That Weekend

Three days of tragedy. Two drivers made the ultimate sacrifice and one had the luck of his life in escaping with minor injuries. The 1994 San Marino GP was to never be forgotten, but for the very worst reason.

Friday started like any other, but it was soon to be disturbed. During the the first qualifying session, Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan touched the kerb wrongly at the Variante Bassa corner and the car took off from the road surface at 140mph. Skimming the top of the barrier and rolling multiple times, the driver was momentarily unconscious before race marshalls came to his aid. Talking some years later, he said of how his boyhood hero Ayrton Senna had visited him in hospital with sadness:

“I remember exactly the moment before I touched the barrier, waiting for the crash, and then everything went into darkness. The next thing I knew I was in the Medical Center with Senna there. He was the first person to visit me in hospital, he had tears in his eyes like the accident had been his own. I had never seen that before.”

Senna himself, followed by cameras following his return to the track, had not been himself after his friend’s crash:

“I don’t feel that I ever drove the car properly. After the accident of Rubens I wasn’t driving well – not consistent. It was just myself not being able to concentrate.”

It had caught the attention of all those watching, there had been a very lucky escape. With a broken nose and his arm in plaster case, the Brazilian was forced to sit out the rest of the race weekend.

Accidents happen when racing at high speed and it was assumed that this was it and the rest of race meeting and the next two days would go as normal.

Less than twenty minutes into Saturday’s qualifying session, the car of young Austrian Roland Ratzenberger had its front wing damaged, but instead of opting to come into the pits to fix it, he stayed out to do another lap. On that following attempt, he  left the track at 200mph heading into the Villenueve corner, spearing into the wall. It was at strong force and the result of the crash was every bit as fierce as the incident itself. As his body lay slumped in the cockpit of the blue Simtek car, there could only be one outcome. Ratzenberger became the first driver to die during a race weekend since Riccardo Paletti at the 1982 Canadian GP. It was only his third race weekend in Formula One.

Professor Sid Watkins, the medical doctor in Formula One for twenty six years, said that Ratzenberger’s death had an impact upon Senna, who had seen his friend Rubens Barrichello crash heavily only the day before:

“He had never faced the reality of his profession before so starkly. He was always fatalistic about death. He was a religious man and intelligent enough to think it through. This was the first time it had come so close. He was very quiet, but he remained resolute.

’It was the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting for a dozen years, and for most of the drivers, of course, it was the first time they had had to confront the situation,’ said Watkins. ’Even allowing for that, I judged Ayrton’s reaction to it abnormal. I told him I didn’t think he should race the next day – and that he should think very seriously about racing again – ever.”

Senna had been the first man on the scene for accidents before. The violent accidents of Martin Donnelly and Eric Comas had caused him to get out of his car and rush to the injured driver’s aid. He had a sense for compassion which was in contrast to the reckless nature in which he conducted himself at times on the track, with him driving straight into Alain Prost at the 1990. It was at this particular weekend where he appeared to be different, and as Watkins said, the events at the time were looking to have an effect on him.

Ayrton was to begin the race on Sunday from pole to make it three pole positions from three races. He had yet to get off the scoreboard in a season where the first two races had been won by his young rival, Michael Schumacher. The Brazilian had retired from both of the previous events but had said prior to Sunday that here was where the season would really begin.

As the race began, Senna got away well to keep his lead into the first corner. Further back in the field, JJ Lehto’s Benneton car had failed and consequently failed to get away from the starting grid. Pedro Lamy’s view of the motionless car had been blocked by cars started between the two and Lamy hit the stationary car. Pieces of bodywork flew into the air and over the fencing which separated the crowd from the track. Spectators were injured and it seemed no one was to be safe from this grim weekend. The Safety Car was delployed, bring the field to a comparatively-crawling pace. After a few laps of touring, it pulled into the pits and racing at regular speed was resumed. Professor Sid Watkins was feeling uneasy about what might unfold:

’When they released the cars, Ayrton went by my medical car (parked at the chicane, before the pit straight) like a bat out of hell,’ said Watkins. ’I’m not given to premonitions, but when he came past me, I said to Mario Casoni, my driver, “I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a f****** awful accident…” I’d never had it before, and I never have since. I’m normally useless at predicting anything. But when we got the message that the race had been red-flagged, somehow I just knew it was Senna.

Schumacher was behind him, and he backed off a bit, because he was worried about how nervous Ayrton’s car looked. He said it was like a stone skimming over water – the trajectory of the car through the corners was jerky, not a Senna trajectory at all.”

On lap seven, the Williams of Ayrton Senna failed to stop as attempts at steering were made in vain. He struck the wall at 130mph. On the surface, it didn’t appear to be a particularly violent accident. If anything, it was the least serious of the weekend, certainly nothing on the scale of Barrichello’s horrific crash two days before. However, looks were to be dreadfully misleading.

The first doctor to attend to Senna, Giuseppe Bezzi, told of what he saw:

“I could tell he was alive but badly injured. He was unconscious and losing a lot of blood. His heart was beating and his blood pressure was a normal reading. But he was very badly injured. We got him out of the car and laid him onto the track. We attempted to resuscitate him with all the normal procedures.”

It was to be of no avail. Senna was airlifted to the Maggiore hospital in Bologna where he was declared dead a few hours later. Following the accident, an Australian flag was found in Senna’s car – he had intended to raise it in honour of his fallen friend Roland Ratzenberger on the podium following the race. It is one of many things which throw an increasingly-doomed sense on a weekend of which the sport has not seen before or since. Ayrton Senna remains the last driver to die in a Formula One car, eighteen years ago, on May 1 1994.

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