Imola 1994: The Full Story

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend is remembered as the darkest weekend in modern Formula 1 history. F1 was experiencing a relatively safe period. There hadn’t been a fatality at the wheel of a Formula 1 car since May 1986, and there were no deaths at a Formula 1 weekend since 1982. But all that changed in Imola. This is the full story of Formula 1’s worst weekend. This was the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.


The season had begun with two great races for Michael Schumacher, who was leading the championship by 13 points for Benetton. The Benetton’s pace came as somewhat of a surprise and, after active suspension and traction control had been banned following Williams’ dominance in 1993, Ayrton Senna became convinced that the Benetton was using traction control. So far in 1994, Senna had failed to score a single point for his Williams team. On the other hand, rising star Michael Schumacher had taken two wins from two rounds so far in the season. Senna had spun out of his home race in Brazil on Lap 55 whilst chasing Schumacher and was then taken out at the first corner of the Pacific Grand Prix after being hit by Mika Hakkinen and Nicola Larini. The 1994 Season also saw two new teams on the grid- Pacific Ilmor joined with two experienced drivers and Simtek-Ford, who had just 35 employees, paired David Brabham with exciting new Austrian talent Roland Ratzenberger.


The San Marino Grand Prix was always a highlight for the paddock and fans watching at home alike. The days leading up to the race weekend were joyful, with the usual amount of passionate Ferrari fans creating an atmosphere like no other around the track. There was a great sense of excitement and the prospect of a championship battle between Michael and Ayrton that would last for the whole season.

Things were less joyful at Williams as they searched for a solution to the problems that had prevented them winning at the first two Grands Prix. At Senna’s request, changes had been made to the Williams car for the Imola weekend. The team had been testing in France to find where the problems with the car were. Both Senna and his British team-mate Damon Hill were adamant that the car was horrible to drive, despite Senna’s two poles so far in the season. For Imola, the nose was changed and the wings were moved up slightly. In addition to this, the wheelbase was modified and changes were made to the cockpit at Ayrton’s request. The steering column design was adjusted to Senna’s preference and an extension was welded onto the steering column to allow this change.


Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello was sitting second in the championship thanks to a fourth place in the season opener and a great maiden podium at the Pacific Grand Prix. He was deemed to be Senna’s protégé, a fellow Brazilian who many believed would be the next big thing in Formula 1. After running well in the opening morning’s practice session, Barrichello suffered a tremendous crash 15 minutes into Friday Qualifying. He crashed at Variante Bassa after approaching the corner too quickly and mounting a kerb. His car flew through the air before making contact with the tyre barrier at the corner. He narrowly avoided going into the catch fencing. Many believed that he could not have survived such an impact and there were a sombre few minutes while Rubens was removed from the car. Barrichello’s situation may have been made worse by the clumsy recovery from the marshals. His car was upside down and was righted in a manner that could have caused damage to his spine had Rubens suffered any neck damage.

Testing in 1994 had already seen some neck and spine injuries for Jean Alesi and JJ Lehto, so many of the paddock, especially Damon Hill, were surprised to see the car treated in the way it was.

Barrichello could have sustained similar [neck or spine] injuries. He should have been left as he was or, if there was a risk of fire, then at least the car should have been put down gently.”

Damon Hill

Ayrton Senna visited Barrichello in the medical centre to learn what had happened. It wasn’t the first time Senna did such a thing. He had previously attended the accident scenes of Martin Donnelly in 1990 at Jerez and, more infamously, was the only driver who stopped to help to save Erik Comas’ life after a crash in 1992. Senna reported that Barrichello, while shocked, was mainly alright.

Indeed, Rubens recites coming around in the medical centre and seeing Senna:

The first face I saw was Ayrton’s. He had tears in his eyes. I had never seen that with Ayrton before. I just had the impression he felt as if my accident was like one of his own.”

Rubens Barrichello

The session resumed and by the end of the day, Senna was the fastest. There was a large margin of over a second between himself and his team-mate, highlighting Ayrton’s supreme ability to drive through the car’s problems. But it was Senna who was still complaining about the car whereas Hill was relatively happy with the job he had done.

Barrichello was lucky to escape with minimal injuries; he had only broken his nose, which prevented him from taking further part in the weekend. The story of the weekend looked set to be of Rubens Barrichello’s miraculous escape and a celebration of how safe Formula 1 racing had become. The mood on Friday night was one of shock at the accident but also huge relief at the strength of modern F1 cars. 


The Formula 1 paddock may have been shaken by the events of Friday but there was Saturday Qualifying to get ready for. The drivers felt comfortable getting back in their cars and were more than ready to attack again. After practice passed without incident, Barrichello arrived at the track having been kept in hospital overnight. He wouldn’t be racing and would soon be flying home to his house in England but he paid a visit to his compatriot and close friend Senna, telling him that he’d see him in Monaco, and that he’d be watching the race on Sunday afternoon.

Damon Hill recalls that the drivers were reassured about the toughness of their cars and were confident that they could be ‘shaken but not hurt’. And so the show went on and the 27 drivers headed out for the fastest part of the weekend. But only 26 would return to their garages that day.

At the back of the pack, the popular Austrian Roland Ratzenberger had a difficult start to his 1994 season in the small Simtek team. The rookie had been successful in championships such as Formula 3000, the British Touring Car Championship and had also put in appearances at Le Mans, winning his class in 1993. His time in Formula 1 was proving to be more difficult and he failed to qualify for the opening round. His determination was strong though and he managed to get onto the grid at the Pacific Grand Prix and finished the race in 11th.

Around twenty minutes into the San Marino Qualifying session Roland Ratzenberger made a mistake and damaged his front wing slightly at the Aqua Minerali chicane. Opting not to go into the pits, as he was competing for the final grid spot, Roland continued onto another fast lap. On this lap, the amount of downforce generated by the high speed around Tamburello broke the front wing off and sent it underneath the car on the exit of the corner. With his steering obviously compromised, Ratzenberger failed to make the Villeneuve corner and smashed into the wall at close to 200mph.

25 seconds later the FIA doctor Professor Sid Watkins arrived at the scene. The Simtek driver’s incident was very serious indeed. Ratzenberger’s heart was restarted and he was taken to the medical centre by ambulance before being flown to the hospital in Bologna. His heart carried on beating until he reached the hospital, where it stopped for a final time. Roland Ratzenberger was pronounced dead at the hospital in Bologna.

At 2:15pm it was announced that Formula 1 had lost its first driver at a Grand Prix meeting since Riccardo Paletti in 1982.

Somewhat unbelievably, the session was restarted 25 minutes after Ratzenberger had been airlifted to hospital and his car cleared away. Williams and Benetton opted to not go out again. Although it seemed so insignificant after the day’s events, Senna took his third pole of the season and it looked set to be a huge battle between him and Schumacher in Sunday’s Grand Prix.

Many of the drivers were deeply affected by Ratzenberger’s fate, including JJ Lehto, who had travelled to the circuit from Monaco with Roland. People soon picked up, too, on Senna’s foul mood. Frank Williams was concerned about the emotional state of his driver and he would meet with Ayrton later in the day to discuss his race day prospects. Before the qualifying restarted, Senna had visited the scene of Ratzenbergers’s crash. By the time he had arrived the driver had already been taken to the medical centre but Senna inspected the shattered Simtek car that was still at the scene. It fell to Professor Sid Watkins to tell Ayrton of his fellow driver’s death. Watkins tried to talk Senna out of racing the next day after seeing his reaction to Roland’s death. Sid asked:

“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.”

Ayrton told Sid that he had no option but to carry on – he couldn’t not race. Senna, who was already exceptionally tense that weekend, was in bother on Saturday with the FIA. He and Schumacher, who had qualified in second place, understandably failed to appear at the press conference following the qualifying session. Berger, who had qualified third, appeared at the press conference in order to explain his decision to go back out to set a faster lap after Ratzenberger’s incident. Disciplinary measures were discussed against the non-shows but action was not taken. Ayrton was, in fact, in trouble for commanding a course car to take him to the site of Ratzenberger’s accident without the Stewards’ permission. Senna was very unhappy with the entire situation he had found himself in.


The general atmosphere in the paddock on Sunday morning, recollected by many, is one of general foreboding. The dark cloud hanging over did not lift, despite the spring weather and the prospect of a motor race that afternoon. The race was to go ahead, with the teams, even Ratzenberger’s Simtek team, deciding to race for Roland.

In Sunday warm-up, Ayrton Senna filmed an in-car lap with commentary via his radio for French broadcaster TF1. Prost, having retired partly due to Senna’s arrival at Williams, was now working for the channel. Senna opened his lap by saying:

“A special hello to our dear friend Alain. We all miss you, Alain.”

Ayrton Senna

The bitter championship rivalries of the past seemed to matter little to Senna since he and Prost had become friendlier following his retirement. Take a look at Senna’s lap:

After the warm-up, Senna asked his engineer to change nothing on the car as he was happy with how it was handling.

At 11am the drivers attended a briefing, which was usual for a Sunday race morning. Ayrton’s former team-mate Gerhard Berger collected him from the Williams motorhome. In the meeting Berger, upon Senna’s request (who didn’t want to raise any points himself following his altercation with the stewards the day before), made a point about the Pace Car – which was recently introduced to Formula 1. It was too slow. Many considered having a Pace Car on the formation lap a gimmick brought in from American racing. The first time the pace car had been used on the formation lap was at the previous round. The drivers were not able to warm their tyres efficiently as the Pace Car was not fast enough. All the drivers agreed on the point and the Pace Car on the formation lap was dropped.

Whilst at the meeting, Senna spoke to some of his fellow drivers about holding another meeting about safety when they all reconvened in Monaco. Michael Schumacher, Gerhard Berger and Senna himself had agreed to look into reforming the Grand Prix Driver’s Assosciation (GPDA), with the three becoming directors of the association. Concurrent to this, the Porsche Cup race was happening out on track. In this race, an incident occurred and French driver Jacques Heuclin was seriously injured, only adding to the sense of foreboding.

In the meantime, the BBC’s pre-race build up had begun. Take a look at the opening ten minutes: 

After a few hours of sponsor events, interviews and race preparation, the drivers got into their cars ready for the start of the Grand Prix. Unusually, Senna removed his helmet whilst in his car and the television pictures which were beamed around the world showed that he was in a reflective mood.

2pm came and Senna led the drivers away on the formation lap. As the cars pulled into their grid positions, attention switched from the horror of the previous two days to the exciting race which was about to unfold. The lights went out on a Grand Prix that would change Formula 1 forever.


Within seconds of the lights going out, yellow flags frantically waved. JJ Lehto in 5th place on the grid had stalled and failed to get moving away from the line. The cars streamed past his stationary Benetton and each car that passed was approaching at a higher speed. It was inevitable that one car would fail to see the stricken car. Pedro Lamy had started near the back in 22nd. His Lotus smashed almost head on to the back of Lehto’s Benetton. Debris, including a wheel, flew into the crowd and nine spectators suffered minor injuries. There was concern, too, for Lehto. He had recently returned following an accident in testing at Silverstone which had cracked vertebrae in his neck. Luckily, both drivers walked away unharmed.

The Safety Car came out for only the third ever time after being introduced in the previous season. Senna felt the pace of the car which neutralised the field was too slow, so pulled up alongside it to usher its driver to go faster but it was useless as the car was already travelling flat-out. Meanwhile, the F1 cars were losing tyre and brake temperature.

4 laps was long enough to clear the debris away and at the end of Lap 5, the Safety Car was to come in. The race restarted. Lap 6 went by without incident but Schumacher was closing in slightly on Ayrton’s Williams. On Lap 7 the unthinkable happened.

Murray Walker led British viewers through what was happening on track as the leaders came into shot at the Tamburello curve.

Well, we are right with Michael Schumacher now, and Senna, my goodness! I just saw it punch off to the right, what on earth happened there I don’t know.”

Murray Walker

Senna’s car had left the track at 190mph. He had been able to brake so that the impact speed with the concrete wall was 130mph. Intrusive camera shots showed Senna not moving, remaining motionless in his car. A minute passed before Professor Sid Watkins arrived at the scene. Momentarily the main story was Senna failing to score for the third time in the season. The race was immediately red-flagged. Many believed it was the kind of crash a driver would walk away from and, if the suspension parts that had hit his helmet had been a matter of inches higher or lower, Senna, most likely, would have walked back to the pits that day. Instead, only Senna’s level of fitness made his death non-instant.

The medical helicopter arrived and landed on the track, ready to transport Senna once efforts had been made to stabilise him. Back in the pits, a single engine could be heard. The Larrousse team had been busy working on the car and presumably had not been paying attention to the television monitors. Somehow, Erik Comas’ car was allowed to leave the pits, at speed and Comas was faced with the scene of the accident as he slammed on his brakes at Tamburello. He was lucky to not hit any of the marshals or medics who were at the scene. He stopped his car and got out, mirroring what Senna had done for him at Spa in 1992. But it was a helpless situation for Comas to be in and, after seeing the scene, Erik was too distressed to take the restart.

Initially, rumours about Ayrton Senna’s condition circulated which varied from instant death to just a broken finger. In the media centre, such is the fast-moving world of sports journalism, obituaries were already being prepared, despite a lack of solid knowledge of Senna’s condition. From the way Senna was recovered from the car it was clear to many that the outcome was very serious. As time went on, word spread that Senna had suffered severe injuries. The medical helicopter transported Senna straight to the hospital in Bologna, not the medical centre as was the usual procedure. The official statement was that Ayrton was in a critical condition, with no further word on the extent of his injuries. Damon Hill, Senna’s team-mate, had been informed during the red flag period that the initial reports were of serious injuries but he continued in the race. The show went on.

At 2:55pm the racing got back underway. The race restarted on Lap 6 with the previous Laps 6 and 7 deleted. To add to the confusion of the day, as a result of the red flag, the result of the race would be decided by an aggregate of the first 5 laps and the remaining 53 laps. The tone of Murray Walker’s voice had changed from enthusiasm to disinterest; the racing didn’t really matter that day. By this point in the weekend everyone wished for the race to be over as soon as possible. On any other day, the race developing would have been intriguing: Berger had overtaken Schumacher at the restart, Hill was on a fightback from the very back after making contact with Schumacher and Hakkinen led his first ever laps in a Formula 1 race. Gerhard Berger was somewhat thankful that he had to retire from the lead due to perceived suspension damage.

The dreadful events of the weekend were not over yet. On Lap 48 there was another incident. This time it was Michele Alboreto in the pits. His tyre flew off and hurtled down the pitlane, injuring four mechanics- two from Lotus and two from Ferrari- in the process. It then bounced onto the track and by sheer luck came to a halt before injuring anyone else.

Schumacher eventually won the race and was joined on the podium by Mika Hakkinen in third and Larini in second with the only podium he ever achieved in the sport. Michael Schumacher has been criticised in the past for celebrating his win on the podium but we must remember that at this time, Senna’s condition was probably not known to many drivers – the teams will have kept the information away from them to not deter them from racing. Michael Schumacher knew that Senna was in a coma, but didn’t realise until after the podium just how bad the situation was.


As the podium ended, fans left the circuit and there was a flurry of activity from the people in the paddock closest to Senna, including Gerhard Berger who set off by helicopter to the hospital. Schumacher returned to the Benetton motorhome after the podium and, according to Di Spires in I Just Made the Tea, vowed that he never wanted to race again. Ayrton’s car had been recovered and brought back to the pits where it was guarded by armed police. Marshals had recovered a flag from inside the cockpit. It was an Austrian flag, which Senna would have waved in tribute to Roland Rateznberger had he won his 42nd Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, at 4:30pm, the doctor from the Bologna hospital read a statement which confirmed Senna’s condition- he had brain damage and was in a deep coma. Another report was due at 6pm. The doctor reappeared at 6:05pm to a now heavy and anxious crowd. Ayrton Senna was clinically dead. Life support machines were keeping him alive artificially but he would never regain consciousness.

Just thirty five minutes later, the news broke that Formula 1 had lost one of its greatest drivers. Ayrton Senna had died from irreversible brain damage.


The magnitude of Senna’s death and the impact of the whole Imola event upon motor sport was unfathomable. People in mainstream media began to question the integrity of Formula 1 in the immediate aftermath, questioning why two drivers had been killed and if the risk of racing was worth it at all. The newspapers needed someone to blame, someone to point the finger at and to make a villain of to sell more copies. Some conspiracists believed that the race should never have happened- under Italian law if there was a death at a sporting event, the rest of the event had to be cancelled. Ratzenberger, however, died in Bologna Hospital, not at the event. People were inquisitive and wanted to know how Senna’s accident had happened. The answers would be worked out in a lengthy court battle that went on for over a decade.

In Brazil, the outpouring of grief was immense. It was considered a national tragedy and the country had three days of national mourning. Senna’s coffin was flown back to Brazil for his funeral which was broadcast live on Brazilian TV. 3 million people gathered in Sao Paulo on the 4th May to mourn their hero. The funeral was attended by prominent Formula 1 drivers and champions including Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart. His grave has the epitaph: “Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus”, which translates as “Nothing can separate me from the love of God”. Ayrton is buried in Sao Paulo.

In contrast, Roland Ratzenberger’s funeral took place on the 7th May. Among the mourners, only 4 of 1994’s drivers attended. There was Johnny Herbert, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Gerhard Berger and Roland’s fellow Austrian Karl Wendlinger. Max Mosley also attended. He said:

“Roland had been forgotten. So I went to his funeral because everyone went to Senna’s. I thought it was important that somebody went to his.”

Max Mosley

Roland had plans to take part in Le Mans that summer and his name was left on what would have been his car for the event. The car finished in 2nd place. Roland is buried in Salzburg.


Death was nothing new in Formula 1. But the way in which the Imola weekend was beamed into millions of homes worldwide meant that people saw first hand the impact that driver deaths had on the sport. Safety had to be improved and the rule makers wasted no time in making their show safer. Ratzenberger’s lasting legacy is the HANS device, which prevents the type of injuries that Roland suffered. The device was introduced in 2001 and was made mandatory in 2003. It has saved countless lives, not just in Formula 1but across the whole of motorsport. More immediately, the design of helmets was improved- the visors were made thicker and the helmets were made stronger. These improvements almost definitely saved the life of Felipe Massa in his 2009 accident. After the Imola weekend’s accidents with wheels, the safety of the tyres was also improved. Since 1999, the wheels of Formula 1 cars have been attached to the chassis with tethers, meaning they don’t fall off the car on impact. A pit lane speed limit was introduced. Alboreto’s incident in the pits also meant that it became mandatory for pit crews to wear helmets at all times in the pit lane. It also made a rule be enforced for no pit crew members to be out in the pit lane unless the car they were working on was coming in to pit.

Despite all the promises and all the changes made for the next round of the season, a familiar feeling took over the paddock in Monaco. During Thursday practice, a huge crash for Karl Wendlinger left him in a coma for weeks. Thankfully, he recovered and, though he was never able to rejoin Formula 1 full time, he has had a long sports car career. The FIA were forced by public opinion into making a raft of changes, which they announced on the Friday of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend; even though the four serious incidents over the past two Formula 1 rounds had been through sheer coincidence. Cars would be changed to protect the driver better in case of an accident and horsepower and downforce levels would be reduced.

On the grid at Monaco, the spaces on the front row of the grid were filled by two flags painted on to the ground. A Brazilian flag and an Austrian flag marked the memory of the two lost drivers. Formula 1 stopped momentarily for the passing of Roland and Ayrton but, as is always the way, the sport went on to produce a closely fought championship between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, which went down to the very last race. Schumacher was the eventual winner of the 1994 Championship, after a controversial move which put both title rivals out of the Grand Prix. Michael dedicated his first title to Senna.

For me it was always clear that I was not going to win the championship and it was Ayrton who was going to win the championship but he hasn’t been there for the last races. I’d like to take this championship and give it to him.”

Michael Schumacher

The San Marino Grand Prix was a massive turning point for the sport. It became completely unacceptable to die in the name of Formula 1. The FIA’s unprecedented call for more safety in the sport has had a huge positive impact. There were no deaths in the sport for 20 years after the 1994 San Marino meeting.

The legacy of the events from the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend, and the memory of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, lives on.

Works consulted:

1: Life On The Limit (2012: dir. Paul Crowder)

Ayrton Senna: The Whole Story, Christopher Hilton (Haynes: Yeovil, 2004)

Chasing The Title, Nigel Roebuck (Haynes: Yeovil, 1999)

The Death of Ayrton Senna, Richard Williams (Penguin: London, 2010)

I Just Made the Tea: Tales from 30 Years Inside Formula 1, Di Spires (Haynes: Yeovil, 2012)

The Last 96 Hours of Ayrton Senna (

San Marino Grand Prix, Imola 1994 – The worst weekend by Andy Hallberry (

Senna (2010, dir. Asif Kapadia)

Senna’s Death: Eyewitness at Imola by Julian Linden (

3 thoughts on “Imola 1994: The Full Story”

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