It’s 28 years ago that we lost Ronald Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in Imola. However, many seem to forget that May 1994 was a horrible month for the autosport, more terrible accidents happened. It would change the autosport and especially the Formula one permanently. The focus would shift mostly towards new safety measures to be taken. Let me take you back for a couple of minutes into a period that many still remember. Im not gonna discuss the trial because of Ayrton Senna’s dead.
First of all I want to take you back to awful race weekend in Imola. It already started on the Friday when Rubens Barrichello had a horrific crash in the Variante Bassa. Barrichello went wide at the exit of the right part of the corner. When hitting the kerbs his Jordan suddenly went airborne, flew over the tyre barrier approx. with 220km/h before crash-landing party in the Tyre barrier and the safety fences. Later on one of the Larrousse drivers would spin a crash on the same spot.
While Rubens Barrichello had all the luck in the world, ending up with some minor injuries, Ronald Ratzenberger did not have the luck. His very first season in the Formula One when his adventure with Jordan didn’t happen. Racing for the small Simtek team with his teammate David Brabham. In Brazil he didn’t manage to qualify though in Aida he finished 11th. Just before he would deadly crash with his Simtek S941, he had a spun in the Acqua Minerale chicane. Rumours say that Ratzenberger did not came in the pits, as he believed the car was fine. His sponsors were for the first time in 1994 attempting a race.
Little did he know that he damaged his front wing slightly in the Acqua Minerale. A lap before his crash he spun again, this time in the Villeneuve corner. When approaching the Villeneuve corner the next round, his front wing broke. As a result, it became stuck underneath his Simtek. He crashed with a speed of 310 km/h in the outside wall and broke his neck due to the impact of the crash.
A trauma helicopter rushed him to the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna where he was pronounced dead. There is an interesting story, which you probably know; Ayrton Senna commandeered an official car to hurry to the medical centre. When arriving there he heard from Sid Watkins that Ratzenberger passed away. Watkins told Senna to retire from the Grand Prix weekend and go for a good fishing. Asking him as well if he was to quit Formula One.
Senna, who was at that point already concerned, answered that he had could not quiet and had to go on. All he did was to withdraw from the qualification session. After the qualification session, the FIA offered Paul Belmondo Ratzenberger’s spot on the grid for the race. He declined the spot out of respect for Ratzenberger. As well, he believed he did not earned the spot as well. Ratzenberger was to race later in 1994 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota. Out of respect, they kept his name on the car and as first.
Race day, the first of May 1994. The atmosphere as I understood from others was chilly and strange. The vibe was not good and Senna questioned himself if he should race. As I understood it. When the lights turned green, all hell broke loose. JJ Lehto who returned after his neck injury stalled his car on P6; all drivers were able to go around him only Pedro Lamy was unable to avoid Lehto. He crashed his Lotus 107 in the back of the Benetton B194.
While Lamy got out of his wrecked Lotus, and Lehto was more or less good as well. Part of the bodywork went into the public. Two police officers had minor injuries because of debris. While approx. 7 spectators were hit by debris as well. If you look at the footage of the crash it is a wonder there were no serious injured. As wheels flew off in the direction of the grand stands. Another four engineers in the pits were injured as well because Michele Alboreto’s tyre came of his car in the pits and hit several members of the Ferrari team.
When all the debris was take away and the track was cleaned, the Formula One was ready for the restart. Five laps were already gone because of the start crash and several laps behind the safety car. At the restart both Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna were quickly gone, leaving Gerhard Berger and Damon Hill behind. However, in lap 7 everything would change. Senna was in front of Schumacher and in the Tamburello corner Schumacher saw that Senna was unable to take the corner and went with a speed over 300 km/h straight to the concrete barrier. As Senna hit the brakes of his Williams he hit the barrier with a speed of over 200 km/h.
While the Italian RAI continued filming during the operation to get Senna out of his wrecked Williams most of the teams switched off the televisions. While the first reports were that Senna would be oke and was airlifted towards Maggiore Hospital. The news would reach soon that he passed away because of the injuries.
While the GPDA was re established after the horrific Grand prix at Imola 1994, the FIA and FOM were hesitating with taking safety measures. Who does not remember the tyre chicanes in Spain and the chicane in Eau-Rouge? It still went wrong. Only two weeks later Karl Wendlinger would have a massive shunt during the Grand Prix of Monaco. During the first practice session, Wendlinger lost control while exiting the tunnel when braking for the Nouvelle chicane. He hit sideways the barrier, which was protected by plastic containers, which were not filled with water to absorb the power of a crash. As a result, Karl hit his head to the metal barrier.
The FIA doctors found Karl unconscious in his Sauber and was left for a couple of weeks in coma to give his body the time to heal his head and brain injuries. The plan was to make his comeback during the Japanese Grand Prix. However, during a test previous for the race it revealed that his neck was not strong enough.
During the Spanish Grand Prix the decision was taken to place a temporarily chicane in front of the Nissan corner. Andrea Montermini replaced Ronald Ratzenberger at Simtek. When he was in his quick round for the qualification, he crashed badly. In the last lap, with a speed over 230 km/h he went a bit wide came on the grass and eventually lost control of the car crashing in the tyres. The Simtek team still moaning of the loss of Ratzenberger had another shock. However, Montermini only had a broken toe and a broken heel.
There were several more crashes and massive incidents, such as the pit fire of Jos Verstappen in Hockenheim, that kept on shocking the Formula One world. Believing that safety measures had to be tightened. This resulted in several measures for the 1995 season. What many seem to forgotten is the fact that there were several teams ready to debut in 1995 or were working on the 1995 challenger. Such as Forti, which would make it’s debut in 1995, or how about the Lola T95/30? A car that was an in between of 1994 and 1995 regulations.