PRUETT: Losing Roland, by Nick Wirth

PRUETT: Losing Roland, by Nick Wirth

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PRUETT: Losing Roland, by Nick Wirth

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Contesting just his third Grand Prix weekend, Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal crash during qualifying at Imola was hard to process and even harder to rationalize. Formula 1 certainly wasn’t prepared to bid farewell to the Austrian, and his team, the brand-new Simtek Grand Prix outfit, never imagined it would have to handle such a tragedy just 34 days into its debut season.

Twenty years on, Simtek founder Nick Wirth took RACER on a vivid and emotional tour through the team’s journey to reach the F1 grid, the unforgettable events of April 30, 1994, and the ensuing fight to survive that would see Simtek eventually close its doors the following year.

After former Simtek driver David Brabham shared his heartfelt memories of Ratzenberger on Tuesday, Wirth adds another chapter to the story from inside the team.

“We’d been working our way up towards doing Formula 1, really since the inception of the company, did some project work for the Ligier team and first had been involved in stillborn Formula 1 research car program for BMW where the plan was to build that car and run it around 1990-1991,” said Wirth.

“Unfortunately, we ended up doing DTM instead and the first time the Simtek name hit the track as an entrant was in the DTM championship running a BMW back in 1992. One of the guys who we came across when we were trying to put the Formula 1 project together with BMW ended up with a rather interesting character at a shoe company called Andrea Moda. They were looking to do a Formula 1 car – the first ever Simtek F1 car is actually the BMW design and Andrea Moda bought that car.”

Owned by Italian shoe designer Andrea Sassetti, Andrea Moda would set a new standard for ineptitude in F1, failing to qualify for all but one of the races it entered in 1992, but Wirth’s first F1 design was clean and tidy, despite having its potential masked by minimal funding and organization.

“Roberto Moreno was one of the drivers, and he said, ‘The team is s**t, everything is terrible, but actually that car is pretty bloody good…and only if we had wheels!’ Wirth said with a laugh. “They had one set of wheels between two cars…actually sharing wheels. That’s how bad the effort was. Roberto is someone you’d listen to, and he said to anyone who wanted to listen that the car is actually pretty good, which helped us tremendously.”

Simtek’s first chassis was in F1, but its place was being held with a tenuous grip. Mercifully, the Andrea Moda team – an embarrassment to all – would quietly disappear before the end of the season, but enough of an impression had been made by Wirth’s chassis to earn a second opportunity in the series.

“The late Jean Mosnier of Lola fame had come across some potential Spanish investors and said we would like you to do a car for us in 1993, and we had this attempt to get his Bravo F1 team going with funding from Spain,” he explained.

“Unfortunately, the project was shelved. It was just awful. BMW changed its mind on F1, and that car became the Andrea Moda car which wasn’t a PR victory for anyone and then we had the Bravo car that went nowhere. We were getting closer and closer, but were left hanging on two occasions.”

Tired of having his dreams dashed by others, Wirth received a valuable piece of input that would set Simtek Grand Prix in motion for its Grand Prix berth in 1994.

“My late father said to me one day, ‘You keep having these problems – have you ever thought of doing it yourself?’ he noted. “I’m only 27 years old at the time, but it made me think. I was introduced to David and Jack Brabham in 1993, David had had a pretty tumultuous experience in his early Formula 1 career, Jack was fairly sure he might be able to raise some money from Australia to get this thing going, and it began to feel like it might be possible to do our own team in 1994.”

Think back to whatever you were doing at 27, and realize Wirth was in the midst of forming his own F1 team, designing his own F1 car and pursuing the budget to make the season-opening race at Interlagos in Brazil. Even as a minnow among the era’s giants – Williams, McLaren, and Ferrari – the scale and magnitude of the task goes far beyond what most people Wirth’s age would attempt.

“We had done some interesting work in touring cars, designed a rolling-road wind tunnel, which was unusual for people outside Formula 1, so we had the tools and industry connections to make this happen, but it took funding which is notoriously hard for small teams, let alone new team, to procure,” Wirth added.

“We took David on as one of the drivers with the hope to get some money from Australia. We are looking for a second driver and I was introduced to a guy who was very close to what was going on money-wise in Austria. That brought some money to the team, but also this guy was very good friends with Roland and he said he would really like to help us raise sponsorship, but he said I’d like you to meet this guy Roland Ratzenberger. That’s how we met Roland.

“Roland being the charming, amazing person he was managed to raise some money from Austria, through his personal sponsor, this rather interesting lady from Monaco, Barbara Behlau. And basically helped raise money to get the team going. The combination of his money and David’s money and Jack’s money got the team going. That’s how it started.”

A rapid and respected open-wheel and sports car driver, Ratzenberger was an unknown to most F1 fans, but his performances while racing in Japan, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in the junior formula series marked the 33-year-old as one who belonged in F1 alongside the other up-and-comers. Like Wirth, Ratzenberger was determined to make his way into F1, and after a few false starts, was finally on his way with Simtek.

Sitting on the bare minimum of funding, Wirth assembled the necessary components to field two Grand Prix cars, Simtek’s smart S941 model, and as he shares, there was a bit of comedy involved.

“We had a reasonable reputation even in those early years in the British motorsport community, but we were as poor as they come,” he said. “I remember having this fantastic conversation with the wonderful Bernard Ferguson from Cosworth, their sales guy. And I said, you’ve got to do the cheapest engine you’ve ever done. He dug out the oldest possible HB (V8) engine and put wire springs back on it, even though they had moved to air springs. I’ll never forget one of the people when we pulled the engine cover off the car for the first time, exclaiming – I think it was a sponsor saying – exclaiming it had been some time since he saw a Formula 1 car with distributors on the engine… It really was a shoestring budget, but we made it work.”


 

Wirth had turned 28 years when Simtek unloaded its cars for Ratzenberger and Brabham at Interlagos. The team was a mystery to many in the paddock, as was its Austrian driver, which did little to inspire those involved with the sport.

“What made it such a challenging and fascinating experience was we were one of two new teams coming in, we were nobody, and nobody knew us,” adds Wirth. “We were just nothing. We stood precisely no chance according to everyone. And that’s what made the beginning of 1994 – despite the tragedy – that’s what made it so amazing. We were written off before we even started.

“We designed the car in our own little wind tunnel. We understood aerodynamics, had done all the patterns and shapes ourselves–we ended up molding it all in our own body shop by hand, with planes, saws and body filler. We had quite an avant-garde front suspension, and even with this cheapest F1 engine in the world, we turned up in Brazil and, lo and behold, David got the job done in qualifying. Unfortunately, Roland wasn’t quite up to speed and didn’t make the grid, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort or talent.”

Brabham would go onto finish 12th on Simtek’s debut and the team then began its preparation for Round 2 in Japan at the Aida circuit.

“We followed David’s excellent performance at Brazil with getting both cars into the race in Japan,” said Wirth. “The pressure on us in those circumstances, to get both of our cars into a race, was monumental. Bigger still, to get Roland to qualify for his first race and actually achieve his childhood dream was unbelievable.

“Obviously, when I look back on everything else from that time, the awful events that were about to come, the fact of the matter is we managed to deliver him his childhood dream. If it hadn’t been for what he had achieved and everybody achieved by going to Aida and making his first Formula 1 start, the story of what took place at Imola would have been even more tragic, do you know what I mean? I take comfort in that – in knowing he took part in a Grand Prix and finished the race.”

Ratzenberger claimed 11th place in his first outing. Spurred on by the result, he and the Simtek team were back in action two weeks later at Imola. An off-track excursion during qualifying is believed to have damaged the mounting point between the nose and front wings on Ratzenberger’s car, and on approach to the Villeneuve corner at nearly 200mph the next lap, his car, minus its front wings, went straight into the barrier.

Recounting Simtek’s formative years and path to F1 was easy for Wirth, but pulling back the shades on the day he lost Ratzenberger opened a flood of emotions that had, to some degree, been left undisturbed. Two decades later, time has not healed all of Wirth’s wounds.

“What can I say about Imola?” he asked as his voice tapered off. “The whole thing was indescribably awful. I was raising money for the team, I was designing the car, I was race-engineering David. I was just doing way too much and among all the challenges, we’ve lost Roland. How do we get through it? How do I get through it? It was by having an amazing wife who was there and shared the experience with me. By having Formula 1’s support system do things to help; I cannot describe what it was like. Having Bernie [Ecclestone] come and tell us the news, cry with us, all our hearts were broken.

“Formula 1 was not equipped to have a driver die. And to see the horror of his crash on TV… To see the cameras stay on the accident, to see the doctors performing a heart massage on my friend Roland live on television…the producers didn’t know what to do; no one knew what to do. They learned pretty quickly, which we saw the next day with Ayrton. But it was just…I can’t describe what it’s like. Everything goes to tunnel vision for you.”

Ratzenberger was gone, Simtek’s budget was running on vapors after the accident, and with the need to carry on in the wake of a personal tragedy, adequate time to decompress and accept what took place was in short supply. Another scare, this time with Ratzenberger’s replacement a month later at the Spanish Grand Prix compounded the problem–picked at frayed nerves. It was almost too much for Wirth to bear.


 

“It’s surreal to talk about it,” Wirth said before he paused, fighting back tears. “It’s been 20 years. What was probably most amazing was to just get yourself under control and get the team under control, do all the things that you have to do and then essentially relive the same experience a couple of races later when we got the second car built and Andrea Montermini (ABOVE) was in it. He goes off in practice, does a 150 mile-an-hour crash test on the car. Straight into a concrete wall head-on. Formula 1 cars are not designed to take that to this day.

“And to see him with the bits of the car and his feet hanging out in front of the monocoque… The energy had destroyed the nose and part of the tub. He hurt his feet but he wasn’t crippled or anything like that. The car was strong, but I didn’t know if he’d died. They put the blankets up around the car and I had to deal with that all over again. Formula 1 was going through a pretty difficult time.”

Simtek pressed on and completed the season with Brabham and a rotation of drivers in Ratzenberger’s former seat. Italian driver Mimmo Schiatterella and Jos Verstappen, on loan from Benetton, would pilot Wirth’s new S951 chassis in 1995, but the team’s finances were in a worrisome state. By Round 5 at Monaco – one year and 28 days after Ratzenberger’s death – Simtek’s short run in F1 was over.

“We really did a great job with our resources for the ’95 car,” said Wirth. “We did a deal with Flavio Briatore; he had signed three lead drivers for two cars at Benetton, so he sent Jos our way, and we did a deal with them to have the semi-automatic Benetton gearbox after having a stick shift the year before, so things were starting to look up.

“You look at the early season results with that car, the sort of impact of that car, and it is absolutely amazing. I was very proud of it. We took on a guy who was supposed to bring sponsorship but he was a liar and we never got the money. We were told it would take two years in court to get what we were promised, but we couldn’t survive two months without the money. We had to draw a line on the Simtek story after the Monaco Grand Prix.”

Wirth would continue designing F1 cars after Simtek Grand Prix’s demise, many of the team’s talented personnel would go onto bigger opportunities, and Brabham would soon turn his attention to sports cars. Simtek would be replaced by Wirth Research in 2003, where Wirth would strike a long-term partnership with Honda Performance Development with its IndyCar and American Le Mans Series programs (ABOVE), and Wirth made a brief return to F1 as designer and technical director for the Virgin Racing team.

The post-script to Imola has a happy ending for most that were united under the Simtek banner, but the pain of Ratzenberger’s loss continues to linger.

“It’s not really something that ever leaves you, is it?” said Wirth. “Such things are always in the back of your mind as possibilities, but until you’re confronted with losing a driver, a friend, as we did with Roland, the severity of the blow isn’t something that can be predicted or calculated. I’m still utterly amazed this is 20 years ago we’re talking about, and I can’t put into words what losing Roland means. You move on with life, naturally, but the experience stays with you.”

Bonded by the ordeal at Imola – as team owner and teammate to Ratzenberger, Wirth ended our conversation with a tip of the hat to Brabham, who earned an ALMS championship piloting one of the Briton’s designs.

“The incomparable David Brabham, driver and my life-long friend,” Wirth said with pride. “I just feel that what we did with the Acura sports car program was my way of repaying the faith he had in Simtek, because we finally won major races together, working together like it was in the Simtek days.

“That really gave me pleasure seeing what David achieved with those teams and that car, and continues to achieve to this day. After all we went through together in 1994 with Roland, it is a great satisfaction to have one part of the story end with something positive.”

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