I was only six years old. Naturally, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what happened. Only vaguely do I remember hearing about it and even then it could have been at a later time, attached to other tragedies in sport. This could easily have been five years later with the passing of Greg Moore at Fontana Raceway in Fontana, California.
May 1, 2014, however, marks two full decades since the last fatality of Formula1 drivers in the series. The weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix was the turning point in safety and innovation. The fact that nobody in the series has perished since is a monumental achievement, and sadly it took the loss of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna for this movement. We have seen tracks have more run-off areas, safer barriers, head restraints, and numerous regulation and structural changes.
The two drivers could not have had more different careers or achievements. Many have heard of Senna with the release of a fantastic documentary by the same title. Ayrton Senna took three years to reach F1, the pinnacle of motorsport, whereas Roland spent 10 years jumping between F3000, Japanese sports cars, and various other series and testing sessions before he was able to fulfill his dream. He made it to F1 without the huge amounts of money one normally requires – pure dedication and persistence.
This is not to suggest Ayrton, Brazilian, had it easy or bought his way in. He just had the pure, natural talent, and with it came money. Ratzenberger had to work for his; traveling through the lower circuits in effort to realize what Senna was gifted with.
Roland, Austrian, had two races with Simtek. Failing to qualify at the race in Brazil and finishing 11th in Japan, prior to Imola. His dream was to race in Formula1 and the decision during his fateful day could not have shown that much more. His car picked up some damage on his qualifying lap and he did not take it into the pits. He kept pushing only for the front aerodynamic wing to cave under the car, resulting in a loss of traction. Unable to make the right-hand Villenueve curve before the Tosa hairpin, he went off track at about 200 miles per hour. Hitting the wall and sliding back onto the track, there were obvious signs of severe injury.
The accident was violent as one would imagine, with damage to his skull, yet another difference between the two drivers – Senna’s was a hard hit but he showed no trauma. When team members and drivers became aware of what happened, everyone was in pain. With the videos I saw later in my life, everyone at the track was crying and seeking support from each other.
The day preceding Roland’s final breath, Rubens Barrichello, another Brazilian driver, was involved in a serious accident as well. He lost control of his Jordan Formula1 car, hit a curb at Variante Bassa corner, and launched into the air. The vehicle rolled one and one-half times, breaking Rubens nose and arm and knocking him unconscious.
These two events led Ayrton to break down in tears with the Formula1 doctor, Professor Sid Watkins. Mr. Watkins reportedly tried to persuade Senna not to race, to go fishing instead because there was nothing left to prove in such an already decorated career.
Imagine how different the sport would have been if Watkins was able to convince Senna to quit. Of course F1 fans would love to have him around still, but what would it have done to his legacy? There would have been no immediate loss, prematurely ending his reign as an elite driver. Would safety changes have been stalled resulting in deaths of many others? Part of Ayrton’s personality was to press on, to drive for the passion and for the fans.
Once Senna had his accident at the corner Tamburello, Roland’s death was always going to be overshadowed. Ayrton’s stature and achievement meant that Roland’s passing would sadly receive little coverage, none in comparison.
What this means for me, and how it affects me, is admittedly less than most because I was not attached to either driver or very much interested in racing at the time. Experiencing other incidents involving drivers with whom I was attached – Dale Earnhardt, Greg Moore, Dan Wheldon – enhances the meaning of May 1, 1994. It’s strange how people can become so attached to certain people, having had little to no interactions with them. The human element of sport and the desire or interest in participating serves as a deeper connection. We regularly tune in to television, follow then in the news, and invest emotionally.
As a fan of racing, Senna’s driving and talent is astonishing. Watching videos of his car control, races, interactions, and personality is a platform that can draw anyone into the sport. Myself, Formula1, and sport are better for having experienced his touching story. He continues to influence and inspire.