REWIND: Wirth remembers Ratzenberger

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REWIND: Wirth remembers Ratzenberger

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REWIND: Wirth remembers Ratzenberger

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With the help of race car designer and former Formula 1 team owner Nick Wirth in 2014, RACER celebrated his driver Roland Ratzberger (pictured at left, above, with Wirth) on the 20th anniversary of his loss at the San Marino Grand Prix.  

In the intervening years since the story was published, the Briton’s involvement in the sport underwent significant change. Through his Wirth Research firm, a longstanding partnership with Honda Performance Development led to the development and supply of the brand’s custom NTT IndyCar Series bodywork from 2015-2016, and more recently, Wirth’s company has put its vast aerodynamic knowledge to work in arenas far removed from motor racing. 

From its Wirth Research AirDoor which controls pressure and temperature losses for businesses with high-traffic doors, to OpenAir, a COVID-inspired ventilation system that draws air downward and into a filtration system to prevent airborne transmission, Wirth’s inventive nature has not diminished.  

And just as Wirth’s tale migrated since the feature on Ratzenberger was published, the story also underwent a change while RACER.com moved to new servers, so here it is, restored and returned to the site after a brief absence, to pay tribute to once again to ‘The Rat.’

Contesting just his third grand prix, Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal crash during qualifying at Imola in 1994 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, 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 through the team’s journey to reach the F1 grid, the events of April 30, 1994, and the ensuing fight to survive that ended with Simtek closing its doors the following year.

“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,” says 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***, everything is terrible, but actually that car is pretty bloody good… and only if we had wheels!’ Wirth laughs. “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, Andrea Moda quietly disappeared before the end of the season, but enough of an impression had been made by Wirth’s chassis to earn him a second opportunity in the championship.

“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 explains.

Wirth in Simtek design mode in his Banbury office. Motorsport Images

“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 F1 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 says. “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 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 says.

“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 he 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.

David Brabham, Wirth and Sir Jack Brabham launched their new Simtek Ford S941 in the glamorous surrounds of the team factory at Banbury in October of 1993. Sutton/Motorsport Images

Sitting on the bare minimum of funding, Wirth assembled the necessary components to field two Simtek S941s, 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 says. “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 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 by the time Simtek unloaded its cars for Ratzenberger and Brabham at Interlagos. The team was a mystery to most of those 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,” says 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.”

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