The Darkest weekend of F1 – Imola 1994

It was 1994 and the F1 season had taken everyone to Imola. However this wasn’t going to be just another race weekend. Within this one weekend the world of F1 was going to be changed forever.

Safety has always been a concern in F1. This can be seen by not only the development of the cars and tracks but the head wear too. Back in 1950 when Giueseppe Farina won the first ever Grand Prix, The drivers would literally put on a pair of goggles before getting in the car. Yet fast forward just a matter of years and you would see drivers with helmets instead. Then we fast forward to the 1994 Grand Prix. What happened in just this one weekend alone would remind people how dangerous Formula 1 is, and how things needed to change.

The 1994 season had arguably the most legendary drivers of history. Not only that but there had been no fatal incidents since Elio de Angelis died while testing the Brabham BT55 in 1986. So it seemed things had progressed well and everyone thought F1 was as safe as it could be. However, in one weekend at Imola everyone would realise that things weren’t quite as safe as they should be. Later after this weekend, Gerhard Berger (Senna’s former team mate) said…

We got too confident that the dangerous times were over. We realised that it had not changed at all and that we had got lucky for a while”

The weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix didn’t get off to the best of starts. On the Friday during practice, Rubens Barrichello had a collision at the Variante Bassa chicane. His car left the track and after going over banked curbing, flew through the air and into fencing which resulted in a severe concussion. Then on the Saturday during qualifying Roland Ratzenberger lost his life. During his first qualifying lap he damaged his front wing. This meant as he travelled at 195mph into Villeneuve corner, He was unable to steer the car. This caused him to crash into a retaining wall almost head on. A collision in which he would not survive.

The crash which was to take Roland Ratzenbergers life. After a broken front wing made him unable to make the turn at Villeneuve corner.

Then came race day. The race started with a collison between Benetton driver JJ Lehto and Lotus driver Pedro Lamy. This collision caused debris to fly over the fences and injured 8 spectators. This clearly showed that things were not quite as safe as they should be, even for the spectators of the sport. As the race continued, the drivers got to only the 7th lap before yet another incident. As he flew around in pole position, Ayrton Senna came speeding into Tambeurello. However, due to possible mechanical failure (the actual cause of the crash is still a discussion), the Williams car came off the track and collided with a wall. The crash had caused a piece of suspension to come apart from the car and pierced through his helmet causing fatal head injuries.

Medics tending to a fatally injured Ayrton Senna.

Surely that would be it, but no. As the race continued another incident caused injuries to 4 mechanics, as a wheel from Michele Alboreto’s Minardi came off as he exited the pit lane. There was a difference in all of these incidents though. Roland’s death had a clear cause. The broken front wing had effected the turning much more than he had anticipated. However, Ayrton’s death was not such a clear cut case. The debate still goes on to what actually caused the crash. However an Italian court blamed a fault within the adapted steering column. Speaking about the incident in his autobiography, Adrian Newey (who helped design the car) said…

Regardless of whether that steering column caused the accident or not, there is no escaping the fact that it was a bad piece of design that should never of been allowed to get on the car”

The race ended with Michael Schumacher taking 1st place. But there was no celebration. Immediately after this race drivers including Michael Schumacher, Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger reformed the Grand Prix Drivers Association. Changes were to be made, and the safety of F1 would be of paramount importance. Including Changes in head and neck support, track design and cars built more focussed on survival than ever before.

The podium after the 1994 San Marino GP. No celebration but a sombre mood as the drivers learned the fate of Ayrton Senna.
From left to right – Nicola Larini, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen

So do you think F1 is as safe is it can be? If not what changes should be made?