Sunday, 4 May 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Imola 1994, 20 years on

The tragic weekend of the 1994 San Marino GP at Imola saw the
deaths of Ayrton Senna (left) and Roland Ratzenberger (right).
Photo: Getty Images (via IBN Live webpage)
Taking place from 29th April-1st May 1994, the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, one of the darkest race weekends in the sport's history, is a possible entry for both April and May in this hitherto monthly series of retrospectives. If I'm being strict about this, this will probably be treated as the April one, despite me only getting round to writing it in early May, but in reality it can be seen simply as a retrospective which is not attributed to a specific month. This is particularly so given that in so many ways it is the most significant race that has taken place during my lifetime.

I was only four years old when the paddock pitched up at Imola for the first European race of the 1994 Formula One season. My memories of the race are (very) limited, but I do have a hazy recollection of me going hyperactive early on in the race - round about the time when Ayrton Senna had his critical accident exiting the Tamburello corner - and my Dad telling me sternly to keep quiet, him naturally recognising the severity of the accident far more acutely than I did, and me - slightly confused - consequently retreating upstairs. For some time afterwards (though I can't recall how long exactly), my parents initially would tell me that Senna was "in hospital", because they were understandably cautious about introducing death too suddenly in case it alarmed me too much. However, to make a wider point, what made the weekend such a transformative event in the sport's history was arguably how it alarmed the public as a whole.

Before the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix there had been almost twelve years since the last death at a Grand Prix - Riccardo Paletti at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix. Although Elio de Angelis had been killed in testing in 1986, this was otherwise an unprecedented era of safety in Formula 1, during a period where the sport grew rapidly due to expanding television coverage and exciting sporting rivalries and personalities (which included Senna, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell). Thus, when Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying for the San Marino race on Saturday, and followed the next day by Senna - the biggest name in the sport - on the Sunday, a much wider audience had been exposed to the horror of a Grand Prix driver being killed at a race track then was the case in 1982 (a season during which Gilles Villeneuve had also died in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix earlier in the season), let alone earlier when other big personalities and world champions in the sport were killed at the wheel (e.g. Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt). My Dad, for example, got into the sport in 1980 and was still new to the sport when Villeneuve and Paletti had died in '82, but many other fans hadn't even known that event. While efforts to make the sport safer had been ongoing since the late 1960s, the feeling that it simply wasn't right that someone should die doing what they loved was reinforced more powerfully than ever after Imola '94, and promptly led to a raft of changes and procedures which were to take the safety of the sport to the next level. This was a multi-level initiative, encompassing car design (e.g. stronger wheel tethers - Senna's death was caused on impact by the suspension arm coming back and piercing through his helmet - and greater cockpit protection); track design - not just at Imola, which was re-designed post-1994 (e.g. longer, tarmac run-offs; moving away from metal barriers to tyre walls or more sophisticated TecPro barriers); and improvement of medical procedures at the racetrack when an accident happened (e.g. ensuring injured personnel could get medical attention within seconds, something long-time F1 medical delegate Professor Sid Watkins had been working tirelessly on since he came to the sport in the late 1970s). Although his micro-management of the sport in the later years of his Presidency would grate with many fans, FIA President Max Mosley deserves huge credit for driving these changes, and for helping initiate this next cultural shift in the sport. In fact, it is sad that Mosley and Sir Jackie Stewart have such poor relations, because both of them have done so much to improve safety in F1, Stewart having initiated the first wave of changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even against some of the wishes of his peers.

Since that dark weekend at Imola we haven't seen a (racing driver) death at a Grand Prix in 20 years, a truly staggering achievement. Moreover, we have seen drivers emerge unscathed from huge accidents, including Jenson Button's at Monaco a decade or so ago (2003), and Robert Kubica's horror shunt at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. It has meant that younger fans of the sport have been able to experience Grand Prix racing and its joys without having been exposed to some of its potential horrors. However, as Felipe Massa's narrow escape in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix reminded us, motor racing - like anything - will never be truly safe.

Naturally, the fact that it was Ayrton Senna that died was one of the things that sent shockwaves through the watching world. Senna was the biggest name in the sport at the time, a truly superb driver and a popular and charismatic figure away from the track. In a sense, this is another of Imola 1994's legacies. Senna would undoubtedly have been remembered as a legend of the sport even had he still been alive today, and his huge rivalry with Prost will remain as one of sport's most intense. However, the premature and truly tragic nature of Senna's death has, in my view, elevated his legendary status to still higher levels. As Richard Williams, a British journalist who wrote The Death of Ayrton Senna a few years ago, recently wrote in F1 Racing magazine, every modern-day protagonist of the sport will always be compared to Senna:
Sometimes it seems as if he is the 23rd driver on the grid of every single Grand Prix: not just the champion who set the standard against which all aspirants must measure themselves in terms of basic virtuosity, inherent charisma and focused ambition, but the man whose terrible fate...acts as a permanent evocation of Formula 1's death-or-glory appeal, long after that image has ceased to possess very much factual justification.
Focusing on the "setting the standard" side of Williams' point, it must be said that in many respects there is nothing inherently wrong with this; Senna was arguably the fastest driver to ever sit behind the wheel of an F1 car, drove some truly great races, was highly competitive and had an emotive, other-worldly charisma about him off the track that drew fans to him. Let's not forget too, the Senna Foundation - which he was in the process of setting up when he had his tragic accident but which continues to carry his legacy thanks to the tireless work of his sister Viviane and her team at the foundation. However, I for one am always naturally cautious against excessive lionisation of any individual. No-one is perfect in this world and Senna too was not averse to controversial tactics in wheel-to-wheel combat, not least when he drove into Prost at high speed at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. Yes, Senna had justifiable criticisms about some of the background to that accident and, yes, in terms of their rivalry Prost too was not averse to controversial action (think the same GP a year earlier, when Prost seemed to turn into Senna at the chicane, though again there are nuances to this debate). However, the point to be made is that it is important that, despite Senna's mystique and charisma, an objective discussion about the Brazilian's career as a driver is not all-white, but most also contain shades of grey, just as would be the case for his peers and for other F1 greats (including the current crop of aspiring F1 greats).

Williams' F1 Racing article came as part of a Senna-Imola 1994 special which contained three articles on the Brazilian, but nothing on the other driver who perished that weekend - Roland Ratzenberger. The Austrian was driving for the fledgling Simtek team in his first F1 season and had already finished 11th at the Pacific Grand Prix that season when he suffered a huge accident at the Tosa corner in qualifying, from which he suffered a fatal skull fracture. It is important that Roland is not forgotten when the F1 world comes together, every year or landmark year, to remember Imola '94 and I have been heartened to see that, nearer to the event, coverage has also featured him. Although always a hard-working and popular driver while coming through the ranks, he was unlikely to ever achieve Senna's level of success, or his global popularity, of course. However, the fundamental elements at play here - of a human being dying doing a profession that they loved - also ring true here. Moreover, here was a guy who changed his date of birth (from 4th July 1960 to the same date two years later) during his motorsport career because, as a fairly late starter, he feared his age might prevent him from realising his lifelong dream of racing in Formula 1. This, too, was a terribly sad tragedy.

If anything there was something eerie about the whole weekend. Before Ratzenberger's crash, Rubens Barrichello was seriously injured at the Variante Bassa corner in a high-speed crash. And on race day itself, there were two further accidents; at the start, Pedro Lamy crashed into the stalled Benetton of JJ Lehto and a wheel went into the crowd (luckily no-one was seriously injured), whilst later in the race a wheel fell off Michele Alboreto's Minardi as he exited the pits, injuring two mechanics. In the aftermath, three-times world champion Niki Lauda summarised the weekend's events concisely: "For 12 years, God had his hand on F1. This weekend, he took it off." Perhaps it is best to finish with comments from motorcycle legend Valentino Rossi. In his autobiography, talking about a tragic motorcycling weekend at Suzuka in 2003 (where former 250cc champion Daijiro Kato was killed), he echoed Lauda's comment and elaborated on it:
"That's why Kato's accident, in my opinion, was so significant. I see it as a warning, which goes something like this: 'you're awash with money...improved motorbikes, everything grows, fans go wild, but now this is the bill...please come back down to Earth and restore some sanity to the sport.'" 
The tragedy of Imola 1994 - the fatalities and the near-misses in front of a shocked watching world - was indeed that stark warning for F1 and indeed motor racing as a whole. As described above, sanity was subsequently restored to the sport on the safety front - where it had perhaps started to lag in the years immediately preceding it. Hopefully, for F1, a position of insanity will never be reached again. As Rossi also concedes, and as we have seen since 1994 with some of the examples mentioned earlier, 'accidents can and will happen' but, if there must be another fatality in F1 in future, it must not be through complacency on the safety front of those who administer and run the sport, however impressive the improvements have been since 1994 so far.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely brilliant piece of retrospective writing done with the right mixture of kind humanity and practical dissection.