This article is from the Formula One Motor Racing FAQ, by firstname.lastname@example.org (Mitchell McCann) with numerous contributions by others.
Formula 1 has become used to seeing drivers walk away from
terrible accidents, as car and track safety standards have
improved. But racing at 200 mph will always be dangerous, and
this was tragically proved over the weekend of the San Marino
Grand Prix in 1994. The events of that weekend are well
documented elsewhere, here are brief details.
In Friday qualifying, Rubens Barrichello lost control of his car
and hit barriers at speed. He was knocked unconscious and rushed
to the medical centre, but regained consciousness with no worse
than a broken nose.
On Saturday, new driver Roland Ratzenberger was attempting to
qualify his Simtek. The team advised that he had damaged the car
following a minor off. However, Roland did not come into the pits
to have the car checked. The front wing came away, Roland lost
control and hurtled into a barrier. His neck was broken and he
died instantly, the first Formula 1 fatality in 12 years.
A saddened field assembled for the race on Sunday. During the
start, JJ Lehto stalled his car and there was a tremendous
startline accident as an unsighted Pedro Lamy ran into him.
Neither driver was hurt, but a wheel was hurled over the safety
fencing into the crowd, injuring three people. The race ran under
the safety car, with Ayrton Senna leading in his Williams, while
the debris was cleared. The safety car peeled off after seven
laps. Passing Tamburello and running second behind Senna, Michael
Schumacher noticed the back of the Williams step out, until Senna
corrected it. On the next lap the Williams did not take the bend
at Tamburello, and crashed at full speed into the concrete wall,
11 metres from the track. The wheels came off (as they are
designed to do), but by a terrible mischance one wheel and its
steering arm hit and penetrated Senna's helmet, and he suffered
massive head injuries. He was airlifted to Bologna hospital and
placed on life-support, but was pronounced dead later that day.
The race was stopped, and restarted, and eventually won by
Michael Schumacher. Gerhard Berger, who had lost a fellow
countryman and a good friend on successive days, retired from the
race shortly afterwards. Erik Comas, who was mistakenly waved out
of the pits following Senna's accident, drove round the track
believing it to be clear until he came to Tamburello and found
the paramedics frantically trying to revive Senna. Understandably
he was too distraught to continue. Finally, a pitlane accident
also injured several mechanics.
Ratzenberger's accident was adjudged to be due to 'driver error',
as he should have come in to have his car checked for safety.
However, the cause of Senna's crash has not been determined.
Under Italian law, Frank Williams, Patrick Head, Roland
Brunseyrade (the race director) and two Imola track officials are
to face manslaughter charges in a trial which was opened, and
adjourned, on February 20th 1997. Theories continue to abound as
to the cause of the crash.
Following the weekend, the following measures were implemented:
- changes to the cars for that season and next
- radical changes to many of the circuits
- Grand Prix drivers association revived
Ayrton Senna was buried at home in Brazil, with full state
honours. When his car was examined, a furled Austrian flag was
found inside. The great Brazilian champion had intended to
dedicate his 42nd victory to Roland Ratzenberger.