Dubai: May 1 marks the 22nd anniversary since Ayrton Senna was killed in what is still regarded as the worst weekend in Formula 1’s recent history.
The three-time world champion crashed at Tamburello on lap seven in circumstances that today are still not fully understood. It was an event that changed the sport forever, and Senna remained the last driver to perish in a Grand Prix until Jules Bianchi succumbed to his serious head injuries in 2015, 21 years later.
The San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994 was a disastrous weekend. During Friday practice a young Rubens Barrichello suffered an horrific crash at the Variante Bassa, flying into the catch-fence and being knocked unconscious and suffering a split lip. By all accounts it was a lucky escape when on another day he would have been killed.
Rubens Barrichello emerged without serious injury from this big accident
Indeed, the fact that by Saturday morning the young Brazilian was walking around the paddock again was testament to how strong contemporary Formula 1 cars were. The safety of the sport had been vindicated.
However, Barrichello’s crash was only the beginning. The sport may have felt proud that its rules and design had saved Barrichello from certain-death, but it was to receive a tragic reality-check during Saturday qualifying.
Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger was a novice in Formula 1 and his career in the sport hadn’t been remarkable given the lacklustre car he was driving. The San Marino Grand Prix was only his third event.
During an earlier qualifying lap he ran wide over a kerb at the Acque Minerali chicane, partially disconnecting his front wing. He did not return to the pit lane for repairs, opting instead to continue for a faster lap.
On the 300kp/h approach to the Villeneuve corner the load became too much, and the wing gave way
The sudden loss of downforce meant that the front tyres lost their grip, albeit for a split second. But a split second was it all it took. Ratzenberger’s Simtek went straight on at the fast right-hander and crashed heavily into the concrete wall. He had no time or chance to slow the car down from 300kp/h.
The Simtek disintegrated and as the TV cameras tracked the still-moving wreckage it became instantly clear that the Austrian’s situation wasn’t good.
Medical teams were at the scene in moments. Ratzenberger was extracted from the hulk and the medics tried to resuscitate him, but it was no good.
He was airlifted to Maggiore Hospital in nearby Bologna where his death was announced. Although the car’s monocoque remained largely intact, the force of the impact inflicted a basal skull fracture. It was the first death at a Grand Prix since Riccardo Paletti in 1982.
Roland Ratzenberger with his Simtek team in the pit lane
While there wasn’t a person in the paddock who hadn’t been shaken by the day’s events, three-time world champion Ayrton Senna seemed more distressed than most.
Contravening the rules, he took a race support car to visit the scene of Ratzenberger’s accident.
Professor Sid Watkins, who was Formula 1’s dedicated medic and expert neurologist, wrote in his memoirs of Senna's reaction to Ratzenberger’s death: "Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder."
Watkins tried to persuade Senna not to race on Sunday, asking "What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let's go fishing." Senna’s reply was predictable. He said: "There are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit [racing], I have to go on."
However, in his biography on the late Brazilian, Maurice Hamilton revealed that Senna had gone to Frank Williams (Williams’ team principal) on Saturday night and said that he did not want to race on Sunday.
Williams recounted that Senna wasn’t just ‘off’, but visibly shaken and pale, distraught and distant. Anyone who knew Senna, as Williams did, would have known something was wrong. A man with a strong connection to God was in conflict with himself and seemingly questioning his faith.
It wasn’t in Senna’s nature to withdraw from a race. He had never done so before. Williams listened to him speak and insisted that he would support whatever decision he came to. In the end, Senna opted to make the most of his record-breaking 65th pole position and take the start of the race.
What with Barrichello’s near-fatal crash and the tragedy of Ratzenberger, it was hard to conceive how the weekend could get any worse.
But it did.
At the start of the race, Pedro Lamy crashed into the back of JJ Lehto’s stalled Benetton, sending debris over the catch fencing and injuring nine spectators, which again required the intervention of the circuit’s medical personnel. Thankfully no one was fatally injured.
The accident prompted the deployment of the safety car – which had only returned to F1 in 1993. The car picked up race-leader Senna and controlled the field while the start-line debris was cleared.
On three occasions between laps two and five, Senna pulled alongside the safety car urging it to speed up. In relative Formula 1 terms, the speed was that much slower that it caused the F1 cars’ tyres to lose running temperature and shrink, which is crucial for providing the car its grip.
The safety car pulled off the track at the end of lap five, releasing the pack once more with Senna being chased by a young Michael Schumacher.
Starting lap seven, the TV viewers were with Michael Schumacher’s on-board camera in second place. Senna’s Williams was ahead leaving a trail of sparks in its wake and then, in an instant, his car was gone.
The camera switched as Senna’s car veered straight off the track and violently into the concrete wall at Tamburello – the first corner on the lap.
Debris was sent flying into the air, crashing down on the circuit causing other drivers to take evasive action. Senna’s mangled Williams came to a stop on the run-off just metres from the circuit edge.
For a brief moment, the three-time World Champion appeared to move in the cockpit, but he made no effort to get out of the car. The marshals ran over and immediately gave the signal that the medical team was required once more.
Senna, slumped to the right, wasn’t moving.
Watkins was on the scene in moments. He and his team tried frantically to revive the Brazilian, who by now had been extracted from the car and laid down on the concrete.
By this point the race had been stopped and viewers around the world watched live from the TV helicopter as the medics worked to stabilise him.
Watkins later said that as he was trying to revive Senna, which he admitted he knew was in futility, that the Brazilian exhaled a large breath. Watkins saw that as his soul departing, he knew he was dead.
An air-ambulance arrived soon after and Senna was airlifted to Maggorie Hospital.
While the BBC chose not to continue with the live feed of Senna’s revival, focusing rather on the mood in the pit lane, other international networks did. When Senna was lifted onto the stretcher, a small pool of blood was visible in the spot where his attempted revival had taken place.
The official time of death was logged as 6.40pm, four and a half hours after the crash. He had been termed ‘clinically dead’ soon after the impact, essentially insinuating that the great Brazilian had died instantly. The head trauma he sustained had resulted in permanent brain damage from which there was no recovery.
Michael Schumacher in the press conference after learning of Senna’s death
Nearly 45 minutes after the crash, the race was restarted. News of Senna’s death began to filter through to the paddock during the race, as it did to the millions of viewers around the world. Michael Schumacher went on to win the race, but in a downcast press conference said that he “couldn’t feel happy” with the nature of the victory.
The German would go on to win the title that year, and he dedicated it to Senna.
The changes that were made in the weeks, months, and years that followed the tragic events in San Marino changed the face of the sport forever. How many lives have been saved as a result of the sweeping changes made will never be known.
This week, while we remember the sporting legend that was Ayrton Senna, make sure to spare a thought for Roland Ratzenberger too.