It’s hard to believe that it has been 17 years since the legendary Aryton Senna tragically died at Italy’s Imola circuit, on what was dubbed as Formula One’s ‘Black Weekend’. Senna was huge. Idolised by millions around the world, a national hero in his native Brazil, he was also hugely respected (and equally feared) by his peers. He had a talent that was hard to match, and often at times, he even struggled to explain it. I remember reading an interview with Senna following his phenominal qualifying lap at Monaco in 1990, and he described how he felt fear as he completed his lap. He knew he had pushed well beyond his limits, and somehow it just all came together.
But we must also not forget that the loss of Senna over time also greatly overshadowed what else happened at the “Black Weekend”. Friday’s practice session was cut short following a horrific high speed crash involving Senna’s fellow countryman Rubens Barichello. The 140mph crash left him unconscious and visibly shook Senna, how later that day visited him in hospital. Thankfully, Barichello went on to make a full recovery, and incredibly, is still currently competing competitively in Formula One.
Ten years after the incident, Damon Hill, who drove for the Williams team at the time, described the feeling after the crash: “We all brushed ourselves off and carried on qualifying, reassured that our cars were tough as tanks and we could be shaken but not hurt. Then, on Saturday, during qualifying, events turned for the worse. Twenty minutes into the final qualifying session, Roland Ratzenberger failed to negotiate the Villeneuve Curva in his Simtek car, crashing into the opposing concrete retaining wall. He suffered fatal injuries to his head and neck. The session was stopped whilst doctors attended to Ratzenberger. The session was restarted approximately 25 minutes later, but several teams—including Williams and Benetton—took no further part. Later in hospital it was announced that Ratzenberger had died as a result of his multiple injuries.
This had been the first death in the sport since 1982. Professor Sid Watkins, then head of the Formula One on-track medical team, recalled in his memoirs Senna’s reaction to the news, stating that “Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder. Watkins tried to persuade Senna not to race the following day, asking “What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing,” but Ayrton was insistent, saying, “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.” Few could have predicted that less than 24 hours later, Senna, who many considered invincible, would also lose his life.
Everyone remembers where they were when news of Senna’s death rocked the world, but my reason for this post, is that so many more people have long forgotten about Ratzenberger’s passing. A young and talented driver at the very start of his Formula One career. Sadly, it took a weekend like Imola, to radically change the sport, which has now become incredibly safer. As you watch the visual tribute below to Aryton, remember Roland, who also is no longer with us due to following his love of a sport.