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Remembering Ratzenberger

April 22, 2004 21:13 IST

Walk around the Imola circuit to Tamburello corner on a sunny April morning and there is nothing to jog the memory that this was where Ayrton Senna died a decade ago.

One could stroll past without noticing.

Roland Ratzenberger of Austria is stretchered away to a helicopter after he crashed during practice for the San Marino Grand PrixBut clamber over the tyre wall and through an aperture in the wire mesh fence and there is no forgetting -- the bunches of faded flowers, the framed photographs, a bronze plaque and graffiti spanning 10 years of grief.

"In a black and white world, you brought colour to our days," reads one. "I would willingly give my heart for yours to beat again," declares another.

"Against this wall your life was taken away, against this wall our dreams were ended." A scrawl points the finger of blame -- "Williams Assassini".

And slightly further away there is another, the surname mis-spelt but equally heartfelt: "Ratzemberger. They have all forgotten you but I have not."

Formula One is paying homage to its fallen heroes at the San Marino Grand Prix this weekend on the 10th anniversary of the deaths of three times champion Senna and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger.

The Brazilian, charismatic and controversial, is the name that everyone remembers after an accident that sent a shockwave around the world and took away one of the greatest drivers to grace a racetrack.

Ratzenberger, desperately trying to qualify for only the second Grand Prix of his career, has become something of a forgotten man outside the immediate confines of Formula One.

PASSIONATE RACER

Senna's loss was felt even by strangers with little more than a passing interest in the sport. Ratzenberger had none of the fame but all to offer.

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He was a racer with a passion for motorsport, funding his early efforts by working as a mechanic before he won the Formula Ford festival at Brands Hatch in 1986 against the likes of Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine.

"The sad thing was that the Formula One world didn't get to know him," Nick Wirth, his former Simtek team boss, told Autosport magazine years later.

"What level he would have reached I wouldn't like to say but I don't think it's important really. His dream was F1.

"He'd be top of the list if you were going out for a drink," he added. "He had a lot of self confidence but not in a nasty way. He wasn't conceited, he wasn't arrogant. he was just a great, great guy."

Max Mosley, president of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), has similar recollections.

"He was forgotten but actually I went to his funeral rather than Senna's because everybody went to Senna's and I thought it was important that somebody went to his," he told Reuters.

"He was a really excellent person.

"And the other thing that was so admirable was the way his family, who were obviously distraught, completely accepted that was what he liked to do and wanted to do and they weren't going around trying to blame anyone."

Ratzenberger's death, the first in Formula One for 12 years, came in the Saturday qualifying session when his Simtek ploughed into the wall at the right-handed Gilles Villeneuve sweep into Tosa at around 300kph.

Earlier he had gone off the track at Acqua Minerale, damaging the front wing. Instead of coming into the pits, apparently satisfied that all was well, he pressed on with catastrophic consequences.

His death deeply affected Senna, whose own fatal crash the following day eclipsed everything. The Brazilian commandeered a course car and turned up at the scene of the accident.

"Ayrton was beside himself," recalled Formula One chief medical officer Sid Watkins in his book 'Life at the Limit'. "He had not been close to death at a circuit before...Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder."

By Sunday evening questions were being asked as to whether the race should have been stopped, with Brazilians blaming Formula One supremo Ecclestone and Mosley's FIA.

"There is absolutely no question the race should have been stopped out of respect," Senna's former rival and television commentator Martin Brundle told the Times newspaper this week.

"Yet until this moment I've never even thought whether the race should have begun at all after Roland Ratzenberger's death in qualifying the previous day.

"For me that was just different. Qualifying had finished when we learnt that Ratzenberger had died. It wasn't during the race. We weren't all waiting for the restart and being told the guy's all right when he's not.

"Anyway, let's not beat about the bush. It was Senna. That's not to minimise Ratzenberger's life.

"It's an interesting point. Should we have abandoned the whole weekend for Ratzenberger? Yes, we should have. And I suppose if we had, Senna would not have died."

Alan Baldwin
Source:
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