Roland Ratzenberger, born in Salzburg, Austria on 4 July 1960, has dedicated his entire life to various motor sports. He began racing in Formula Ford in 1983, and by 1985 he won both the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships. After his notable success in those championships, Ratzenberger entered the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch where he qualified on pole and finished second during his first start. In 1986 he entered again, this time walking away from it with the crown after defending his position in the race from Philippe Favre and ultimately winning the race, after which he entered the British Formula 3. He spent 2 seasons over there, first with West Surrey Racing (WSR) a team that won the title with Mauricio Gugelmin in 1985 and in 1983 with Ayrton Senna and the second season with Madgwick Motorsport.
Dick Bennetts, the WSR team principal and managing director reflected on Ratzenbergers achievement in Formula Ford Festival and participation in British Formula 3. As he said: “He was no slouch - anyone who wins the Festival is clearly very good. He had a particularly good feel in adverse conditions, so he was very quick in the wet. The highlight of the year was him winning at the Nurburgring in July, which was part of the 1987 F3 Euroseries. He started sixth, but came through to win the first race and finished runner-up in the second, in which he also set the fastest lap. He was so delighted.”
He added: "He didn't have the natural talent of a Senna, a Hakkinen or a Barrichello [WSR took the latter pair to subsequent F3 titles], so he worked that much harder to make things happen. He was a good all-rounder and very adaptable as a driver, but he made it because of that work ethic.”
During his lifetime, Ratzenberger proved himself a versatile driver, and he participated in other categories as well, not only single seaters. He raced in WTCC in 1987, as well as drove in the final rounds of BTCC in 1988.
In 1989 he entered British Formula 3000, series where he finished 3rd overall, as well as he added two races in DTM to his account during that time. 1989 was also the first time he entered legendary Le Mans 24 Hours, an entry to a series that would become a routine visit for him for the next four years. He raced with Brun Motorsport in 1989 and 1991, and with SARD team in 1990, 1992 and 1993. It was in 1993 where he scored his highest Le Mans finish, where he took 5th with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka, in a Toyota 93 C-V.
During 1991 he tested a Lola T91/00 for Dick Simon Racing at Willow Springs. It was also during that year he came very close to his first possibility of driving in F1, where he was close to secure seat with Jordan GP, but Ratzenberger lost a major sponsor which froze the negotiations. Left with thoughts on how to go ahead in his career, Ratzenberger headed to Japan where he took part in Japanese Sports Prototype Championship where he drove with SARD, Japanese Touring Car Championship as well as F3000.
He once again proven his racing passion and versatility after his victory in the Fuji 1000km in 1990. He won Suzuka 1000km the following season in 1991, and he added to his list a podium in the Daytona 24 Hours classic in 1992.
His chance in Formula One finally arrived in 1994, where he signed a 5 race deal with Simtek team run by Nick Wirth, and he partnered David Brabham. The 5 race deal was a result of Ratzenberger not having a budged for a full season of racing in F1.
David Brabham recalls the time he spent with his then teammate. As he said: "We spent some time together early on, training together and also going down to Monaco. The thing about Roland was he was immediately easy to get on with - he was a great guy. For me he was the model racer: fit, good looking, and someone who lived life to the full.”
Brabham added: "He struggled for money - he always had to find it and raise it by himself. He didn't have a silver plate; it was always a personal battle. That was why he'd gone to Japan, because he could make money. He would go wherever he could to drive. He and I had both raced at Le Mans and were now in F1, which was something fairly unique to us really. Reaching F1 had always been his goal though, and he achieved it.”
He got off to a poor start at Interlagos in 1994, where he failed to qualify. He did made the grid for the round two in Japan, one that he finished 11th.
His breakthrough would unfortunately never happen. During the qualifying for San Marino GP at Imola circuit, he damaged his car after he ran wide and off the track. He opted to stay on track, but after approaching the flat-out Villeneuve Corner his front wing failed and he was sent into the barriers at over 300km/h.
Brabham hardly recalls that tragic day. As he said: “There are parts of Imola I can't remember, for obvious reasons,. Like anything in life, you can't fully understand the experience before you actually go through it. It was devastating, there is no other word. I was numb.”
He added: “The whole team was the same; we had a huge black cloud hanging over all of us. In the end I decided to have a go in the warm-up, and felt okay. When I came in, though, I could sense the cloud had lifted ever so slightly, and that prompted the decision to race.”
Just one day after Ratzenberger’s tragic death another one would mortify the audiences around the world - the fatal accident of Ayrton Senna. It has later emerged that the Senna had an Austrian flag in his cockpit, in planned tribute to Ratzenberger.
Although his death a lot of the times gets less attention in the light of the incident on 1st May 1994, it is important to remember Roland Ratzenberger for the true racer he always was.