1st May 1994: The Blackest Day For Grand Prix Racing

Ayrton Senna portrait

Today marks 26 years since the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was held at Imola in Italy. The event is more infamous for the terrible incidents that marred the weekend than the racing on-track. Formula 1 went over a decade without a fatality at a Grand Prix, but the 1st May 1994 marked the second in as many days.

Countdown to Tragedy

Formula 1 arrived in Europe with a surprise driver second in the championship, Rubens Barrichello in his Jordan. The Brazilian youngster claimed his first podium in the sport at the previous round in Aida after an impressive fourth place at his home race. But in Friday qualifying, Rubens’ good run would come to a violent halt.

Barrichello ran wide at the Variante Bassa and was catapulted to the top of a tyre-barrier at very high speed. This abruptly stopped his car in mid-air and was so brutal that it knocked him unconscious. Thankfully, he escaped with only a broken nose and an injured arm, it could’ve been far worse. Although, this was sadly only the beginning of the weekend’s misfortunes.

Roland Ratzenberger was a rookie driver for the Simtek team, competing in only his third Grand Prix. Saturday’s qualifying, though, would be his last. The Austrian’s front wing would fail at one of the fastest parts of the track, the Villeneuve curva. This would cause him to slam into the wall at almost 200 miles an hour. The medical professionals airlifted him to hospital but a sombre mood loomed over the circuit, with some teams declining to take further part in the session. Ratzenberger succumbed to his injuries later in the day, he was only 33-years-old.

Some drivers even considered not taking part in the following day’s race but the remaining field followed Gerhard Berger’s lead, as he believed that not racing would not help Roland.

1994 San Marino Grand Prix – The Race

“Ayrton got very, very upset and cried a bit and that’s when I said to him; “Ayrton, you’ve been three-times world champion, you’re the fastest man in the world and you like fishing. Why don’t you quit, and I’ll quit and we’ll just go fishing?” He said; “Sid, I can’t quit.” – Prof. Sid Watkins 30th April 1994

Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, the two that many expected to battle it out for the title that year, occupied the front row of the grid. Everybody was hoping and praying for a clean and calm race but disaster struck at the very start. JJ Lehto had stalled his Benetton on the grid and Pedro Lamy slammed into the back of him, which brought out the safety car. Both drivers escaped serious harm, but the spectators weren’t so lucky. Debris flew up in all directions from the crash, such was its ferocity, and injured nine fans in the grand stands.

On Lap 5, the Safety Car pulled into the pits and the race resumed with Senna being chased closely by Schumacher. The next time around, on Lap 6, Senna veered off to the right and hurtled into the wall on the outside of the Tamburello, a high-speed left hander. He made contact at 130mph and the race was stopped. The medical staff were quick onto the scene and Senna was airlifted to Bologna hospital, the third driver to require emergency treatment in as many days.

Erik Comas, the man that Senna ran across the track to save at Spa in 1992, went onto the circuit despite the red flags. He was flagged down by marshals and nobody was hurt but what Comas saw was traumatic enough to cause the Frenchman to withdraw from the race.

Senna’s memory will live on

Some say the power-steering failed, others believe the tyres were too cold after the Safety Car restart and he skated off-track, we will never know. In some ways, the cause isn’t what mattered, what matters is that we lost two lives and one of those was one of, if not the, greatest driver of all time. His philosophical quotes, unbelievable speed and incredible humanity will echo in our lives for eternity.

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