REWIND: Wirth remembers Ratzenberger

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REWIND: Wirth remembers Ratzenberger

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REWIND: Wirth remembers Ratzenberger

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

“We followed David’s excellent performance at Brazil with getting both cars into the race in Japan,” says 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 200 mph the next lap, his car, minus its front wings, went straight into the barrier.

“What can I say about Imola?” he says. “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 process what took place was in short supply. Another scare, this time with Ratzenberger’s replacement Andrea Montermini a month later at the Spanish Grand Prix, compounded the problem and was almost too much for Wirth to bear.

Ratzenberger was a five-time visitor to Le Mans before making his belated start in F1, and took a class win in 1993. This outing with Toyota Team SARD in 1990 ended with DNF. Motorsport Images

“It’s surreal to talk about it,” Wirth says. “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 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 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.

Ratzenberger during qualifying at Imola, 1994. Studio Colombo/Motorsport Images

“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 continued designing F1 cars after Simtek Grand Prix’s demise, many of the team’s talented personnel went on to bigger opportunities, and Brabham soon turned his attention to sports cars. Simtek was replaced by Wirth Research in 2003, where Wirth struck a long-term partnership with Honda Performance Development and its IndyCar and American Le Mans Series programs, and Wirth made a brief return to F1 as designer and technical director for the Virgin Racing team.

The postscript to Imola ’94 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?” says 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 ends the 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 says 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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