25 years ago Formula One witnessed one of its darkest weekends ever with the death of two drivers at the San Marino Grand Prix, one of which is still considered by many to be the greatest driver there ever was.
Motor racing lost one of its most iconic characters in tragic circumstances on May 1st 1994 as Ayrton Senna passed away after a sickening crash at the Tamburello corner at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola; just 24 hours after the death of another young driver, Roland Ratzenberger, who was killed at the same track.
To begin a truly tragic weekend the Austrian’s damaged Simtek left the track at 190mph at the Villeneuve Corner and smashed into a concrete wall during qualifying causing a fatal skull fracture, while Rubens Barrichello also escaped unharmed from a huge crash on the Friday in a stark warning of what was to come.
Ironically, Senna was one of the most vociferous campaigners for driver safety in F1 and was understandably upset by both incidents – he was reportedly one of the first on the scene following Barrichello’s accident as he regained consciousness in the medical centre and, following Ratzenberger’s crash, was one of the first to arrive as the young driver was taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
Clearly shaken by the events of the weekend after being told of Ratzenberger’s demise, F1’s medical chief Sid Watkins even tried to convince the Brazilian not to take part in the race and apparently told the Brazilian: “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.”
But ever the competitor, and despite his concerns over safety at the track, Senna decided to race-on and eventually lined up first on the grid, ahead of the Benetton of Michael Schumacher in what was to be the last race of his life.
Following another accident involving Pedro Lamy, who ploughed into the back of the stalled Benetton of JJ Lehto, the race eventually restarted with Senna maintaining his lead over Schumacher; but just one lap later he exited track at Tamburello; careering into a concrete wall at approximately 130 mph to the horror of millions watching around the world.
His Williams was all but demolished, with the right side of the car almost completely ripped away and having suffered from multiple head injuries Senna was transferred by helicopter to hospital as the race continued with many oblivious to the extent of his injuries.
Senna was eventually confirmed dead later that evening and marshals inspecting the wreckage of his car after the crash discovered an Austrian flag in the cockpit that Senna had carried with him, intending to tribute Ratzenberger as he crossed the line – which, of course, he never did.
Michael Schumacher eventually won the race but nobody really cared. There were no podium celebrations and no champagne was sprayed as drivers and spectators digested the awful news. “It’s not a good feeling, I can’t feel happy,” said Schumacher after the race. “What happened this weekend, things like this shouldn’t happen without taking the experience from it.”
Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were the first F1 drivers to lose their lives at an event in some 12 years and in the quarter-of-a-century since, only one driver – Jules Bianchi – has died as a result of injuries suffered during an F1 event.
However tragic and untimely the deaths of these two drivers was, if nothing else, their passing was a catalyst for greater safety improvements in the sport which continue to be developed to this day; meaning their death was not in vain.