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IN TRIBUTE: David Brabham remembers his former team mate, Roland Ratzenberger, 30 years on from the Austrian’s passing

Former F1 driver

David Brabham
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David Brabham was Roland Ratzenberger’s first and only F1 team mate, with the Austrian debutant tragically losing his life on that fateful weekend at Imola in 1994 – 30 years ago today. Below, Brabham remembers their short time together at the Simtek squad, and why he feels it’s important that, in addition to Ayrton Senna, fans keep Ratzenberger’s legacy in their minds.

As a driver, you always want to know who your team mate is. Whenever somebody says their name, you instantly have an idea in your head about that person. You’re either excited or disappointed, and when Roland’s name was mentioned, I was excited.

READ MORE: A racer through and through – Roland Ratzenberger remembered

I didn’t really know him that well, but I certainly knew of him and what he had achieved in his racing career. He was an experienced driver who had always shown himself to be quick, didn’t make mistakes and looked pretty complete.

I’d had some F1 and sportscar experience, he’d had some sportscar and single-seater experience. I thought the combination would have made for a good team.

For a start-up team like Simtek that just didn’t have the resources, it needed everybody pulling together. With him having that sportscar background, it was a good thing, because he would have known how to play the game in that scenario.

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After success in junior single-seaters and sportscars, Ratzenberger got his F1 break with Simtek

Getting to know the real Ratzenberger

We both lived in Monaco and took the opportunity to train together. We used to go running around the cliffs, where it’s rocky and hilly. That was really the time for us to get to know each other.

As we started to drive the car, we talked about what we felt was needed. He had ideas, I had ideas. The relationship started off really well; we felt like we were working well together and looking forward to the whole season, even though we knew we had a massive task in front of us.

BEYOND THE GRID: David Brabham on growing up as Black Jack’s son, Imola 1994, and the legacy of his family’s team

Roland was entering his first year in F1 and he was buzzing. At 33, he came into it relatively late, so he’d been on a journey and it took a while to get to F1, if it was ever going to happen – sometimes it just doesn’t happen. But he got the opportunity and he worked hard behind the scenes to make it happen.

Regardless of whether it was at the back of the grid, it was still a childhood dream to get into F1, like it was for all of us. He was in his element, so there was an extra buzz around the place.

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Ratzenberger did not qualify on his debut in Brazil but made the cut for the next race in Japan, finishing 11th

The first two rounds were in Brazil and Japan. Roland didn’t make the qualifying cut for the first race, but he did at the second. I finished the first race, which was a massive achievement in itself, just having a car that got to the finish.

We were starting to build momentum, starting to build data and information about the car, because we didn’t have the budget to go testing. We never had any spare cars or anything like that, which teams at the front had, meaning all our testing was done at the races, so the more laps we did the more we learned.

READ MORE: From the Stewarts to the Schumachers: The brothers who raced in F1

A tragic Imola weekend unfolds

We headed to Imola with a lot more knowledge about the car and some of the changes we’d made. We were excited to go there.

Roland was feeling more comfortable in the car, but he was struggling a little bit with the brakes. On the Friday, I actually drove his car.

The team asked me to try it for a couple of laps, saying, ‘You’re the one with the experience of carbon brakes, can you just see whether or not what Roland’s saying is accurate?’. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll jump in’, so I jumped in, did like three laps, came in and commented, ‘These brakes are s**t, you’ve got to change them’.

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Imola would mark Ratzenberger’s third and final F1 weekend in a life and career tragically cut short

Roland was delighted to hear what I said and thanked me for it. I just told the truth – that the brakes were not working. As soon as we got to Saturday, he was feeling much more comfortable with the car, which was great. He was much closer to me – we were neck and neck – and it was how it should have been, to be fair. Then we went into qualifying.

I was out on track and saw some parts on the road, some bodywork, and it was the same colour as my car. I knew then that it was Roland.

READ MORE: Imola ’94 and the lasting safety legacy

As I’ve gone around the corner, seen him and seen the car… it’s a very vivid moment in my memory, and one that I can still see as clear as day. For me, I was looking at someone who wasn’t there anymore.

I went back to the pits and, of course, everybody’s in a state of panic. I drove past the car, so they were all asking me, ‘What do you think?’. I remember my wife, Lisa, asking me what I thought and I said, ‘I think he’s gone’. There was something about it.

I was out on track and saw some parts on the road, some bodywork, and it was the same colour as my car. I knew then that it was Roland.

David Brabham

Then the announcement came out that he’d gone and that was a massive shock to everybody, not just the team but the whole of F1 – everyone who loves F1. Certainly, I’d never dealt with anything like that before.

Brabham races on in Ratzenberger’s memory

Alongside my wife, who was three or four months pregnant with our son, Sam, I was also supported by the team. At the end of the evening, I had F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and FIA President Max Mosley come into our motorhome, along with our Technical Director, Nick Wirth.

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The decision to race the next day was mine. The team said, ‘No pressure, it’s your decision’. They were happy to run with whatever I felt I could or couldn’t do. At that point you don’t know what to do, to be fair – whether to keep going or to stop.

The first thing I wanted to understand was why did Roland crash? Obviously the front wing came off at high speed, but he did go off the track the lap before. He slowed down and zigzagged across the road to see whether or not he could feel any damage or if anything was wrong. He decided that it was fine, did another lap and didn’t come back.

They reinforced the front wing and Nick, who’s a big guy, was jumping on it, demonstrating that the front wing was not going to come off. There comes a point where you’ve got to trust the people around you and, if you break that trust, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season either.

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A day after Ratzenberger passed, Ayrton Senna would also lose his life in an accident at Imola

I decided that I’d do the warm-up and see how I felt.

There was part of me that thought if I was Roland, I’d be going, ‘Come on David, stop mucking about, you’re a racer, go racing, it’s what we’re here for’. I guess it was a bit of an odd decision for a lot of people that I would race, because a lot of people would just pack up and go home in respect. But I thought respect was the other way around, that we would keep going.

READ MORE: David Tremayne’s memories of Imola 1994

I got out of the car after the warm-up, and we actually did okay – better than we would normally. I think the team put me on empty tanks and everyone else was on full tanks. I just noticed a bit of a lift in the team, that the dark cloud was slightly lifting. I grabbed hold of that and said, ‘I’m going to race… race for the team, and just keep this show going, driving and racing as Roland would want us to’.

More heartache follows for the F1 paddock

Then, Sunday came around, and we also lost Ayrton.

As drivers, we didn’t know that he’d gone until after the race. In fact, it was when we got back from the track that evening, because the news came a bit later. I saw the last bit of the accident as I came around the corner. At first, I thought it was a different car; I saw the blue and thought it was a Tyrrell. It wasn’t until I got back to the pits that they said it was Ayrton.

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Ratzenberger and Senna are still remembered with an array of tributes and messages at Imola

We’d had Rubens Barrichello’s accident in practice, then we had Roland’s accident, then we had a start line accident, then we had a pit lane incident, then we had Senna’s accident… it was just a whirlwind of disasters that you couldn’t wrap your head around.

It was like, what the hell is happening here? It was my first experience of something like this, as it was for a lot of people.

READ MORE: ‘He was walking on water’ – Senna’s magical Donington ‘Lap of the Gods’ remembered by his fellow drivers

Obviously Ayrton going put Roland in the shadows – they were two very different people with different careers and different impacts amongst global fans – but it’s great that people still want to remember him, because he was also part of the fabric of F1 at the time. He was still a driver, still on that grid, and he lost his life doing what he loved.

For me, Roland had a lot of talent. It’s a shame that we never got to see what he was really capable of.

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