The image of Roland Ratzenberger’s Simtek-Ford coming to rest after its heavy crash in the fast Villeneuve kink is haunting to this day. Rudolf Ratzenberger, now 85, saw it on TV, at home in Salzburg, Austria. “When I saw his head, I knew it was over,” says Rudolf. He still feels the shock of that day, 25 years ago. Rudolf had become a father for the first time on July 4, 1960, when his wife Margit gave birth to their son Roland. She still remembers how her little son would spend hours at the window, watching cars go by. “His first word was ‘car”, she says. Roland was nine when, near the family home, the Salzburgring opened. Little Roland would worm his way through the gates so he could watch the cars go round. A little later he came home announcing: ‘I’m going to be a racing driver.’
“We weren’t necessarily happy with his choice,” says Rudolf, who worked as a civil servant. “We couldn’t support him financially and we were worried about him having a decent future. Of course we also knew the risks, but we were never afraid for his safety. Racing was a faraway world for us. Of course, the successes of Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda made me aware of Formula 1, but I’ve never been a fan of motor sports. Roland caught the bug all on his own. I still remember how he had a poster of Rindt on his bedroom wall.”
When the new Simtek team first presented itself to the world early in 1994, it introduced David Brabham and the unknown Austrian Roland Ratzenberger as its drivers. Those who did know Ratzenberger might have seen him in an episode of popular children’s TV show Roland Rat, which briefly made him famous in the UK. Others knew him from the 1986 British Formula Ford Championship, or a lost season in British F3 in 1988 which resulted in him turning his attention to the BTCC in which he drove a BMW M3. A year later he finished third in British F3000, winning at Donington Park. More importantly, it is around that time that Ratzenberger got in touch with Toyota. That brought him to Japan, where he’d be Toyota’s first European factory driver. In the land of the Rising Sun, Ratzenberger would be able to restore his career and his confidence, combining racing for Toyota in sports cars – including Le Mans – with stellar performances in touring cars and Japanese F3000. It rekindled his long-cherished dream: racing in F1.
Ratzenberger got close to an F1 deal once before. If a Japanese sponsor hadn’t hit trouble, the chances are that it would have been Roland instead of Bertrand Gachot debuting the Jordan-Ford in 1991. Roland would have to wait three more years for his chance. It was Barbara Behlau, a part-Dutch sports manager, who coughed up half a million dollars in order to get Roland in the Simtek for the first five races of 1994. Rudolf and Margit were happy for their son, and they never feared for his safety: “Roland assured us that racing in Japan, with so many inexperienced drivers on track, was much more dangerous, and that the cars in F1 were the safest of all…”
Even though he had achieved his dream, that doesn’t mean Roland Ratzenberger was a happy man when he arrived at Imola for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the third race of the season. He failed to qualify his Simtek-Ford at the first race in Brazil, issues with his Ford V8 leaving him trailing his team-mate by over a second. He did qualify for the Pacific Grand Prix a fortnight later, making use of the fact that he was the only driver to have previously raced on the TI Aida circuit. He brought his Simtek home in 11th, and last, place, but on the same lap as the much faster Ligiers. Coming to Imola he was determined, but he was also aware that his car wasn’t going to make it easy for him. A friend who made mountain bikes had joined Roland at Imola and presented some bikes to the team, on which Roland, David Brabham and Nick Wirth pedalled around the paddock. But on Saturday things got more serious. Austrian journalist Gerhard Kuntschick had been following Ratzenberger’s career for years at that point, and was talking to him just before qualifying. “I’ll never forget him asking me to continue the interview later as he had to get into his car,” says Kuntschick. “As he walked away he said ‘I have no more time.” Minutes later it would become obvious how little time he had left. A broken front wing would end his dream, forever.
“It’s clear to us that without Senna’s death, Roland would have been long forgotten”
Ratzenberger’s accident deeply affected Ayrton Senna, who saw it unfold on the monitors in the Williams garage. He commandeered a course vehicle to inspect the accident scene. The stories of Senna calling his girlfriend Adriane in tears and Professor Sid Watkins trying to convince him not to drive have been told before. Rudolf Ratzenberger confirms the rumour that Senna was carrying an Austrian flag in his Williams, with which he planned to honour Roland after winning the grand prix: “Josef Leberer, Senna’s Austrian physiotherapist who also knew Roland, told me that Ayrton did indeed carry an Austrian flag with him.” Ratzenberger’s friend Harald Manzl speaks of a budding friendship between Senna and Ratzenberger, and says that Senna meant to visit Ratzenberger in Salzburg: “There’s a large meadow in Salzburg where many model aeroplane flyers gather. Senna was a keen model flyer, so he wanted to see this. The plans to come to Salzburg were already in place, but it wasn’t meant to be”
A day later F1 lost an icon when Senna crashed at Tamburello. His death would not only immerse the world in mourning, it would also ensure that Roland Ratzenberger would be forever overshadowed. Rudolf doesn’t quite agree with that view though. He says: “What happened to Roland was a tragedy, but it was an accident for which nobody is to blame. Compared to Ayrton and his three world titles Roland – despite his years of experience – was a total nobody in F1. We felt the way Ayrton reacted to Roland’s crash was an honour in a way; he recognised what the loss of Roland meant. That he died only a day later made Ayrton and Roland twins, in that they died simultaneously, chasing their ideals. To us it is very clear that without Ayrton’s death, Roland would have been long forgotten.”
After Imola the F1 fraternity made a booklet for Roland and Margit, signed by every driver on the grid. The most touching entry came from Mika Salo, who wrote ‘For my best friend.’ Salo remembers all the parties he and Roland went to while racing in Japan: “We had so many drinks and did loads of stupid, unprintable stuff. Roland loved to have fun. I didn’t really follow his exploits in F1; I knew he’d signed with Simtek but I also knew it was a worthless team. He deserved better. Racing made him his living. It was the best job in the world, but it was his job nevertheless. He earned good money in Japan, and he’d save every last cent. You could always count on Roland to help you, but he never bought me dinner because he was saving up everything to buy a house in Salzburg.” He did do so, just before his death.
Today Rudolf and Margit live in the apartment, overlooking the mountains, of which Roland received the keys a week before his death. In the basement Rudolf keeps his son’s trophies. There’s also a box which was given to Rudolf at the end of 1994 by the Italian police. It contains Roland’s belongings, the gloves and also the helmet he was wearing when he crashed at Imola. The left side of his helmet is badly damaged but the right side is undamaged. You could look at it and believe nothing ever happened. Rudolf points out it is the only helmet he has from his son’s F1 career. That very helmet embodies the dream his son had, the dream he got to live only so briefly. Rudolf sighs: “I’ll be happy when April 30 has passed. The emotions are still so strong. But I feel it’s my duty to keep Roland’s memory alive, but at 85 it’s becoming difficult. You know, we were never the euphoric kind of parents. That’s just not us. I’m not good at giving praise. I feel like I only learned after his death to value what my son achieved by making it to F1. Sometimes I worry that I didn’t praise Roland enough during his short lifetime.”