The last driver to die at the wheel of a Formula One car (or rather, from smoke inhalation over a day later in hospital) was Elio de Angelis in 1986. Although I was watching Formula One in 1986, I never saw Elio’s crash because it didn’t happen in a race. The last death to be broadcast on live TV was actually Riccardo Paletti in 1982, who died with his mother watching from the grandstand, unable to breathe, so I understand, while trapped at the chest and slowly asphyxiated by fire retardant.
After 1986, eight years of near-misses and miracles followed the loss of Elio, until that tragic weekend at Imola in 1994.
I was young, I had been watching F1 my entire life, but I’d never seen anybody die infront of me. The sport had become over-confident and perhaps ignorant to the dangers. In fact (much like NASCAR today, where many are currently complaining there hasn’t been enough crashes), a good crash where the driver walks away became a part of the show, and even if they didn’t walk away you were usually still amazed and pleased to see that they survived.
My family were a Nigel Mansell family, he was our guy. Senna? He was the other guy. When Mansell departed the sport, it jolted us and I became what I am today: A fan of the sport, not a single driver. I began to recognize that these men are players, with their main loyalties to themselves and are basically driven by the need to complete, and to win. I entered the 1993 season with a real change in perspective and a broader outlook on racing (and sport) in general, because for the first time, I was also watching IndyCar. It wasn’t about Mansell versus Senna anymore, it was about racing.
Only during the 1993 season did I really first appreciate Senna, because I honestly believe that the 1993 season featured some of the best driving I ever saw, from the best driver I ever saw. It often felt like he was dragging that McLaren around the race track, and I began to pull for him to win because I don’t like to watch F1 being dominated. The Williams should have won every race, it had a huge advantage that the team failed to take. Seeing Senna win that year? It felt magical.
The 1993 season is also the year I started to pull for a young Rubens Barrichello. After his drive in the wet at Donington I began to pay really close attention to him because while Senna had moved from 5th to 1st in the first lap, Rubens had moved from 12th to 4th. His ability in slick or drying conditions really reminded me of Senna, and had the Jordan been a more reliable car, 1993 could have been the break-out year that 1994 became.
What a beginning to the year it was in 1994 for me. I expected the Williams and Senna to dominate, so I loved the fact that Schumacher (someone I thought Senna would destroy during the rest of the season) failed to finish in the first couple of races. I also loved that by the time the F1 circus moved to Imola, the young Rubens Barrichello sat second in points behind Schumacher due to 4th and 3rd place finishes in the opening rounds. As Senna said himself, his season was to start in Imola, and I couldn’t have been more excited as that weekend approached.
I still carry the image of Rubens helmet hitting the steering wheel in my head, it’s been there since 29th April, 1994. A massive hit and one that shook me, but was still possible to pass off as one of those big crashes that was a part of F1. The driver survived, after all, isn’t it amazing how safe these cars are?
That night, I fired up my copy of Formula One Grand Prix on Amiga (edited to have the 1994 season, of course), and ran a full-length race at Imola. I raced as Damon Hill and I finished 5th due to a lot of errors on my part. As usual, this helped me to learn the track for when I watched it on TV.
Such a normal Friday night that it still feels strange to look back on it as that… I remember drying the dishes and putting them away, just the most ordinary day.
On this day in 1994, I saw a racing driver pass away on TV for the first time. Sadly it wasn’t the last time.
The commentators (John Watson mainly) were busy talking about how safe the cars were, how lucky Rubens was and then suddenly, they were interrupted, by the Simtek of Roland Ratzenberger sliding to a stop. What followed were some images that I really couldn’t stop watching. It was the first time I had seen anything like that and frankly I was waiting for him to spring back to life, but it never happened.
I first heard that he had actually died when Murray Walker announced it. I can’t remember whether it was on the news that night or the qualifying highlights, but that night I didn’t really know how to handle it.
My parents had no idea how this was really affecting me, but that was a hard night. I had actually been going through my Autosport magazine, preparing my computer for my next simulated race, and had left the magazine open on the final team page. That page, of course, featured the Simtek team and Roland Ratzenberger. I had to close that magazine, I couldn’t look at it, and every time I walked in or out of my room I was looking at the cover like it was the floorboards in The Tell-Tale Heart. I felt a certain degree of guilt that he had died.
I didn’t watch the pre-race. I didn’t get to see Senna looking so unbelievably sad, but I do remember hearing the initial sadness in Murray Walker’s voice, which soon dissipated as he settled into the event to do his job. I saw the 5-minute warning, the 1-minute warning, the parade lap, and I saw the green light.
Then I saw Lamy and Lehto smash together, I saw them instantly out of their cars and knew they were fine. When Jonathan Palmer told us how a tire had gone into the crowd it was downplayed (and talked over) by Murray Walker, and it seemed a long time before we knew how serious it had been, with nine injured spectators.
The safety car period seemed to last forever. It really did. I don’t think it helped having a particularly slow road car pacing the field.
Then the race restarted, and Senna crashed, I again expected him to get out. When Jonathan Palmer said that he saw Senna’s head move I genuinely thought he would be OK, then I saw that his blue and white racing suit was red, is that blood? Is that blood? I realized that the way his head was twitching could be him dying.
The medical team arrived after what seemed like a really long time. They rushed around, opened packages, removed his helmet and then lifted what looked to be a dead-weight body out of the car. I started to get that same feeling of guilt, mixed with a big knot in my stomach. Am I watching this again?
I didn’t think he was going to survive at this point. They continued to work on him for what seemed like hours, so I hoped, but as time went on it became less and less likely in my mind. Then they kept lifting and moving him, by the time they began to lift him to put him in the Helicopter, you could see pools of blood everywhere he had been laid. It was grizzly. But as soon as the helicopter took off, they felt it was the right time to start showing replays of the crash.
As always in the history of Formula One, the race went on, but not without more problems, as a loose wheel on a later pit stop flew through the team personnel in the pits, with more injuries.
We all suspected, knew, that he had died. The evening news finally confirmed it.
With my thoughts formed by Murray Walker, that this is and always will be a dangerous sport – and that this may have just been a series of tragic events – I watched the next race. Karl Wendlinger crashed in practice, putting him in a coma for three weeks.
It started to seem like F1 was cursed. The replacement for Roland Ratzenberger crashed heavily and broke his foot.
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It took a while for me to accept the sport again. It was helped, of course, by a close title battle as things finished in 1994, but really this doesn’t just seem like a series of unfortunate events. I’m glad the drivers did something about it, but many (including me) think that the last real F1 car died with Senna. I didn’t believe we would ever see a truly legendary car ever again, and I don’t believe we have. It is for this reason that I really enjoy the historic cars in F1, death traps though they were. I enjoy the innovation and the evolution that pushed the sport forward.
I don’t feel guilty anymore when I see a crash, but I do get that feeling in my stomach, and I did fall out of love with Formula One when Michael Schumacher began to dominate with Ferrari. 1994 feels so long ago, but I do really enjoy thinking about the history of the sport, and Imola was a part of that.
The cars looked very unstable that weekend. They were all running extremely low downforce and Schumacher, with his little V8 engine, was having to push hard. He wrote in his book that he knew he couldn’t beat Senna around that track, so he was going to try to push him into a mistake, and when Senna crashed, Schumacher felt guilty. I can’t imagine how he coped with that, but I think we got an insight during this post-race interview, from the 2000 race at Monza:
I often see people saying that it’s wrong or that it’s a shame Senna’s death is mentioned and Roland’s is forgotten. It isn’t forgotten. Roland was new to the sport, had touched less people. His death or his life is no less important. People just react, in death, to the way that person touched them. People die every day and I don’t mention them, but I remember Roland and Senna, every year and only because of how they affected my life. People aren’t being unfair, they’re being true.
I feel like there is so much more to say in this post, but I’m not going to continue. In the end, the first half of the 1994 season and all it’s tragedy morphed together for me. Imola, Monaco and Spain were just one very long weekend that I’m never going to be able to forget.
Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.
He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.