This is how F1 Insider Ralf Bach experienced the black weekend in Imola in 1994. The weekend when Roland Roland Ratzenberger and then Ayrton Senna died.
In the beginning, there were premonitions. Even the trip to Imola on April 27, 1994, was strange. First, my car didn’t start, then I got sick on my trip through the Alps. It was as if my deepest subconscious mind was resisting the journey to Italy with all its might. In Imola, the signs continued. I had an appointment with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who drove his third Formula 1 race there. He told me he had problems with his hotel room. So we decided that I would sleep in his car, and he would sleep in my hotel room.
On Thursday, we met with Roland Ratzenberger for dinner in a local pizzeria. He was Frentzen’s best racing buddy because they spent two years together in Japan. That evening, it was the last time I felt the simplicity of our youth.
On Friday the next day, all started with a crash. Rubens Barrichello in his Jordan brutally hit a wall in practice. He was brought to a nearby hospital, where doctors diagnosed just a fractured nose. You could sense the relief everywhere and the deceptive believe that the cars were like a knight’s armor. Only one could not be fooled: Ayrton Senna.
After Barrichello’s crash, Senna immediately rushed to the hospital to console his fellow countryman next to his bedside. In the drivers’ briefing, Senna warned the colleagues: “These cars are dangerous. We have to do something!” For the rest of the meeting, Senna just sat there with “sad eyes that looked into the void,” according to Frentzen who watched him closely.
On Saturday the next day, F1’s pink bubble burst. Shortly after 1 pm, qualifying had just started, I kneeled next to Frentzen, who was still in the garage in his Sauber Mercedes. As usual, he had a small monitor in front of him and suddenly saw how a car brutally crashed into a wall. As the wreckage came to a standstill, I saw the pilot’s head lifelessly hang to one side. I recognized the Simtek, I recognized the helmet.
But it was Frentzen who spoke out at once: “It’s Roland.” Right after that he immediately unbuckled and got out of his car. He wouldn’t drive that day – just like Ayrton Senna. In the evening, we went back to the same pizzeria we visited the day before. Only this time, Roland was missing. From that evening, I can only remember the silence as we collectively stared into our pasta. Frentzen’s idea to drive with a small Austrian flag in the cockpit was simply acknowledged. At that time, we couldn’t know that Senna had the same idea.
The next day on the grid, Senna sat motionless in his cockpit. His gaze went into the endless distance. He only smiled briefly at the Tifosi as they shouted out the name of his good friend Gerhard Berger who drove for Ferrari. It was his last smile in this world.
After the accident, I knew immediately that Senna was dead. I just felt it. When Frentzen asked me after the race: “What’s wrong with him?”, I waved off: “He’s dead.” It was only much later in the evening that Senna’s death was officially confirmed.
When Michael Schumacher learned about the tragic accident, he cried uncontrollably behind closed doors of his Benetton Motorhome. His tears were representative for what the whole Formula 1 felt that day. I only looked into paralyzed souls who helplessly sought for guidance and didn’t find it.
Gerhard Berger put it best into words what I felt: “With Senna, the sun fell from the sky.” For me, not a racing driver had died, but a very special person. We met each other several times before and we always got quickly sidetracked from motorsport. We discussed philosophy, beliefs, and life itself.
That’s why I believe to this day that Senna ultimately found peace in death. Because he didn’t fit into a world, whose superficiality is nowhere more brutally reflected than in the paddocks of Formula 1.