Roland Ratzenberger - 1960 to 1994 22 Apr 2004
Roland Ratzenbergers name will forever be associated with that of Ayrton Senna, both men having died during the fateful Imola weekend of 1994. Just a day separated their partings, but the two men were at opposite ends of their Formula One careers. One, arguably at his peak, destined perhaps for a fourth world title; the other, a rookie, just starting out in his debut season. While Senna had, at least, had a chance to prove his greatness, Ratzenberger was tragically never granted that opportunity.
By todays standards Ratzenbergers path to Formula One racing was a long one. Born in Salzburg in 1960, the popular Austrian first shot to prominence in 1986 when he won the highly respected Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. That performance helped bring him a works BMW seat in the World Touring Car Championship the following year. He also continued to persevere with his single-seater career, taking a notable victory at the Nurburgring in the ill-fated EFDA Formula 3 Euroseries.
In the 1988 and 1989 seasons he combined sportscar, British Formula 3 and Formula 3000 campaigns, taking one F3000 win at Donington. However, frustrated by his lack of progress in Europe, Ratzenberger took the well-trodden path to Japan for 1990, driving again for BMW in Touring Cars, as well as for Toyota in Sportcars, a move which brought him a victory with the Japanese squad at Fuji. He won for them again the following year at Suzuka, a circuit which was to prove a lucky one for Ratzenberger. When he returned to single-seaters in 1992 it was there that he scored his first Japanese F3000 win with the Stellar team. That same year he finished ninth for Toyota at the prestigious Le Mans 24 hour race, a performance he would improve upon the following season when he came home fifth, again for Toyota.
A busy year in Japanese F3000 with Stellar in 1993 did not bring any more victories, but it did bring six points, 12th in the series and, more importantly, enough credibility to gain him a Formula One seat with Nick Wirths newly-formed Simtek Grand Prix team for 1994. Ratzenbergers Formula One debut was a difficult one. He failed to qualify the S941 at the opening round in Brazil, before scraping on to the back of the grid at the following round at Aida, immediately behind team mate David Brabham. He ended the race in 11th place, for what was to be his only Grand Prix finish. In practice for the next round at Imola he tragically crashed to his death at the Villeneuve corner after a suspected front-wing problem.
Rest assured that Ratzenberger will not be forgotten this weekend at Imola. Austria remains a country of Formula One fans and those who make the trip to the San Marino will be there not only to cheer on a national hero of the future, Jaguars Christian Klien, but also to pay tribute to a much-loved one from the past.