Contrast In Characters

The weekend passed and for some motor racing fans, memories of twenty-three years ago remained as strong and emotional as ever.

Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were two contrasting characters from different backgrounds who are now tied by a date.

Senna’s rise and subsequent legendary status in motor racing has been told many times in articles, books and on film. What isn’t so well documented is that Roland Ratzenberger is a 24 Hours of Le Mans winner.

He had forged his way to Formula One via Formula Ford, Formula 3, Touring Cars and Sportscar racing. It was in 1993 he was co-driver with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka in a SARD Toyota 93C-V when they took the C2 class title at Le Mans. One year later Ratzenberger would find himself in F1 with the Simtek team.

I never had the honour in meeting my racing hero, Ayrton Senna, but I did have the pleasure in meeting Roland Ratzenberger. It was 1987 and I was just starting out on my writing adventure as a junior admin. I bumped into a young Roland, who was testing in British Formula 3. I had been involved in karting at the time and when it became apparent I was not going to make it in racing I decided to write about it.

That is how the initial conversation with Roland came about, our mutual love of racing. I could see the passion in his eyes when he spoke, it was so infectious and as a young teenager it spurred me on to put that kind of passion into my writing.

I was a doing a piece on testing for the team we were assisting around press work and I just found Roland so friendly and accommodating. He would take time out to speak with me about the car and giving his opinion on how it was handling, the conditions out on track and his thoughts on other drivers in the championship. These opinions were always courteous and I never once heard him talk rubbish about another driver.

It was in 1991 when I was now assisting with some Le Mans promotional work when I happened to bump into Roland again. He was co-driving with Will Hoy and Eje Elgh in a Porsche 962C. Not only did he remember me from those years earlier, he remembered my name. We had a chat about Le Mans and he was so excited about the direction his career was heading. He also put aside his own ambitions and was asking me how my writing was developing and wished me luck on my adventure. That was the mark of the man.

Two years later he would be a class winner at Le Mans.

Senna had quickly grown to become my racing idol. The man could be a confusing paradox with his thoughts on life, religion and racing and he did split opinions on his racing style at times with fans. My love of all things Senna stemmed from his days with Toleman. Any racing fan worth their weight in gold could see what a talent he was even then. I was young and had no real concept of his rise through karting and the lower single-seater series at that time. It was not until later in life when I was able to read back when it added to the legend of the man.

There will always be debate on who the greatest Formula One driver of all time is, based on opinions, facts and figures but in my humble opinion Ayrton Senna was and still is the greatest driver to grace Formula One. Even Michael Schumacher said that Senna was the greatest and he’s won more titles than anybody else.

That weekend, twenty-three years ago, was the only time I have ever cried as a racing fan. Not only did a man I had met, worked with and found so friendly lost his life doing a sport he was so passionate about, the very next day the motor racing world lost a legend.

A very difficult weekend for racing (add to that the injury to Rubens Barrichello) and one which I found difficult to watch back until recently.

It feels like yesterday since we lost these two men.

A contrast of characters who are both now connected by one tragic weekend.

I will never forget either man.

See you at the chequered flag.

Neil Simmons

Twitter: @world_racing

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