What Value One Man’s Life? (What I did on my Holiday)

I want to start by saying two things. Firstly, after about 1000 miles of driving in Italy over the past week I am no closer to understanding the Italian driving psyche. Secondly, I was quite happy to see my hire car was a Fiat 500 – until I got to the car park and the car my remote unlocked the larger and uglier 500 L family bus (complete with diesel engine). The joie de vivre that comes with the idea of small (petrol powered) Italian cars rather died at this point. This is not, and will not be turning into, a car review column but that car is without redeeming feature that I can find. I don’t mean to offend anyone who may have bought a 500 L, but what were you thinking?

Anyway, as you may have guessed by now I have been away the last week, which means two things; firstly the MR2 still sits broken at home and secondly I don’t have much club motor sport stuff to write about having not seen it with my own eyes.

However, my week in the late Italian summer sun has given me pause to think about life and the wider motor sport universe. Naturally I made my way down the autostrada to Modena and Maranello to pay due deference to the great marque. But first and foremost, I felt compelled to go and visit a location which, 21 years ago, made an indelible mark on my not yet quite 9 year old mind.

The evocative terraces on the exit of Tosa at Imola
The evocative terraces on the exit of Tosa at Imola

Throughout their history sports have their watershed moments; Cycling had the death of Tom Simpson and the Festina affair and the football community suffers still with the ongoing agonies of Hillsborough. Formula One had its moment during the weekend bridging the months of April and May in 1994, in the pleasant mid-Italian town of Imola.

5 serious incidents, a number of serious injuries and 2 fatalities lead to a safety revolution in the sport. Whilst motor sport will remain a dangerous sport the sad deaths that weekend of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were not allowed to be in vain.

International memorabilia beside the Ayrton Senna Memorial
International memorabilia beside the Ayrton Senna Memorial

The international support and adoration that Senna still commands is remarkable. There is still a plethora of mementos such as flags and flowers at the crash site on the outside of the Tamburello corner, and yet more on the inside. These range from flags of multiple nationalities to fresh flowers, T-shirts and even the odd poem. The man’s reputation is still such that 21 years on in the brief period we visited the memorial we shared the experience with around 10 others, on a not particularly special Thursday in September.

A statue to reflect its audience - deep in thought
A statue to reflect its audience – deep in thought

The monument itself is beautifully pitched, incidentally. A full size bronze statue of the great man sat in deep contemplation in a tranquil corner of Imola’s Parco delle Acque Minerali on the inside of Tamburello. The poignancy of the tribute is truly remarkable and it is impossible not to be quietly seduced by the atmosphere there.

However, on a personal level, something equally poignant in a different way can be found 250 metres along the track. I was struck by a slightly uneasy feeling. Roland Ratzenberger was by all accounts a friendly and universally liked man. At the age of 34 he was a late-comer to Formula One with the troubled Simtek outfit, but a capable driver – he had won his class at Le Mans and finished 5th overall the year before. He died the day before Senna in an accident which still sends a cold shiver down the spine of anyone who saw the footage of his lifeless body in the car as it came to a rest at the inside of the Villeneuve kink, the next corner along from Tamburello.

A lonely, long deceased rose the only momento for Roland
A lonely, long deceased rose the only momentio for Roland

I am sure he would be more widely remembered if it were not for the events of the next day. However, one long since departed rose hung limply on the catch fencing at the site of his accident and served as the sole representative of any thought for him. I am not given to placing tributes if I am honest (I didn’t contribute to the pile at the Senna memorial for instance), however I profoundly regret not having brought something to leave in his memory. None of the other ten joined us here.

This does beg the rather philosophical question of; by what measure can we judge the life of a man? Why should one life have such a high value placed on it over that of another, by all accounts, decent human being in terms of the sorrow it commands? Both men were gladiators in a dangerous sport, with the only differences ultimately being their track record and the end of the grid at which they competed. I understand the impact Ayrton Senna had as a driver and an individual on motor sport fans – the shower of tributes is a testament to that. However that lonely, dead flower made me feel profoundly sad.

Imola is a beautiful place and worth the 4 hour round trip I made to see the memorial and the location. I’d urge anyone to visit there. However, whilst paying your respects to one of the giants of the sport, please also take 10 minutes to walk a little further and spare a thought for Roland and his more quietly sad story.

PS: Unfortunately the ‘other woman’ of sport, rugby will be occupying me next weekend – so I will miss the National B meetings at Shelsley. I will be back for Loton on the 27th.

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