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Formula One's darkest weekend: Imola 1994 Revisited

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Sunlight bathes the Italian countryside on a calm Saturday afternoon. Crowds pile into the packed grandstands, mechanics awash with anticipation. An engine roar can be heard, Qualifying for the Third round of the 1994 Formula One World Championship at Imola had roared into life. 

Just under an hour later, medical officials surround a blue and yellow MTV Simtek Ford Formula One machine. The events of Formula One’s darkest weekend had begun.

Although an extreme talent in Sports cars, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was taking place in only his third Formula One grand prix when disaster struck.

Flying through the fast left hander at Tamburello, pieces of debris can be seen flying off the Simtek Ford that the popular Austrian was at the wheel of. Just ten seconds later, unable to stop, Ratzenberger makes contact with the concrete wall at the Tosa Hairpin at around 195mph, fracturing his skull and causing severe head injuries.

Despite attempts to revive Ratzenberger – broadcast live on International television on that Saturday afternoon – by the on-track medical team, led by F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins, the Austrian died later on that evening in a local hospital. It was the first death at a Formula One event since Ricardo Paletti in 1982.

Sunday morning at Imola was a sombre mood. Ratzenberger’s team-mate David Brabham took the decision to race for the memory of his team-mate and lined up at the start at 14:00 local time for what was to be the first European race of the season.

As the lights went out, the Williams of three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna led away, with Championship leader Michael Schumacher close behind.

Chaos raged behind as Pedro Lamy slammed into the back of JJ Lehto, who had stalled on the grid. Debris littered the circuit, landing in a spectator enclosure situated opposite the start line. The safety car was promptly called.

Just a few laps later the safety car peeled off into the pitlane, releasing the Williams of Ayrton Senna to begin lap six of the San Marino Grand Prix. A lap that would be the popular Brazilians last in Formula One.

Approaching the first left-hander at Tamburello Corner on the next lap, Senna’s Williams veers off-line, slamming into the outside concrete barrier at around 190mph. Despite doctor Sid Watkins efforts to save his friend, the three-time World Champion was pronounced dead at the Maggiore Hospital in Bologna just a few hours later.

The world was stunned. 12 years had passed since a fatality in the sport, in the space of two days, two of motorsports greatest talents had been lost.

The high-speed crash of Karl Wendlinger during Practice for the Monaco Grand Prix just two weeks later – an incident which left the Austrian in a coma for several weeks – sparked a social change to the sport unrivalled in recent times.

Safety in the sport was improved instantaneously, with further improvements made to the survival cell and cockpit of the vehicles, circuit layouts modified to safer speeds and a new pit-lane speed limit introduced to slow cars in the pitlane.

The Imola weekend was a shock that no one had expected or was prepared for. However, its legacy has saved the lives of many a Grand Prix driver in past two decades, making Formula One the relatively safe sport it is today.

Roland and Ayrton would be proud.

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