Today is the birthday, in 1960, of a racing driver who died tragically on the track, doing the job he loved.
His death is largely forgotten as it happened the day before the death of the great Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994. Senna’s death, during the race was tragic, and a great loss to F1, but I have always felt that Roland Ratzenberger’s death was equally as tragic and should have been remembered with the same sadness.
He was born on the 4th of July 1960 in Austria. He made his way through the ranks of the lower classes of motor racing, including showing very well in the Le Mans 24 race series.
For the 1994 season, he showed great promise as he was signed to the Simtek team. Though other big name teams were rumoured to be watching him for future advancement.
During qualifying for the Imola GP Ratzenberger left the track and broke his wing on the car, but as time was precious and he was driving for position, he did not go to the pits to get it changed. He continued, and on the fast straight, the wing broke off, doubling under the car and stopping him from turning on the next corner, or braking. He hit the wall at almost 200 MPH and died pratically instantly of a severe head injury. He was airlifted to hospital from the track but pronounced dead on arrival.
His death led to a resurgence of the Grand Prix Drivers Association at the drivers meeting the next morning, which would go on to demand safer conditions for drivers. One of the first directors voted in on that day was Senna, who would die in his car a few hours later. Upon his extraction from the car after his accident, an Austrian flag was found in his car, which he had intended to fly after the race, in memorial of Ratzenberger.
Senna’s death was the big news of the weekend and his funeral was by far better attended by members of the racing community than Ratzenberger’s was, and is by far better remembered in history, but Ratzenberger played just as important a role in shaping the future safety measures in F1 cars.
The HANS device that is used now on cars was developed to prevent the type of head injury that Roland suffered, and has probably saved many lives since then.