David Brabham on the death of Roland Ratzenberger
30 April 2014 – 20 years ago today, Roland Ratzenberger died at Imola. The Austrian tried to qualify for the San Marino Grand Prix in his Simtek, but crashed at the Villeneuve corner. The accident would later be considered to be a prologue to the events that occurred 24 hours later. GPUpdate.net spoke to David Brabham, Ratzenberger's team-mate at the time.
If Ayrton Senna would have just stepped out of his Williams on Sunday, Ratzenberger's accident would have been much better remembered in the world of Formula 1. Ratzenberger was the first driver to lose his life at a Formula 1 event since Riccardo Paletti crashed into the stalled Ferrari of Didier Pironi at Montreal. His car caught fire, while Paletti was trapped inside. After this horrific accident, 12 years would pass without a fatality during a Grand Prix weekend.
That period ended abruptly on the 30th of April 1994. During Friday practice Rubens Barrichello suffered a scary accident but the morning after, the Brazilian was all smiles on the paddock. "Other than Rubens's accident, everything seemed to be fairly normal to be honest", said Brabham. "I remember Roland was complaining about his brakes on the Friday, so the team asked me to jump in the car to verify what the brakes were like because of my experience with the car and the carbon brakes. After a few laps I came in and also confirmed that the brakes weren't very good at all and that they needed changing. When the team changed the brakes Roland's times were a lot closer to mine.
"Rubens's accident was obviously horrible and one that frightened a lot of people, but no one really thought much more other than it was just a bad accident. We were pleased to see that Rubens was okay and that he wasn't severely injured."
During his qualifying run, Ratzenberger damaged his front wing in a short excursion through the gravel. He decided not to change the wing and kept on going. After Tamburello, the wing came loose and got stuck underneath the Simtek. From that moment on, Ratzenberger was a passenger. The car hit the concrete wall at the Villeneuve corner travelling just under 315 kilometres an hour. Ratzenberger didn't stand a chance.
"I was actually out on track at the time, so although I didn't see the accident I saw him when I went around the car just as he had stopped", Brabham said. "I knew then by just witnessing what I saw, that he was gone."
The images are stuck in everyone's minds. The red-and-white helmet of Ratzenberger leaning lifeless on the side of the cockpit. In the Williams garage, Ayrton Senna turns away from the monitors in disgust. Doctor Sid Watkins is powerless to help the Austrian. For the first time in 12 years, a driver is killed in an official Formula 1 session. The garage doors close at Simtek. The session is resumed but none of the drivers will be happy with their grid position. They'd rather go home, away from Imola. But there was a race waiting.
"To be honest, a lot of what happened that weekend doesn't seem to be much in my memory bank, because you had the feeling of being so incredibly numb by the fact that you just lost your team-mate, something that I have never experienced before", Brabham said. "Everybody was in a state of shock particularly the Simtek team, because we were a small team and none of us had ever experienced losing someone so close to us before. The whole paddock and the Formula One world was also in a state of shock, as no one had died for 12 years before Roland's death."
The Simtek team, however, decided to race anyway: "At the end of the Saturday in the evening, I was asked whether or not I would like to continue the weekend and do the race or not. Of course at the time I was in a state shock and I really didn't know what to do. I decided that I would make my decision the next day after having done the warm-up. We did the warm-up and as I came into the pits I sensed the teams mood had slightly lifted and the black cloud that surrounded the team seem to have lifted slightly.
"Having seen this, I decided to do the race for the team to help them get back on track, plus it was my way of showing respect for Roland, as he was a racer and he would have wanted us to keep racing. 20 years is a long time, but one thing is for sure I will never forget that weekend."
Later, on Sunday afternoon, the medical team at Tamburello look into the cockpit of the mangled Williams #2. They find an Austrian flag.