“He died and we didn’t even know”: How one fan witnessed the 1994 San Marino GP

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“Honestly, even now, the thought still gives me goosebumps.”

Everyone remembers the first time they hear and see a Formula 1 car in person for the very first time. But not many people’s first exposure to the sport is the screaming symphony of a Ferrari V12 engine, echoing around the hills and valleys of its native Italian countryside.

Back in April of 1994, Claire Campbell was travelling in Italy with her boyfriend, exploring a country she had wanted to visit since her childhood. The pair planned their journey around one central element – attending the third round of the 1994 Formula 1 world championship, the San Marino Grand Prix.

“We’d specifically gone for the grand prix,” Claire recalls. “I’m a bit of an Italophile and being in Imola, I’d read all about the Tifosi on the hill at the Rivazza, watching the race. So being in the hometown of Ferrari, if you like, made it even better.”

While her boyfriend was by far the bigger Formula 1 fan of the two at the time, Claire had grown up with a deep appreciation for the gladiatorial spectacle of the sport.

Ayrton Senna arrived at Imola as a three-times world champion
“I was born in the sixties, so I grew up watching Formula 1: James Hunt and people like that, who were just legendary. Then Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill at the time.

“I’d watched it as a kid and always had a kind of fascination because, these motorsport drivers, they were just otherworldly, weren’t they? And I still think that’s the case now.”

Claire and her partner arrived in Imola on the Thursday, the day before the track action was due to begin. Unsurprisingly, the high demand for hotel rooms in and around the town for that weekend had forced the pair to be creative with their accommodation plans.

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“We were staying in a hotel in Imola for that first Thursday night,” says Claire, “but we’d gone for the whole weekend and we couldn’t get accommodation in Imola for the whole time.

Feature: Barrichello survives horror crash as F1’s darkest weekend begins
“When we arrived on the Thursday, we learned from some of the other guests that one of the F1 drivers was staying there for the weekend. A driver by the name of ‘Ratzenberger’ was sharing the hotel with us that night. I always remembered that name.”

On Friday the pair ventured down to the five kilometre circuit just before 10am – by which time the opening practice session of the weekend was already well underway. The shriek of the Ferrari V12s was immediately recognisable among a field largely populated by V10s and V8s.

“I remember there was this long kind of avenue,” Claire says. “As we walked up the avenue, you could actually hear the Ferraris – they were unmistakable. Honestly, even now, the thought still gives me goosebumps.”

“By the time we’d reached the end of this avenue, I was almost running down because all I could think was ‘I’ve got to see these cars’.

“It was amazing. I remember watching them practice and thinking, ‘I cannot get my head around how fast they’re going around these bends’. It was staggering, it really was.”

Long before we all had mobile internet connections in our pockets, the pair only had the circuit’s public address system to keep them informed, and were unaware of the day’s most serious development. Jordan driver Rubens Barrichello had suffered frightening injuries in a horrific crash at the Variante Bassa chicane.

After travelling to their hotel in Bologna, where they would remain until Monday, the pair returned to the circuit on Saturday for qualifying. It was then that Claire was confronted with the inherent danger of the spectacle they had come to witness that weekend.

Today the Tamburello and Villeneuve corners are chicanes; 28 years ago they were flat-out kinks. Standing on the inside of the left-hand Villeneuve, the pair saw cars approach at close to top speed.

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“Watching them then, it looked like it was just crazy,” she says. “Crazy dangerous. Beyond crazy.”

Ratzenberger was killed in a crash on Saturday
Then, with no warning, Ratzenberger – who they’d slept under the same roof as one night previously – speared off the circuit on the outside of Villeneuve and into a concrete barrier. Having struck the wall at 314.9kph (195mph), his shattered car didn’t come to a rest until the next corner, Tosa.

An hour later, at Maggiore Hospital in Bologna, the 33-year old was pronounced dead. Formula 1’s first fatal accident in almost eight years and the first at a grand prix for almost 12. “It was horrific,” Claire remembers.

“It’s just ridiculous that it got to that point. But I’m not an expert, so I don’t know what was in place and what the attitude was at the time in terms of safety.”

Arriving back in Bologna that evening, the couple decided to distract themselves from the sad events of the day by heading out to a local bar.

“While we out, we met these two Austrian guys who were also attending the race and got talking. Naturally that day, we had a lot to talk about.

“We had tickets for Rivazza where the Tifosi were, on the hill. These two Austrian lads said they had grandstand seats for the start-finish straight and asked if we wanted to have those because they weren’t interested in the start and we could swap over midway through the race, meaning we could watch the start of the race.

Roland Ratzenberger, Simtek, 1994
Feature: How Ratzenberger’s death stunned F1
“So obviously we jumped at that. We arranged that we’d meet in the public area at a certain time, swap tickets again and we’d go back to the Tifosi while they’d go back to the grandstand for the finish.”

Now in possession of tickets for the pit straight, the pair walked to the grandstand and prepared to witness the start of their first ever grand prix overlooking the pit straight on the exit of the final chicane.

But as the start lights illuminated and faded and a cacophony of 24 engines roared off the line, JJ Lehto’s Benetton failed to get away from fifth on grid. Pedro Lamy, who started 17 places further back, moved from the right of the track to the left to take the space he saw was available, unaware stationary Benetton was in his path.

Lamy’s car struck Lehto’s with huge force. “A pair of what I think must’ve been wheels shot up over the track,” says Claire. “We were literally across from where that happened.

“There were bits of debris flying over the track towards the spectators and landing in the crowd. I remember thinking ‘this is just unreal,’ because having witnessed what had happened on Saturday leading up to this race, it was hard to think what else could go wrong.” Elsewhere in the crowd nine spectators had been hurt, one seriously.

Lehto failed to get away, causing another huge crash
After a handful of laps of Safety Car, the race eventually resumed, with leader Ayrton Senna leaping away from the pack with second placed Michael Schumacher in close pursuit. Then, after the leaders passed Claire for a second time under green flag conditions, she noticed the marshals begin to wave the yellow flags once more.

“First the Safety Car went out, then it became clear that they’d stopped the race. We had no clue what was happening. The PA system was all in Italian, there were no screens to watch. This was all before mobile phones too. So we did not have a clue what was happening.”

The pair saw Schumacher eventually return to the pits, while Senna’s Williams did not, and realised something had happened to the three-time world champion.

“We saw a helicopter arrive and then eventually take off,” Claire says. “We didn’t know what to do, so we went and found these two chaps, swapped tickets and they went and watched the restart, and then we went to where the Tifosi were on the hill. Again, all we knew was that the race had stopped.”

Eventually, the race restarted and the San Marino Grand Prix ran its full course, with another dangerous accident in the pit lane leaving a Ferrari mechanic needing medical treatment after being hit by an errant wheel. The result of the race mattered little, as after three consecutive days of serious crashes, no one was in the mood for celebrating.

“After the race it was really eerie,” Claire says. “Once it was over, we left. As we walked away, I remember it being just really quiet. People were talking, people were trying to get information, and we got a sense that something terrible had happened to Senna, but we weren’t entirely sure. So we left the track feeling really worried, because he’d obviously been either injured or possibly worse.

Senna’s car inexplicably veered into the wall on lap seven
“When we got to the hotel in Bologna very late and we checked in, we mentioned to the guy on reception that we’d been at the grand prix. ‘What a terrible day,’ we said. And he just paused for a second – and I’ll never forget this – he crossed himself and simply said ‘è morto’.

“‘He’s dead?’ we shouted – we had no idea. We ran straight upstairs and put Eurosport on and obviously watched all the stuff on TV. It’s amazing, really, that in those pre-internet days you had no idea what had happened. We were just in a state of shock. We sat upstairs watching the TV saying ‘I can’t believe at we were there, that he’d died and we didn’t even know.”

With the sudden death of an international sporting icon, it was little surprise to see Senna’s accident dominate the front pages on display around the Bologna newsagent forecourts. What Claire did not expect was to be confronted with such graphic images of the Williams driver’s accident.

“Back then the Italian press weren’t averse to being able to print really horrific pictures. There was just picture after picture of Senna’s bloodied helmet just sitting there. Every front cover of every newspaper. It was vile.”

Despite admitting that her first grand prix experience was “a really awful thing to be a part of,” it did not end Claire’s interest in motorsport. Over the years that followed the couple checked off the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona and the Monaco Grand Prix.

Feature: Imola 1994 – The crash seen around the world
Tremendous advances in the safety standards applied to circuits, cars, equipment and more have significantly reduced the number of serious crashes during grand prix weekends. However the fatal accidents suffered by Jules Bianchi and Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert within the last decade underline the inherent dangers in the sport.

Nonetheless Claire says anyone who has thought about attending a grand prix should jump at the opportunity. “Oh my god, definitely. It’s a real spectacle.”

“It’s still got that cachet – there’s nothing quite like it. I would say there’s something about a racing car, seeing all that. It’s just the wealth, the pressure, the sense of adventure – everything.”

While her race watching days are long behind her, Claire says she will never forget her experience of witnessing Formula 1’s darkest weekends play out around her.

“I think, generally speaking, it was fantastic to go, even though it was a horrible tragedy,” she says. “I’m glad I was there.”

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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16 comments on ““He died and we didn’t even know”: How one fan witnessed the 1994 San Marino GP”

  1. Well written.

    Often overlooked is the death of a number of F1 marshals in modern times. The 2000 Italian, 2001 Australian and 2013 Canadian GPs all overshadowed by marshal fatalities.

    The article echos my memory of attending my first grand prix in Melbourne in 1996 – sort of. I was too young to buy a ticket but travelled to the Albert Park circuit by train on race day, riding my mountain bike around the circuit perimeter during the race. I was able to catch a glimpse of the cars from the runoff at the northern end of Lakeside Drive. The sound was incredible, and the speed hard to believe. Though compared to modern F1 cars, the 1996 cars were slow!

    I had no idea who won the race until I got home.

    1. Great comment by the way. F1 should remember fallen marshalls, especially when they fall in front of a jcb.

    2. “Though compared to modern F1 cars, the 1996 cars were slow!”
      Only in lap times. You wouldn’t be able to tell the speed difference with you naked eye!
      Even when you watch a comparison of an F1 and a GT3 car going through Eau Rouge, the speed difference is not that big to the eye, even in a side-by-side view. Watched separately you wouldn’t even know:
      And a 1996 F1 cars was light years faster than a modern GT3. So don’t you worry – your experience of an F1 car’s speed in 1996 was the same as what it would be in 2022 ;)

      1. You wouldn’t be able to tell the speed difference with you naked eye!

        That I don’t agree with as whenever I’ve attended race weekends over the years going back to the 80s I’ve always been able to pickup when a car is slower than something else.

        When i went to the 1st Indycar race at COTA for example and stood in the esses i could instantly tell they were a couple seconds slower than an F1 car. Same when ive been to F1 weekeds in Europe thats featured F2/F3 & the Porsche’s. Watching the F1 and then seeing the F2 it’s instantly noticeable how much slower the F2 cars are.

        Even on TV I can tell they are slower. Even going back and watching old F1 footage i get thrown off by the lower performance compared to newer cars and am always thinking somebody is slowing with an issue or something as they aren’t carrying the speed im used to seeing through some corners.

        1. You’re amazing.

  2. That first picture above in the article, the crash site and all the thousands of people on the hill behind…….. sends shudders to the spine.
    For my first GP, I was lucky enough to go to the Nurburgring in ’05.
    1: The noise of the V10’s will stay with me forever.
    2: Witnessing Schumacher still in his Ferrari pomp, me and a friend being the only Button/BAR fans in a sea of red Ferrari fans in the grandstand opposite the pit exit. (and the campsite for that matter too)
    3: Seeing Kimi’s championship charge (and his front left) explode right in front of us.
    4: The Nurburgring is a special place, and needs to be on the calendar.
    5: Did I mentions the sound of the V10’s…… :0)

  3. João Machado
    20th April 2022, 14:55

    Really incredible, after almost 30 years I still remember exactly what I did on that Sunday while waiting for the news on Senna’s health condition.

    As a Brazilian, we were used to wake up and sometimes watch part of the race while taking our Breakfast, and I get emotional everytime I remember this day.

    The story here told, just made me go back in time once again.


  4. There are many amazing private videos from the race, many of which have only recently been uploaded for public view. One of the best ones is this one:
    Even though filmed from what I think is the exit of the Tosa corner, he was able to catch Ayrton’s crash and everything that followed perfectly at the same time giving a very immersive perspective with all the fans in view.
    I was 11yo at the time and remember the day perfectly, brings a tear to my eye to this day.

  5. “It’s just ridiculous that it got to that point. But I’m not an expert, so I don’t know what was in place and what the attitude was at the time in terms of safety.”

    The safety in ’94 was seen as state of the art. Indy was still killing off a driver every other year at that point. Just looking back to Villenueve’s accident in ’82 the safety was night and day. I still think everything after Imola was an over-reaction and if it would have been just Ratzenberger that died that weekend then the response would have been more measured. Of course after a fatal crash it all looks crazy. Who would put a recovery vehicle out on the track? That was happening just 8 years ago and seemed crazy right after Bianchi’s death.

    1. @darryn Yeah, I was just a little puppa in 94′ but all the grown ups and all my Autosport magazines were talking about was ‘safety safety safety’. Right after Imola we had cuts in the airboxes, chicanes etc, raised cockpits sides in 95′ and 96′ amongst many many other things.

      We were only just getting used to the concept of a ‘safety car’ in May 94′. (Fiat Tempra’s & Opel Vectra’s in 93′).

      Watching the (brilliant) Senna film, it’s easy to surmise that the ban on electronic aids was rushed and not thought through, but F1 was in the midst of a safety revolution already and was perhaps the top topic in any discussion. Far from being reckless, F1 was pushing safety left right and centre at the time. *and there were plenty who weren’t happy.

      And yeah, looking back now, the scenes that day at Imola look archaic, but the wheels were already well in motion to change all that.

      *Lovely article, I’m glad that Claire got to enjoy grand prix’s under much better circumstances afterwards.

      1. @bernasaurus Thing to remember about the driver aids ban was that most of the grid never had them so weren’t affected by it. And even those who did have them had only used them 1-2 years so it wasn’t as if the change back to passive suspension and no traction control was taking teams back that long.

        It was also a move that was popular among fans and a lot of the drivers with Senna having been one of the biggest critics of the electronic aids and it was a letter he sent to Max Mosley that was one of the things that really started the ball rolling.

        And something else that is often forgotten is that the electronic aids, Active suspension in particular were performance benefits and made the cars faster with the ban taking away some performance.

        I also recall back that the biggest complaint from drivers going into that season was the narrower rear tires that made cars snap suddenly rather than slide/drift in a more predictable & catchable/controllable way as the wider tires had. I also recall that going back to the wider rear tires was one of the things drivers pushed for after Imola but the FIA didn’t want to do it as they thought giving cars more grip was the opposite of what they wanted to do when the new goal was slowing them down.

    2. Indy has had several deaths but “one every other year” in those days is nowhere near correct.
      And before you get into a “F1 does it better speech” remember Senna hit a solid concrete wall – same as Indy used to have at that time(now has SAFER barrier) with no other protection.
      Even today INDYCAR and NASCAR have installed SAFER barriers at several tracks including Indy – which have definately saved lives – while F1 still has a lot of bare concrete walls

    3. José Lopes da Silva
      20th April 2022, 22:04

      There are physics-related factors about the sequence of dangerous crashes early in 1994. Those have been discussed a little bit more in recent years; eventually here in Racefans too. The sudden change to refuelling and the loss of electronic aids made the cars a little more dangerous. At the same time there was the Alesi crash, also Wendlinger in Monaco, Montermini in Spain, Lamy broke a leg in a crash in Silverstone… It was impossible not to over-react.

      I’m not including the 4-car crash at Brazil because that, in fact, was an unfortunate and unlucky meeting (also, as it was relativley low-speed and no one crashed into a wall, no one was hurt). The Irvine crazy veering should have just taken him and Verstappen.

      1. some racing fan
        21st April 2022, 2:54

        The 4-car crash in Brazil was apparently aggravated by the flywheel in Brundle’s McLaren failing, but Irvine and Jos Verstappen did nothing to stop nearly taking Brundle’s head off. Pretty dangerous times…

        1. José Lopes da Silva
          21st April 2022, 20:06

          Actually, I suppose that was a unique crash in F1 history. I can’t recall 4 cars coming together in such an awkward way, apart from starts or restarts when everyone is going very close. Maybe Racefans could check for other 4-car crashes. A subject for the Summer or Winter breaks.

          It was also the last serious fight between Senna and Schumacher, and in that respect I believe it was the best race of the Nineties: the challengers lapped everyone, including their own teammates, with them having no special problems or issues. Ok, Verstappen was a rookie and still out of touch with the Benetton, but Hill should not have been lapped by Senna, specially so early, before the end of the race.

  6. After all these years, nobody knows what exactly cause the car failure. I read several months ago, in Stefan Johannson blog (former F1 pilot) that maybe the reason was a slow punture in the front tyre caused by the debris of the crash of JJ Lettho and Pedro Lamy. The marshals try to clean the debris by hand and, in the rush to not delay more the race, they can’t clean goog enough, so when the race resume, the first car to pass trough the debris was Senna’s Williams, so maybe one of them cause a slow punture that eventualy cause the car not get enough grip for that corner.

    What a day for F1 and the world. I particulary don’t like too much Senna, but he was one of the greatest pilots and at the time, the quikest. He was unable to prove that he can win with another car other than McLaren, but I think, nobody belives that he wins his championships thanks to the car (like LH).

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