inscription:

Ayrton Senna da Silva

21 – 03 -1960  –  01- 05- 1994

Nada pode me seaparar

Do amor de Deus

Occasionally, the array of flowers, flags, tributes and mementos begin to overflow the small circular lawn. They are then gathered up by the cemetery staff and passed on to the family. It is a serenely discreet final resting place for a man, who was to me, the greatest racing driver of all time.

There is a grave in Maxglan cemetery in Salzburg, Austria. The gravestone stands out from the others there. Charcoal-grey marble and bearing a detailed inscription complete with a photograph. A miniature racing helmet sits atop. But there is no steady stream of visitors. The cemetery staff do not have to trouble themselves to remove the vast array of tributes. No less serene than Ayrton Senna da Silva’s grave in Sao Paolo, this is the final resting place of Roland Ratzenberger, a Formula 1 novice who made his debut just a few weeks before his death.

Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, on 30 April, 1994 – 22 years ago today. His death formed part of the saddest – and strangest – weekends in Formula 1 history. The previous day, Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello crashed during practice and was lucky to escape with his life. Despite swallowing his tongue, marshals and medics were able to get to him in time. He was taken to hospital suffering from concussion and a broken nose.

When Ratzenberger died, Ayrton Senna was watching the lap on the live feed back at the pits. On seeing the crash, he took off his helmet and peered at the screen. He knew that the crash had happened at around 320 kph. At that speed, he knew Ratzenberger was in serious trouble. Senna watched as the medics pulled him from the car and tried to resuscitate him. He watched until it became obvious that their efforts were in vain, and then he could watch no more.

Roland Ratzenberger was the first Formula 1 racing driver to be killed in twelve years. The shockwave was palpable and there followed an outpouring of grief and tributes.

The next day – race day – Ayrton Senna took to his Williams. In the cockpit alongside him was an Austrian flag. He planned to wave it in tribute to Ratzenberger as he crossed the line at the end of the race. Seven laps in, Senna’s car left the racing line at 310 kph and crashed into an unprotected concrete wall. As the car rebounded off the wall and came to an agonising stop, Senna’s head slumped to the side. A few seconds later, his head lifted momentarily and then fell once more. He did not move again. Medics rushed to the scene. He was airlifted to Bologna hospital where, after several hours, the news broke. Three times Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna was dead.

As the news reverberated around the newsrooms and flashed up on myriad TV screens, the racing world – and to a large extent the wider world – became caught up in its shock and grief forgot about Roland Ratzenberger. There are many who never remembered.

There is a grave in Maxglan cemetery in Salzburg, Austria. It is the final resting place of Roland Ratznberger, a racing driver who never reached the pinnacle of the sport he loved, but whose life was no less valued. It’s tragic that the world forgot.

Roland Ratzenberger

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