SportF1The hidden story of bravery at F1's deadly Imola...

The hidden story of bravery at F1's deadly Imola 94

During Saturday qualifying for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix , David Brabham ran over the wreckage of teammate Roland Ratzenberger’s car, and was devastated to learn later that the Austrian had died.

“I remember turning into the first corner and seeing bits of bodywork on the ground,” he explained. “As soon as I saw them, I immediately thought it was Roland. When I got there, the ambulance was already on the scene as well.”

“I remember looking back at the car and seeing the position of his head and the look of the visor on his helmet. I immediately thought he was dead, there seemed to be no life in the car.”

Confirmation of the tragic outcome came shortly after, leaving the entire Simtek team in shock.

Often, in similar circumstances, teams withdraw from the grand prix the following day for the emotional well-being of the team and the other driver, due to concerns about possible mechanical problems with the car, or simply as a sign of respect.

The following day however, Brabham broke with precedent and made the brave decision to enter the race in a bid to lift the mood of the pack. However, his race was ruined by a mid-race car failure, which could have had devastating consequences as well.

Admittedly, Damon Hill was also at the Imola race restart shortly after team-mate Ayrton Senna’s accident, which also took courage. However, it was not yet clear what would happen to the Brazilian, and his Williams team did not suspect that there had been a failure that could be replicated in the British driver’s car. It was more or less a business case, as always in F1, so the show had to go on.

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941, David Brabham

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek S941, David Brabham

Hill himself recognized the extraordinary strength Brabham showed that day in committing to ride for the Simtek team.

“What David did has been overlooked because of what happened with Ayrton,” Hill said. “He got in the car on Sunday morning after his teammate died the day before, and he tried to get the team people back to work.”

“He played a huge part in trying to get them to focus quickly on something more positive. It’s too easy to forget what happened at Simtek, and what all those guys went through, was completely overshadowed.

As we have indicated, precedent suggests that after a qualifying fatality, the team involved folds. It had happened before with BMW at the Nurburgring in 1969 (after the death of Gerhard Mitter ), with Lotus at Monza in 1970 (Jochen Rindt), with Tyrrell at Watkins Glen in 1973 (Francois Cevert), and with Ferrari at Zolder in 1982. (Gilles Villeneuve).

However, in the case of Simtek, the question of whether Brabham should race or not was left open on Saturday night.

“To be fair to the team, I don’t think any of us knew what to do,” recalls Brabham. “There were so many emotions around that you couldn’t control it. That night the team said it depended on whether I felt like driving or not. Obviously my biggest concern was the safety of the car.”

During Ratzenberger’s accident, it was apparent that the front wing had come off, although the precise cause was unclear. However, it was suspected that the bolts holding the wing to the underside of the nose might have loosened, possibly as a result of an incident with a curb.

That night the team worked to modify the wing on Brabham’s car. Previously, the four bolts ended at the bottom of the nose.

David Brabham, Simtek S941 Ford

David Brabham, Simtek S941 Ford

Among the modifications were larger and longer bolts, which ran through the carbon of the nose. Alongside this substantial nuts and washers were placed on the other side, along with an aluminum plate, to make it almost impossible for them to come loose.

“I felt like we had to be whiter than white,” says Brabham race engineer Rod Nelson, recalling it and referring to the clarity they had to show.

“I went to Charlie Whiting and told him that we intended to do this and that, that we wanted to race the next day and everything, and I showed him what we were doing. It wasn’t in reaction to any failure that we were aware of. , but I was trying to make the car as safe as possible.”

“[Crew boss] Nick Wirth assured me that they had reinforced the front wing to make sure there was no problem,” says Brabham.

“I said the only thing I could do was go out to warm up and see how I felt, if I didn’t feel good I wouldn’t race.”

“We were relatively quick in the warm up. I don’t know if they put me on low fuel or whatever, but our pace was better than it had been up to that point.”

“I came into the pits and I felt that the dark clouds had turned to light grey, and that the team had lifted their spirits a bit. I felt that I had to run, I had to run for them, to help them get through the situation, and I thought That was one way to do it.”

After Senna’s red flag and restart, Brabham was running 17th when television footage showed him stopped at the final corner on lap 23.

The abandonment went down in the history books as an “accident”, but the real story did not emerge at the time. In reality, he had suffered a catastrophic steering failure, and if it had happened in the middle of the fast corner, the consequences could have been dire.

Max Mosley, FIA President and former part-owner of Simtek Research watches David Brabham, Simtek S941

Max Mosley, Presidente de la FIA y ex copropietario de Simtek Research mira a David Brabham, Simtek S941

“He went to the right of the place where Rubens [Barrichello] had his accident on Friday and the car left him immediately,” says Nelson.

“He thought he lost the front wing, because he spun and nothing happened. In fact, the UJ joint in the steering broke. There was no connection between the steering column and the rack. So he was quite worried about that.”

“For some reason I was between the curve before the chicane and the chicane,” says Brabham.

“It actually broke down the straight. When something like that happens your brain is completely locked out, you just don’t know what’s going on. Not that I blame the team, we were new and stuff like that happens.

“But like I said before, I only did it because I needed to get the team up. We did the warm-up and everybody felt a little bit better, but at least we were going in the right direction and that’s why I ran. But I left the weekend feeling lucky to have gotten out. live”.

In the spring of 2014, Brabham returned to Imola, in the company of Hill, to record a report with Sky F1 on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

“It was a heavy day. All those emotions start to come back, and you start reliving those moments, and it affects you. You move on, life goes by so fast.”

“But going back there changes the way you feel, for sure. Especially where Roland stopped.”

David Brabham, Simtek S941 talks with team mate Roland Ratzenberger and Nick Wirth, Simtek Team Principal

David Brabham, Simtek S941 talks to his colleague Roland Ratzenberger and Nick Wirth, Simtek Team Manager

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