Remembering Imola

Today is the 15th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death at the San Marino Grand Prix. I remember that weekend well – Rubens Barrichello had a serious accident in Friday qualifying and then Roland Ratzenberger died during the Saturday qualifying session, the first death in a race weekend in 13 years.

(As much as I can recall watching it on TV, I’m leaning on Wikipedia and other sources for the details for this post.)

On Friday, April 29 1994, during the first qualifying session, Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan car hit a kerb at Variante Bassa, a corner just before the pits, at 140 mph (225 km/h). The car was launched into the air, hit the top of the tyre barrier; it rolled several times after landing before coming to rest upside down. Barrichello was knocked unconscious and swallowed his tongue. Medical teams treated him at the crash site, and he was taken to the medical centre. He returned to the race meeting the next day, although his broken nose and a plaster cast on his arm forced him to sit out the rest of the race weekend.

The following day, 20 minutes into the Saturday qualifying session, Roland Ratzenberger’s Simtek car failed to turn into the Villeneuve Corner and struck the outside wall at 195mph (315 km/h). (He had damaged the front wing on the previous lap and it broke off on the high speed backstraight, ending up under the car.) Even as the car slid across the grass toward the next corner, Ratzenberger’s head was rolling around. He was airlifted to Bologna hospital, where he was declared dead; the cause was a basal skull fracture.

Ratzenberger was the first driver to die in an F1 car since Elio de Angelis during testing a Brabham at the Paul Ricard circuit in 1986, and the first racing driver to die at a Grand Prix weekend since Riccardo Paletti was killed at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.

Professor Sid Watkins, then head of the Formula One on-track medical team, recalled in his memoirs Ayrton Senna’s reaction to the news, stating that “Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder”. Watkins tried to persuade Senna not to race the following day, asking “What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing”, but Ayrton was insistent, saying, “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.”

Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger rallied the drivers on the Sunday morning and set about reviving the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association; as the most senior driver, Senna offered to take the role of leader in this effort. Even as they sat in their cars, preparing for the formation lap, the drivers were clearly pensive. Senna was on pole, followed by Michael Schumacher, Gerhard Berger and Damon Hill.

The race started and there was a serious accident even before they had all cleared the grid. JJ Lehto’s Benetton had stalled; although the cars immediately behind him went around, Pedro Lamy (in a Lotus) was unsighted and ploughed through the stationary car. The Lotus’ right hand wheels and other wreckage went over the safety fencing, causing minor injuries to nine people.

The incident caused the safety car to be deployed, with all the remaining competitors holding position behind it; as a result of travelling at slower speeds, tyre temperatures dropped. At the drivers’ briefing before the race, Senna and Berger had expressed concern that the safety car did not go fast enough to keep tyre temperatures high.

Once the track was reported clear of debris, the safety car came into the pits and the race restarted. Two laps later, with Ayrton Senna leading Michael Schumacher, Senna’s car left the road at the Tamburello corner, and after slowing from 190 mph (306 km/h) to 131 mph (211 km/h), hit a concrete wall. The Brazilian tried to turn the car in the final moments before hitting the wall but there was no escape.

I remember watching the on-board TV feed from Senna’s car on that lap – the feed would break up at times but it was spectacular to feel how Senna drive the circuit, almost like he was in a go-kart. I still don’t understand why he went off.

The Williams just went straight across the gravel trap, into the wall, ricocheted onto the track and then spun back into the gravel. One wheel rolled across the track in front of Berger’s Ferrari. I remember thinking almost immediately that this was a lot more serious than it looked.

When the car came to rest, Senna was motionless. It seemed to take forever for the medical units to arrive – the track marshals were on scene quite quickly but they waited for qualified medical personnel to attend. I’m not sure if this is where my obsession with marshals’ reaction times came from if it it pre-dated this, but every Grand Prix I watch I’m always aware of how fast (or not) they respond to incidents.

The race was red flagged (suspended) as everyone focused on Senna. Professor Sid Watkins, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and Formula One Safety Delegate and Medical Delegate, head of the Formula One on-track medical team, who performed an on-site tracheotomy on Ayrton Senna, reported:

He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am totally agnostic, I felt his soul depart at that moment.

Apparently track officials found a furled Austrian flag in Senna’s car – a victory flag that he was going to raise in honour of Roland Ratzenberger.

About 10 minutes after Senna’s crash, a miscommunication resulted in Érik Comas leaving the pits lane. Frantic waving by the marshals at Senna’s crash site prevented the Larrousse from risking a collision with the medical helicopter that had landed on the track. Eurosport Commentator John Watson described it as the “most ridiculous incident I ever saw at any time in my life”. [Afterthought: as you’ll see at the end of this post, I just learned that Senna saved Comas’ life a couple of years earlier, so I wonder if this was not a “miscommunication” but rather Comas wanting to check on his friend?]

Ayrton Senna de Silva was airlifted to Bologna hospital, where he was later declared dead. However, back at the circuit, many people were unaware of the extent of Senna’s injuries, so no-one complained that the race was restarted. (I actually don’t remember the race restarting.)

Berger took the lead on the road but Schumacher was still ahead on aggregate time. Schumacher went ahead on lap six of the new race and soon afterwards Berger retired with a rear wheel problem. When Schumacher pitted, Larini led for a while but then Schumacher reasserted himself. The race went on with Schumacher dominant and during the second round of pit stops there was another accident in the pitlane: as he left the pit box, Michele Alboreto’s Minardi lost its rear right wheel, which slammed into mechanics from Ferrari and Lotus, injuring four people.

Michael Schumacher won the race ahead of Nicola Larini and Mika Häkkinen, giving him a maximum 30 points after 3 rounds of the 1994 Formula One season. It was the only podium finish of Larini’s career, and the first of just two occasions when he scored world championship points. At the podium ceremony, out of respect for Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, no champagne was sprayed.

Two hours and 20 minutes after Schumacher crossed the finish line, at 6:40 p.m. local time, Dr. Maria Teresa Fiandri announced that Ayrton Senna had died. The official time of death was given, however, as 2:17 p.m. local time, meaning that Senna had been killed instantly. The cause of death established by an autopsy is that a piece of the car’s suspension pierced his helmet and skull.

To this day, the cause of Senna’s accident has still not been fully determined, with theories ranging from a steering column failure to the car simply bottoming out over the bumps on the Tamburello corner. Many court cases followed immediately afterwards, with Williams being investigated for manslaughter, though the charges were later dropped.

No driver has died on the track at the wheel of a Formula One car since, although two track marshals have lost their lives: one at the 2000 Italian Grand Prix, and the other at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix.

Sources:

While I was looking up facts for this post, I learned that Senna saved Erik Comas’ life in 1992 after Comas had a terrible crash at the Blanchimont corner (at the Spa circuit) during qualifying. Senna jumped from his car, ran over to Comas, shut down his engine and held Comas’ head in a stable position until the doctors arrived. Maybe that’s why Comas left the pits despite the red flags, so he could see how Senna was? [video]