Through the Archives: Remembering the Tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix

Thirty years after the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola, ATRL’s Sam Yanis recounts one of the darkest race weekends in Formula One history. 

 May 2024 marks 30 years since the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, where Formula One was forever changed. In just one weekend, the sport lost two drivers: Roland Ratzenberger and three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna. 

 

The fatal weekend started with Brazilian driver Rubens Barichello getting into a shocking accident on Friday. His Jordan was thrown into the air after going over a kerb, causing it to hit a tyre barrier at 140 mph while in the air. Barichello was unconscious as the marshalls turned over his upside-down Jordan, which had flipped repeatedly after hitting the barrier. He was airlifted to the hospital and managed to walk away with a broken nose and some bruises, but it would not be the last incident of the weekend. 

Rubens Barichello’s crash in Imola 1994 (Photo via RacingNews365)

On Saturday, the second major crash of the weekend occurred. Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was a rookie in Formula One that year, and he drove for Simtek alongside David Brabham. During qualifying in Imola, his front wing failed after going over a kerb the previous lap. The wing got stuck under the front of his car, causing him to hit a concrete barrier at extreme speeds. 


Roland Ratzenberger died instantly from a basilar skull fracture, making him the first death in Formula One since Riccardo Paletti in 1982.

Roland Ratzenberger (Photo via @F1 on X)

Despite Ratzenberger’s death the day before, the San Marino Grand Prix still took place on Sunday. It was Ayrton Senna’s first season with Williams, and he came to Imola with zero points after a rough start. Senna was in pole position, with the young Michael Schumacher starting second in his Benetton. 

 

On lap seven, Ayrton Senna went straight at the Tamburello corner, hitting a concrete barrier at 190 mph. He died on impact. The drivers were unaware as he was brought to the hospital, though, and the race continued. Michael Schumacher went on to win, but the headlines were dominated by the death of three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna, who was an inspiration to so many.

Ayrton Senna in his Williams (Photo via The Guardian and Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar0)

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend is a dark spot in Formula One history. Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna will never be forgotten, and Senna’s legacy has only grown in these last thirty years. Their lives have also left a lasting impact on safety features in the sport, causing important changes in the cars, circuits, and driver gear. 

 

Drivers around the world and throughout motorsports still consider Ayrton Senna their idol. He’s spoken about every day, and his statue at Imola is surrounded by flags and tributes to him as the people continue to mourn his loss thirty years later.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam is a university student studying English and Italian Studies. Her grandfather turned on F1 while they were watching tv together one day, and she’s been a fan ever since. Although she’s a newer fan, she loves the history of the sport and enjoys watching documentaries and old races. Her favorite driver is Fernando Alonso, and she’s spent many days and nights watching him race in seasons of the past on F1TV. Outside of F1, she’s also a book lover who writes reviews and blog posts about books for other publications.

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