Richard West remembers Imola 1994 on the anniversary of Senna's death.

1st May 2020 marks 26 years since the passing of Ayrton Senna at Imola . Although in no way linked to Jaguar, to many motor racing fans, Senna was considered the greatest driver of all time. Richard West was there at the Grand Prix that claimed not only the life of Ayrton Senna but also of Roland Ratzenberger. In this emotional recollection of that tragic weekend, Richard explains the raw emotions still felt today and reminds us of the lasting legacy of the legend that was, Ayrton Senna.

The ‘Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari’ is, in my personal opinion, one of the most wonderful circuits in the world, located in a truly wonderful town. In late April and early May the weather is usually lovely, the trees in leaf and the sounds of a relaxed Italian lifestyle drifting in and out of earshot on the early morning air. In the background the F1 cars in 1994 were being warmed up.

During my time in Formula 1, it was always my favourite circuit. I loved everything about it, I had been driven around at high speed in a Jaguar XJS during my TWR career on a motorsport press day, enjoyed many adventures and experiences there with friends and team mates, and in 1994 I was looking forward to the start of the ‘European Season’ with my team mates Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill. Our first two races in Brazil and Japan had not gone well and at that juncture we only had 6 Championship points to show for our efforts. (I was Williams F1’s Director of Marketing and Sponsorship at this time)

As Ayrton said to Murray Walker in a BBC TV interview, “Our season starts here, in Imola”.

The events of that awful weekend are meticulously documented, and the movie ‘Senna’ captures the mood in the Imola paddock perfectly. We arrived there on the Thursday before the race full of hope for a good weekend totally unaware of what was to come.

Being the first European race of the season, we had invited many sponsors, media and guests to the race. As usual I was lucky to be able to fly to Italy with Frank Williams from Kidlington Airfield in Oxford in his private aircraft and shortly after we arrived by helicopter at the circuit I had a meeting with Ayrton (Senna) to discuss how the launch of his new mountain bike range had gone that morning and what commitments we had to sponsors that weekend.

As usual he was immaculately casually dressed and true to form asked a lot of questions. He asked about the guests, what we were going to require of him outside of the car and what were to the timings of the events to ensure his technical and driving preparations were not interrupted. I also updated Damon (Hill) on the same issues.

On Thursday evening we held an impromptu drinks reception in the Rothmans motorhome as the 2IC, Bertie Gaertner from Rothmans had flown in with Frank and I – Damon dropped by to say hi with Georgie his wife.

On the Friday I took Bertie and a Rothmans staff member to the grandstand at the bus stop chicane to watch practice. Within minutes, Rubens Barrichello had launched into the wall at very high speed. Thankfully, he suffered only minor injuries, and those of us that witnessed the crash were grateful and amazed he had got off so lightly.

Saturday was the usual early morning circuit arrival for me and my marketing team. Accompanied by the sound of arriving helicopters, the crowds and noises and smells that make the circuit so special, we all felt the day was going to be something special. We also had a contingent of Middle East journalists present for Rothmans, so the morning was taken up with garage tours and VIP meetings and greetings.

At the previous race in Aida in Japan, I’d made a point of introducing Frank Williams to Roland Ratzenberger in the pits and Frank commented on “what a nice chap he is”. Roland really was great guy with an infectious sense of humour. We had known each other for almost 5 years before he came into F1 and I was very hopeful he would have a great career.

An F1 qualifying session in those days was a frantic affair. Ayrton would frequently wait until going out on the track for one of his stunning laps until the very end of the session but during qualifying at Imola he was ‘pacing’ himself in the session.

Watching the TV monitors from inside the Rothmans Williams Renault garage, Ayrton, the team of mechanics, the Renault engine men and myself saw the dreadful moment Roland’s car speared straight off of the track hitting the wall at over 190mph. I think at that second we all knew…

Ayrton took no further part in qualifying that afternoon but due to a time set before Roland’s accident, he was for the next day on pole position.

Roland’s death stunned the paddock. None of quite knew what to say to the Simtek team members who were still trackside. ‘Sorry’. ‘our thoughts are with you’ ‘if there is anything we can do’ nothing like that helps. After several drinks in the motorhome I drove back to my hotel, phoned my wife and I remember saying “I hope to god these things don’t happen in threes”…

Despite the tragedy, Sunday’s events and race went ahead. We had organised a sponsor’s guests briefing in the Paddock Club hospitality area at midday where I would interview Ayrton and Damon and talk about the race ahead. I offered them both the chance to cancel this, but both drivers said they would prefer to do it.

There is a 9 minute video of that interview in the Formula 1 film archives somewhere of which I have a copy – just over two and half hours after I had conducted that interview, Ayrton was gone…

Once I year I watch it and reflect on anything we could perhaps have done or said that would have prevented Ayrton from racing that day…I do not think anything we could have said would have prevented him from doing so, for even the day before at the scene of Roland’s accident, Professor Sid Watkins (F1’s lead Doctor at the time) had tried to convince Ayrton to walk away – he failed in his efforts to do so for as Ayrton said to him “Racing is in my blood”

The rest is history and I will not relate it here, but on that weekend we lost two of the ‘family’ that is Formula 1. The weeks, the months and the years that have followed have not dulled those losses and in these difficult times with COVID-19 that we are currently living though, my heart goes out to those that have lost loved ones too soon.

Formula 1 lost two of its shining stars too soon that weekend 26 years ago today.

Footnote: On that Sunday morning May 1st 1994, in the Drivers pre-race briefing, it was agreed to reform The Grand Prix Drivers’

Association which went on post Imola to invoke many safety changes to F1. Senna, Schumacher and Berger were its first Directors appointed that morning…

RIP Roland and Ayrton.

For more Motorsport memories from Richard West, be sure to check out our podcast at: where each week he shares a new memory from his long career in motor racing.

Image courtesy of By Instituo Ayrton Senna - Ayrton Senna 8.jpgFlickr, CC BY 2.0,

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