1986, Brands Hatch, Kent, England and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger starts on pole for the final of the Formula Ford Festival of Great Britain, Having raced in the German Formula Ford Championship in 1985. Alongside him is Phillipe Favre, Both drivers are using the Van Diemen-Minister RF86 Kent engine formula fords.
Off the line, Roland secures the lead from Favre; they are the clear favourites for the race victory. The battle behind them was between Stephen Robinson and Peter Robertson. It was intense throughout most of the race with more risky moves being taken each lap which allowed Ratzenberger and Favre to increase the lead on the field in a competitive, professional yet respectable battle for the lead.
Ratzenberger would keep calm, whilst being shadowed by Favre’s Van Diemen lap after lap; Favre would attempt to pass, with Ratzenberger maintaining the lead.
On the final lap, It was still Ratzenberger from Favre, the race seemingly belonging to Ratzenberger but on the final corner, a slight slide by Ratzenberger allowed Favre to get alongside, with a drag race to the line between the two. Ratzenberger taking a well deserved victory and becoming Formula Ford Festival champion in 1986.
From here Ratzenberger would go on to the newly formed World Touring Car Championship for the 1987 season with Schnitzer Motorsport’s factory BMW M3’s. World Touring cars was a very different championship for its inaugural and only season in 1987 until the rebirth of the series in 2005.
Races included the Spa 24 hours, The RAC Tourist Trophy and the Bathurst 1000, with endurance the core of the championship. The season opener at Monza was a disaster—not for the fault of the drivers—as all of the works BMW M3’s where disqualified for illegal boot-lids and thin metal roofs, Whilst Ford’s Sierra’s where also disqualified for technical reasons.
It was not the greatest opening to for the start of the new World championship, however come round two at Jarama, Ratzenberger and Ivan Capelli would finish second, behind the sister Schnitzer entry of Emanuele Pirro and Roberto Ravaglia. The season would bring mixed results; eventually taking four podiums finishes throughout the 10-race season.
Whilst racing in WTCC, Ratzenberger was still pursuing his single-seater career with outings in British Formula Three and the Formula Three Euro Series with the double-header weekend at the Nurburgring.
Roland would claim victory in race one, starting from sixth in the Ralt R31- Volkswagen from Eric Chelli and David Coyne. Race two, Roland would finish 2nd to Victor Rosso, although in the final aggregate standings, the weekend went to Ratzenberger and the West Surrey Racing team.
In 1988, Ratzenberger ran a dual campaign containing the RAC British Touring Car Championship alongside his British Formula Three commitments. Success came in the BTCC for Ratzenberger once again in a BMW M3 taking a class B victory at Thruxton for cars between 2001-2500 cc engines. The dominant driver in the class for 1988 was Frank Sytner, Ratzenberger and Sytner had some incredible battles throughout the season, with Godfrey Hall and Mike Smith joining the battles including at Thruxton and Brands Hatch GP.
1989 would be a very diverse year. Ratzenberger would be racing in the All Japan Sports Prototype series in a Toyota 89 C-V alongside an outing at the Le mans 24hr in a Porsche 962C. With Ratzenberger additionally entering various rounds of the DTM and the world sports prototype championship.
For Ratzenberger, The main campaign in 1989 came in the British Formula 3000 series for Spirit motorsport. It was the inaugural season for British Formula 3000 with one-year old Formula 3000 chassis used from Reynard and Lola.
The series in 1989 was dominated by Gary Brabham and Andrew Gilbert-Scott, Roland would win the 50 lap race held at Donington Park for Round 4 of the championship from pole position. Gary Brabham started 2nd for Bromley Motorsport until his Throttle broke 45 laps into the race.
Roland’s Sportscar career would see him race at the Le Mans 24 hours consecutively between 1989 and 1993. His first attempt came in 1989 with Brun Motorsport, driving a Porsche 962C. The race ended prematurely with a tire failure. His second attempt in 1990 yielded another DNF, This time with Toyota Team SARD’s Toyota 90C-V, caused by an engine failure.
1991, luck surely had to change, this time back in a Porsche 962C for Brun alongside British Touring Car driver Will Hoy and Swedish driver Eje Elgh. A head gasket blew, leading to another DNF at Le Mans.
1992 saw new rules at the Le Mans 24, With the 3.5 litre class being introduced. With it Ratzenberger’s luck at the Le mans did too, Finishing 9th overall and second in the C2 class racing for Toyota in the 92C-V alongside Eddie Irvine and once again Eje Elgh.
1993 would prove to be his last race at Le Mans, Finishing 4th overall, with a class victory in C2 for the SARD co ltd entry, in the 93C-V , One place behind the C1 class Toyota TS010.
Roland was also racing primarily in Japan between 1989 and 1993, Claiming victories in the All Japan Sports prototype championship with Toyota Team SARD and Japanese Formula 3000 whilst continuing his successful Tin Top racing career with the Japanese Touring Car Championship. Once again in a BMW M3. Ratzenberger was fast solidifying his position as a highly versatile driver, Age was however not on Ratzenberger’s side, by now he was thirty and it seemed the dream of F1 racing was over.
Max Mosley and Nick Wirth formed Simtek Research in 1989, with a project aim to design BMW’s F1 entry. BMW decided to not enter F1 and therefore the design was sold to Andrea Moda.
When Max Mosley became president of the FIA in 1993 he sold his stake of the team to Nick Wirth. The initial car design for the 1994 debut into Formula one had active suspension concepts integrated within its design.
Active suspension was then banned by the FIA and the team are said to have reverted to an older specification car, which was heavier and far less competitive. None the less, the team entered the 1994 Formula one season with drivers David Brabham and Roland Ratzenberger with the engines from Ford and backing from MTV.
The opening race of the 1994 F1 season in Brazil, the Simtek was uncompetitive, David Brabham qualifying last and Roland failing to qualify, None the less, in the race, Brabham managed to finish 12th with many cars suffering from attrition.
Round two of the championship, The Pacific Grand Prix from the Ti Aida circuit was a slight improvement with both cars qualifying. Ratzenberger would finish eleventh whilst David Brabham would retire from an electronic failure.
Then came Imola 1994, Rubens Barrichello had a huge crash in Friday qualifying, which led to many concerns due to the accident knocking the rookie unconscious. Rubens was relatively ok.
Saturday qualifying arrived and twenty-three minutes into the session, Ratzenberger crashed at the Villeneuve Curve, striking the concrete barrier. Roland was airlifted to hospital but ultimately succumbed to his injuries.
The Austrian had an incredibly diverse motorsport career. The determination to pursue the dreams of motorsport and the success he had throughout the world of motorsport should be how Ratzenberger is remembered today, twenty years after the events of Imola, 1994.