I was 22 and living at home with my Dad. I had been following F1 since the age of 10 and Williams was MY team.
Williams we’re having a tough start to the season. Off the back of a very successful few years, the beginning of 1994 was proving tough for the team. There was much pre-season hype, the arrival of Rothmans as title sponsor and Ayrton Senna joining Damon Hill, meant that the team had a lot to live up to.
The first two rounds of the championship in Brazil and Japan had not delivered what everyone had hoped and Ayrton in particular was finding it tricky adapting to the Williams-Renault FW16.
Friday 29 March 1994
The european leg of the F1 season began with the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. As I headed off to work that morning, the Formula 1 circus began its usual timetable of events.
Back in 1994 the Internet was very limited, there was no Autosport.com or Twitter and therefore F1 updates were only possible via Teletext (good old page 360!) and the radio, TV and newspapers. We were very lucky and had access to cable TV, and therefore Eurosport who were broadcasting F1 practice and qualifying (something that you take for granted now but at the time was unheard of).
Returning from work that evening, I remember the BBC news showing Rubens Barrichello’s accident from earlier in the day and it sounded unlikely that Rubens would be allowed to race on Sunday. Although a hefty impact, the accident didn’t really register as anything unusual. Accidents happened all the time in F1 and people recovered and got on with it.
I can remember my Dad showing me the Sunday papers back in 1982 when Gilles Villeneuve had died but that was a very distant memory that Friday evening and not one that came anywhere near the front of my mind.
That particular weekend was May Bank Holiday and unusually for the UK the weather forecast was for warm sunshine. My Girlfriend and I went out that evening and not a thought was given to events at Imola.
Saturday 30 March 1994
I had stayed over at my Girlfriend’s the previous night and drove her to work that morning before returning home in good time to watch Eurosport’s coverage of qualifying.
It was a warm day, my Dad was out and I had the back door open for some fresh air. I sat down at the computer to do some work while John Watson and Allard Kalff provided the F1 commentary in the background.
I can’t remember how far into the session it was but suddenly the cameras showed Roland Ratzenberger’s shattered Simtek. It was obviously a very serious incident.
I’m not sure how long it took for the full extent of the news to filter through. I certainly remember that news of Roland’s death was public before I left home to pick my Girlfriend up from work because I left my Dad a note saying that Formula One’s 12 year safety record had sadly come to an end.
Sunday 1 May 1994
Events in Imola the day before had transformed this race weekend. It was never going to be just another Grand Prix. News coverage was already higher and it just so happened that this weekend was to be the first that BBC Grand Prix brought their own pit lane camera crew.
The UK continued to be bathed in glorious sunshine as I sat down with my Dad to watch the race. This was something we had done together hundreds of times before but today….. it was always going to be different.
The beginning of the race was chaotic with the start line incident between Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto but then we settled down to watch the race unfold as the safety car pulled in.
Tamburello – I can still recall watching Gerhard Berger go off in 1989 and shouting at the screen “get him out” as the flames erupted around him and the marshals seemed to take an age to reach him. Thankfully Gerhard recovered and that nightmare was consigned to history. If only that accident and that of Nelson Piquet in 1987, were taken as a warning. Life is full of if onlys.
Lap 7, safety car is in, track is green and Ayrton is in the lead closely followed by the Benetton of Michael Schumacher. As we all know, Ayrton never made the left hander at Tamburello, spearing off into the concrete wall separating the track from the river beyond.
The room fell silent. No noise of screeching V10s, limited muted commentary from Murray and Jonathan Palmer, and silence between me and my Dad.
Thankfully when the enormity of the accident became apparent, the BBC gave up showing Bernie’s world feed and instead switched to their own camera crew.
Ayrton was airlifted to hospital and eventually the race was restarted. I can remember nothing of it and as soon as it was over, I left to spend the remainder of the afternoon with my Girlfriend as agreed.
I cannot for the life of me remember where we went that afternoon, what we did or what was said. What I do remember very distinctly however was returning home with her that evening. Dad was sitting in his armchair watching TV as we arrived, I uttered one word to him “Ayrton?” and he just replied with a shake of his head.
Ayrton Senna, the Brazillian with the distinctive yellow helmet, who we battled against for so many years while he drove for Lotus and McLaren had died – in a Williams.
The rest of that day is blank.
Bank Holiday Monday, I sat down at my Girlfriend’s house reading the morning newspaper. I still have that copy up in the loft together with that week’s copy of Autosport, it’s black headline “Death at Imola”.
Two comments stick in my mind. The first from Niki Lauda saying “God has had his hand over Formula One for a long time. This weekend, he took it away”.
The second I cannot remember where I read it or who it was attributed to, but was regarding the McLaren and Williams teams departing from Bolonga airport and was along the following lines “McLaren had trusted Williams with their priceless vase and they had dropped it”. That summed up perfectly how I felt.
Monaco was next up, after Ayrton’s funeral. Williams entered only a single car for Damon (as did Simtek). Qualifying destroyed any sense of F1 attempting to get back to normal with Karl Wendlinger’s dreadful crash at the exit from the tunnel.
Barichello, Ratzenberger, Senna and now Wendlinger. It seemed that it was impossible for an F1 car to take to the track without something dreadful happening.
The drivers gathered on the pole spot before the start of the race for a minute silence for Roland and Ayrton. The photographs of this are frequently shown but I remain amazed at their strength to do this just moments prior to a race. Many of them had never witnessed such tragedy first hand.
At the next race, the Spanish Grand Prix, Damon was joined by David Coulthard in the second car. Damon’s victory there for Williams will always be one of my favourites, bringing some light to the team during a very dark period just as his father had done with Lotus after the death of Jim Clark.
A print of Damon winning in Spain hangs on my wall at home with the title “Winning for Ayrton”.
20 years have now passed since those dreadful events, my Girlfriend is now my Wife and I’m the Dad sitting down to watch the races, yet that weekend still seems as painful and fresh to me as ever. Thankfully, despite fatalities in other categories of motor sport, F1 has remained clear. For that I am very thankful to the work of Professor Sid Watkins (who really should have received a Knighthood).
I did consider F1 to be in safe hands with Sid successfully handing over the reins to Gary Hartstein, but with his ‘departure’ in 2012 I am no longer convinced. Jean Todt – If you are listening, do not rely on luck, invest in science and research and listen to the experts. Show F1 for what it should be, a shining example of motor sport safety for all other categories and sports to emulate.
RIP Roland & Ayrton #AlwaysRemembered