Prior to the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Italy’s Imola circuit, and the loss of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in one terrible weekend, motor sport tragedy had tended to be obscured by the mists of communication methods that were antiquated by today’s fast-moving standards.
The previous fatality in a Formula One race had occurred at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix. Starting from the penultimate row of the grid, Riccardo Paletti was not seen and accelerated hard when he smashed into the back of Didier Pironi’s Ferrari, which had stalled on pole position. Suffering serious abdominal injuries and two broken legs, the 23-year-old Italian was transferred to a hospital in Montreal where he died early that evening.
European newspapers had already published their final editions, leaving radio news as the major outlet. With the greatest respect to Paletti in only his second grand prix, the story was never likely to make headlines outside Italy, particularly following just one month after the loss of Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder.
The Ferrari driver had been killed during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. Callous as it may seem, distress was largely confined to the F1 family and followers as the race went ahead the following day and Villeneuve’s loss was almost seen by the outside world as an unfortunate part of a dangerous sport.
Compared to this, Imola had a powerful effect, not least because both accidents were live on television and (the loss of Elio de Angelis during testing in 1986 notwithstanding) the 12 years without a race fatality had created a false sense of security. That changed dramatically when Senna — one of the best known names in global sport, never mind motor racing — was transmitted across living rooms around the world. The feeling that motor racing was somehow ‘safe’ brought shock, followed by outrage.
And yet this was 1994, a decade ahead of social media’s accelerating influence and its demand for answers almost before there have been sensible and measured questions. As it was, the media was about to dictate policy in a manner never experienced before by those in charge.
While the cause of Ratzenberger’s crash (dislodged nose wings) was fairly clear, questions had begun to emerge in the following days about how Senna’s accident had happened, not just because this had involved a sporting icon but also thanks to there being no obvious reason for what had appeared to be a high-speed but comparatively harmless shunt from which he would have been expected to walk away. The absence of an obvious answer had exacerbated the sense of shock in the Imola paddock and it continued.
The next race at Monaco two weeks later had a weird, unfamiliar feel. It was as if the sound had been turned down and people were doing their best to go through the motions. The simmering unease erupted into full-blown anxiety during practice when Karl Wendlinger slid sideways at comparatively slow speed into the barrier at the harbour chicane. It was a seemingly innocuous accident — but the Sauber driver was knocked unconscious and then reported to be in a deep coma.
It was as if the taut elastic holding everything together had suddenly snapped. Hysteria would not be an exaggeration, best summed up by the front of L’Equipe (a sporting newspaper, no less) with a full page aerial photo of the accident scene under the (translated) banner headline ‘Stop This!’ As president of the FIA and having wisely tried to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to Imola, Max Mosley realised the wider implications of this development and immediately instigated a package of technical changes. Some were considered drastic, but they were being seen to be done.
If Imola 1994 was to have a legacy it would be that Senna’s death in particular had shaken motor sport to its roots and accelerated ongoing safety reforms to new levels of sophistication that continue apace 25 years after that brutal weekend.