There can be little argument that the San Marino Grand Prix held at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy on the 1st of May 1994 was one – if not the – blackest weekend in the history of Formula One. A series of tragic events and accidents beset both days of qualifying, as well as Sunday’s race.
The weekend saw the deaths of two drivers. The popular Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger succumbed to head injuries sustained during Saturday qualifying after a high-speed crash.
Sunday’s race tragically saw another driver lose his life as arguably one of the greatest drivers to have ever sat in a racing car, Ayrton Senna was killed whilst leading the race in his Williams Renault.
The weekend also saw injuries to spectators, pit crew and a policeman. The string of events that occurred that weekend was staggering, and would have seemed excessive for an entire season let alone a single Grand Prix weekend.
Let’s take a look at the weekend, starting with the Friday, as this is where the first significant incident took place, that was to be the first of a string of tragic events.
Friday qualifying saw the Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello survive a horrifying accident at the Variante Bassa corner whilst travelling at 140mph. His Jordan Hart clipped a high kerb at the edge of the circuit launching it into a tyre barrier.
His car rolled several times and finally came to rest upside down on the grass at the side of the circuit. He was knocked unconscious in the incident, and was given emergency medical treatment trackside. Fortunately the crash spared him injuries worse than broken bones, and he returned from the medical centre the next day to spectate at the race, albeit with a broken nose and his arm in a cast. Needless to say he took no further part in the weekends on-track events.
Twenty minutes into the Saturday qualifying session saw the next accident to plague the weekend. The Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was on a fast qualifying lap when he failed to take the Villeneuve curve in his Simtek Ford car.
Video of the incident shows him slamming violently into a concrete wall at the side of the circuit before bouncing back into the middle of the following corner, where the car came to rest. Despite the incident visually looking serious the cars safety cell that is designed to protect the driver was largely intact after the crash. However Ratzenberger died from a basal skull fracture due to the violent force inflicted on his body when the car struck the concrete wall.
Subsequent investigation of the accident concluded that Ratzenberger’s previous lap had involved him running over a kerb at the Acque Minerali chicane, damaging the front wing of his Simtek. Instead of returning to the pits to have it replaced he decided to continue on his qualifying run, a decision that was to cost him his life.
As he approached the high speed Villeneuve curve – with the front wing being subjected to high loads – it failed, leaving Ratzenberger a passenger in his car, and completely unable to control it.
Ratzenbergers death was the first during a Grand Prix weekend since Riccardo Paletti was killed at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix. However, Elio de Angeles had died during a test session in his Brabham car at the Paul Ricard circuit in France in 1986.
The popular Austrians death had a profound effect on three times world champion Ayrton Senna who visited the crash site to see for himself the aftermarth. Professor Sid Watkins, the head of the Formula One medial team at trackside, wrote in his memoirs that Senna broke down and cried on his shoulder following the accident. Watkins claims that Senna told him he would race the next day, despite the accident. Tragically twenty four hours later Senna himself would lose his life in a horrific crash.
Despite the tragic events of Saturday qualifying the race went ahead as scheduled with Senna in pole position on the grid in his Williams Renault. Second place was taken by the young German driver Michael Schumacher, with Ferrari’s Gehard Berger lining up third. In fourth place was Senna’s teamate Damon Hill, with J.J. Lehto, Schumacher’s teamate lining up fifth. Rounding off the top six was Nicola Larini in the second Ferrari.
The incidents that were to mar the race began as soon as the lights turned green with J.J. Lehto stalling his Benetton Ford on the grid. Pedro Lamy, driving a Lotus, further back on the grid had his view of the stricken Benetton obscured by other cars, and struck the back of Lehto’s car at high speed. The resulting impact fired debris high into the air and over the security fences. Nine spectators suffered injuries as a result of the incident, but fortunately none were serious.
This brought the safety car onto the circuit requiring the cars to drive behind it at a vastly reduced speed. This was whilst the carnage the startline crash had created was cleared by race marshalls.
Travelling behind the safety car was at such a reduced speed that the tyre pressures of the following F1 cars significantly dropped. The safety car used was far below what was required to maintain anything near the pace that was needed to keep the cars in a satisfactory state to restart. The car used was a simple, average road car, and did not travel at anything near the race pace needed for an F1 car.
Both Ayrton Senna and Gehard Berger had in fact raised the issue of the safety car not being fast enough in the drivers briefing in the morning before the race. Unfortunately it appears that nothing was done to change this before the race began.
Once the debris on the startline had been cleared it was time for the race to re-start. The safety car pulled into the pitlane and Senna opened his throttle with Michael Schumacher close behind.
The first lap went without incident with Schumcher clearly managing to keep pace with the William Renault of Senna. However, as the cars passed the start/finish line for the second lap the incident that would change Formula One forever occured.
Live coverage of the race was broadcasting from the onboard camera of Michael Schumacher showing Senna’s Williams Renault ahead when the unthinkable happened. Sparks were clearly seen coming from the underneath of the Senna’s Williams ahead when, in the blink of an eye, his Williams Renault veered violently off the circuit at the Tambourello corner at nearly full speed. It struck a concrete wall at the side of the circuit showering the area with debris.
The impact tore the entire right hand side of the car away and the Williams Renault carried on travelling for several metres with Senna’s head being violently shaken inside the cockpit.
When the car came to rest at the side of the circuit the television cameras were quick to focus in on Senna sitting in the car, who has his head tilting every so slightly to one side. For a moment his head moved and there was relief that he appeared to be conscious. However this could not have been further from the truth, as Senna was in fact fatally injured.
Medical assistance took, what seemed an age, coming to Senna’s aid with BBC commentatory Jonathan Palmer commenting “we really need to see some medical attention coming to the car of Senna” as the Brazilian sat motionless in his car. When help finally arrived television transmissions from the BBC were cut as the scenes that would have greeted fans were not for Sunday afternoon viewing.
The Italian broadcaster RAI did not cut their transmission however, and what was broadcast were graphic scenes of the fight to save Senna’s life. To compound these problems the Larousse car of Erik Comas was accidently let out of the pitlane whilst the fight to save Senna’s life took place at the trackside. Marshalls frantically waved down the driver as he approached the crash scene at high speed.
Comas was forced to stop his car at the scene of the accident, and witnessed the graphic scenes and fight for Senna’s life. He is reported to have been so upset at what he saw he withdrew from the race immediately.
When the medical assistance at the trackside had done all they could, Senna was airlifted by helicopter to the Maggiore Hospital in nearby Bologna as medical personnel continued to fight for his life. At this point many viewers were becoming aware of the gravity of the situation as large pools of blood had clearly been seen where Senna had been lying, as the doctors fought to save him.
Despite the shock that had been witnessed by so many people the race was restarted at 2.55pm, thirty-seven minutes after Senna’s accident had occurred. The result of the race would be decided by aggregate timing taken from the race before it was stopped and after the restart.
When the race restarted Gehard Berger took the lead, but with Michael Schumacher still leading on aggregate. Schumacher took first position on the track on lap 12, with Berger retiring from the race four laps later after suffering handling problems with his Ferrari. Unfortunately more serious accidents were still to blight the race.
As Michele Alboreto left the pitlane in his Minardi his right rear wheel detached itself from his car, hitting two Ferari and two Lotus mechanics in the pitlane. They were taken to hospital to be treated for the injuries they sustained – but fortunately recovered fully.
When the race finally ended Michael Schumacher was the victor with Nicola Larini second and Mika Hakkinen third. However, there was to be no champagne on the podium in honour of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger as by this time the drivers had been told of the death of the Brazilian champion. In the press conference after the race Schumacher stated “I cannot feel satisfied” regarding his victory and went on to say “never have we seen something like this, not just one thing but so many things, I hope we learn from this”.
During the restarted race news had been coming in regarding Senna’s condition. For a while there was hope and many could not imagine the idea that Senna could have actually been killed. However at 6:40pm on Sunday night, two hours and 20 minutes after the race had finished Dr. Maria Teresa Fiandri announced to the worlds media that Ayrton Senna had died from his injuries.
The official time of death was registered as 2:17pm, meaning that despite the efforts to save him Senna had been declared dead instantly when he crashed. The official reason for his death was subsequently cited as a head injury that had been caused by a piece of the cars suspension breaking off and piercing his crash helmet, and then his skull. Had it not been for this freak occurance Senna may have been able to walk away from the incident, despite the ferocity of the impact, however we shall never know if this would have been the case.
It emerged sometime after the race that an Austrian flag had been discovered in the cockpit of Senna’s Williams. It seems that he had intended to unfurl and display it from his car at the end of the race. This was to be in tribute to Roland Ratzenberger who had lost his life the previous day.
The effects of Senna’s death and that of Roland Ratzenberger sent a shockwave through the whole of Formula One. Instant changes were implemented in an attempt to make the sport safer, with the introduction of a pitlane speed limit and the addition of many chicanes and corner modifications on many circuits around the world.
The cars were also subjected to changes that were phased in as the season continued. The changes became so widespread they gave the sport a complete facelift and can still be seen today in the ever-striving quest for safety.Image used under Creative Commons licence from sgozzi.