Remembering Roland: A tribute to Roland Ratzenberger 30 years on from his tragic passing at the F1 San Marino GP

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It’s the same thing every year: the 1st of May is around the corner and everyone is reminiscing about Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian triple world champion passed away after a crash in the seventh lap of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Exactly 30 years ago.

Legend has it that the São Paulo-born racer took an Austrian flag into the cockpit, to honour the driver that passed away the day prior during his victory lap. A driver that, for most of the media, is nothing more than a footnote in the Senna story, and for whom an obligatory black-and-white photo on the 30th of April should be sufficient honour.

And I understand other media outlets. With 161 Grands Prix, 63 poles, 41 victories and three world titles there is much more interest in the death of Senna than in that of a driver whose stats didn’t surpass an 11th place in Aida, a DNQ in Interlagos and a, quite macabre, DNS in Imola, all achieved while driving for sympathetic backmarkers Simtek.

The driver’s name was Roland Ratzenberger. He crashed so violently during qualifying that he suffered no less than three separate lethal injuries. A crash which, even more than those of Barrichello and Senna, exposed the weaknesses in the safety measures of Formula 1 back then. And it’s that crash that is often dismissed with a simple mention under “other proceedings”.

If you start looking for more background on the person it becomes abundantly clear how most Formula 1 journalists deem Ratzenberger irrelevant. There are few articles about the man himself, let alone about what he did prior to Formula 1. What did he do at Walter Lechner’s racing school? Why was his grandmother the one to take him to his first hill climb? Why was it that the son of a simple clerk got bitten by the racing bug? Questions that are unfortunately not that easy to answer.

Of course, Ratzenberger wasn’t a prodigy, not a generational talent like Senna before him or Lewis Hamilton after him. But he was someone with a goal in mind. A goal which he accomplished after carefully climbing all those little steps on the motorsport ladder. And that is an achievement that cannot be underestimated. He had no filthy rich dad, no extraordinary amount of talent, but he had a working ethic which many drivers could, or rather should, take example from.

I was almost 9 when Ratzenberger went straight on in the Villeneuve kink, and probably roaming around on some football pitch somewhere, so I have never seen him race, let alone been aware of his existence.

But what I read, and also saw in the documentary that has launched on YouTube recently, painted a picture of the Austrian as a hard working person, a trustworthy friend and an all-round good guy. And frankly, those are characteristics that should make him more admirable than accidentally being gifted with a decent right foot.

Requiescat in pace Roland.