San Marino Grand Prix, Imola 1994 – The worst weekend, part three
May 1: Last year’s worldwide release of Senna – The Movie opened up a lot of memories about Ayrton Senna, in the build-up I dug out a series of stories I wrote a few years ago that ended up not being published until the launch of the movie. It’s my personal recollections of that entire weekend in 1994. I was there at Imola working as editor of the official race programmes, but still a big part of Autosport magazine. To read about my Thursday/Friday click here. Saturday click here. Here is that fateful Sunday from my eyes.
Sunday, May 1, 1994
Racers are racers. The grand prix would go on. I remember that race day so clearly. We arrived at the track at 5am, as there was already so much to write about, and newspaper editors were commissioning stories left and right about Roland Ratzenberger’s death, and safety in Formula 1, and the progress made since 1982, the year of Formula 1’s last fatalities.
It had already been a horrible weekend, but as we sat in an already buzzing pressroom – the cleaners still tidying up the paper from the day before – watching the sun come up with the soundtrack of the clicking of computer keyboards being wildly put through their paces, I remember feeling unsettled. Something was wrong. I just figured it was Ratzenberger’s crash the day before, but there was definitely a huge, sombre, cloud hanging over us.
The gridlines were being freshly re-painted on the start/finish line, the flag girls had a final dress rehearsal, and the mechanics prepared their cars for the race ahead.
Ever since my first grand prix at Brands Hatch as a seven-year-old, the final hours before a race put me on edge, and the final 30 minutes before the start of any race make the hairs on my neck stand up.
Those moments at Imola building up to the start were highly charged, so much to take in. Never before or since, did I not want a race to start.
I found time to spare that morning, and get some much-needed air, so I walked the paddock. A racing paddock is a family that travels globally, year on year, and there was naturally a heavy mood. The general feeling was that the show must go on, and Roland died doing something he loved, and reached a peak that he had aimed for during his career.
Then I walked into the spectator area, and bought myself a sausage – comfort food. I mingled among the thousands of Ferrari fans, and soaked up race day atmosphere. I stood there watching the world go by. I headed back to the inner sanctum of the paddock. About two hours before the start of the race, Senna and his Williams teammate Damon Hill came by for a sponsor function. Neither of them looked like they wanted to do it.
That was the last time I saw Ayrton Senna.
After all the carnage and sadness of the previous two days, everyone was praying for a safe, simple race. It didn’t happen, not by any means.
At the start, JJ Lehto stalled his Benetton, and was hit hard by a fast accelerating Pedro Lamy who had started his Lotus near the back. Carbon fibre shards, suspension and assorted debris from Lamy’s car flew into the grandstands, injuring four spectators. The track was littered with wreckage. As the Safety Car came out, picking up race-leader Senna, Lamy limped out of his car, and the spectators were treated. Could the weekend get any worse?
I went back to the paddock for two reasons, one to seek out Lamy, who I knew well from his junior days, to get some quotes about his view of the start crash, which I knew would be exclusive, the rest of the press corps following the race. It was also an excuse to be out of sight of the track. Frankly, I couldn’t watch it anymore. I just wanted the race to be over.
Pedro and I sat in the Lotus motor home area with the race on TV, and the sound off. He’d banged his elbow and knee, but was otherwise not injured. As we talked, the race restarted and Senna was in the lead.
One lap later Senna crashed. It was one of those accidents, fast as it was, that you expect the guy to unclip his belts, climb out of the car and dust himself down. He didn’t. Pedro was in mid-sentence, paused, and pointed at the TV. He knew straight away something wasn’t right. While still rubbing his elbow he looked at me and said: “I think you might have to go. It’s your turn to work. That’s bad, and I think you my have more important things to write about than me.” Call it racer’s intuition, but he was right.
The TV images were graphic, and ironically Erik Comas, who had just made a pit stop was waved out of the pits to be confronted by the wreckage. As Ayrton had done for him at Spa before, he stopped his car at the scene, then saw the medical team working frantically on reviving Senna, and was too distraught to take the restart when the race finally resumed.
(Click the CC button on the video to see the sub titles)
While all that was going on I rushed back to the media center. Already the agency journalists were compiling stories and obituaries, fearing the worst. Any work that they couldn’t handle was being farmed out to whoever was less busy, regardless of their affiliation. Within half an hour I had written for the Daily Telegraph, and the Times, and answered questions, and done research for the guys from the Daily Mail. With my regular work already complete, I was a free pair of eyes, hands and ears. I walked the paddock to get quotes, but few people wanted to talk, especially as concrete news was so hard to come by. Newspaper deadlines came and went, and calm descended on the media centre – for now at least.
Surely after 12 years, we couldn’t have two fatalities in two days – one of them being three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna?
The only announcement on Senna’s condition was “critical.” Information was limited, even when I left the track at 8pm, long after the race had been concluded (and involving another terrifying accident with Michele Alboreto, his wheel coming off in the pitlane and hitting four of his mechanics, injuring one quite badly. By then I don’t think there was anyone left at the track had a heart that was still in the race. We just wanted the madness to stop.)
My flight back to London that night was one of three charter flights put on at every European race by the Formula 1 travel agency for the mechanics, team personnel and journalists.
Usually these flights were very entertaining, like a gang of big kids let loose after a hard day’s work – noisy and full of practical jokes. In retrospect, I feel for the attendants who catered for us on those flights. They were put through an awful lot! One time there was a request before we took off for a passenger to make themselves known to the crew. There were at least 30… With all the call buttons going off, it sounded like we were among the slots in Las Vegas. Another time the mechanics made a pact to all order a bloody mary during service. Demand was so big they ran out of tomato juice less than halfway down the plane! Work hard, play hard.
That night after the Imola race was totally different. This was no after-show party. We were informed mid-flight that Senna had died from his injuries. His Williams team crew was on that same flight back to London, and they were in utter disbelief. Senna had only done three races for them, and they were looking forward to a winning relationship. When the flight crew turned off the lights for landing, nobody switched on their reading light. It was a surreal feeling landing in silence and darkness.
I thought the day’s demands were all over for us all. It was 2am by the time we got through customs. Then, as we walked out, we were greeted by a barrage of news TV crews with lights and cameras, all asking for our opinions and thoughts. I felt for Ann Bradshaw, PR representative for the Williams team, who had to field all the questions. That night I was glad I didn’t have her job.
Losing Roland Ratzenberger was a shock. To lose Ayrton Senna the next day was unreal. Senna had taken Ratzenberger’s death the day before badly, and had again visited the crash scene to see it with his own eyes. It turned out that on race day the Brazilian had placed an Austrian flag in his overalls to commemorate his fallen comrade on the podium. Sadly, he never made it that far.
Naturally my phone didn’t stop ringing all night, as we tried to work out how Autosport treated such shocking news, made worse by the fact that the next day was a public holiday in England, and there was an F3000 race that still had to be covered at Silverstone. Two hours after I’d landed, I was commissioned to go to that race to get quotes from drivers who were one step away from Formula 1. It was something I really didn’t want to do, and also meant I had only an hour’s sleep before setting off for that while the magazine was being put together.
Monday was another challenging day. Read my personal memories of that tough day tomorrow.
Read Part 4 here