Roland Ratzenberger’s Porsche Holds Memories Of A Racer Gone Too Soon
Photography by Dennis van Loenhout
Look at this Porsche. Not very special, right? Just a random 964 Carrera 4. And it would be, if it wasn’t for its previous owner. Roland Ratzenberger became famous for being the “other” driver to get killed in that horrible Grand Prix weekend in 1994 that also claimed the life of the great Ayrton Senna.
Besides his career spent in racing cars, this Porsche is proof of the fact that Ratzenberger loved to drive more than anything; he did it for a living, he brought that passion to the road, and he did it tastefully. That legacy endures, and now it’s time to go on an adventure with a car that belonged to a man who made driving his life, and was truly one of us.
It might not be considered a particularly memorable version of the Porsche 911, but a 1990 Carrera 4 is still a lively and fast car; 250 horsepower, and capable of 160 mph. In convertible form, with the wind messing with your hair and whipping around the cabin, it gets even better.
This is pure driving indulgence. Roland Ratzenberger’s former 911 is thundering down a mountain road above his home town of Salzburg. I’m in great company too—in the passenger seat is Rudolf Ratzenberger, Roland’s father. He hasn’t sat there for over 20 years. A single tear is in his eye. “The wind,” he smiles apologetically. Who wouldn’t understand his emotion?
We’re on the Gaisberg, a mountain easily recognizable by the transmitter at the top, and like the car we’ve taken here, it has a bit of a history. The winding road draped over it is not only scenic, but was also used for a wonderful hillclimb. Between 1929 and 1969, the Gaisbergrennen was won by men like Caracciola, Von Brauchitsch, Stuck, von Trips, Rindt, and Lauda.
A certain driver named Roland Ratzenberger also set some blistering times on this road, because whenever he was home he used to take his Porsche and hammer it up here. It was his way of unwinding, relaxing, and cherishing his natural surroundings. Even during his off days, he could be found in the driver’s seat.
When Ratzenberger passed away that awful weekend in 1994, he wasn’t very well known to the general public yet. He was, however, an accomplished racer. Born in 1960, there was a poster of Austrian World Champion Jochen Rindt on the bedroom wall of a young Roland Ratzenberger. His parents wanted him to have a “normal” profession, but Roland was adamant from very early on: he was going to be a racing driver. He had a habit of sneaking under the gates of the nearby Salzburgring race track, and years later got in touch with Austrian F1 pundit Gerhard Kuntschik, who advised the aspiring racer to look for employment at the racing school located at the track. He took the advice and then soon after saw his racing career take off into Formula Ford, winning the famous “Festival” in 1986, and then he made his way into F3 and the World Touring Car Championship.
A full-on attack on F3 fell through in 1988, so a rather disillusioned Ratzenberger focused on the British Touring Car Championship instead. That proved to be lucky, because it was there that he first got in touch with Toyota. The following year he was racing in the Japanese Group C championship with SARD Toyota. This got him properly noticed and bagged him a deal with Toyota Racing Development (TRD), to be a test driver in 1990, whilst still racing with SARD and competing in the Japanese Formula 3000 series.
“My best memory of Roland is from 1991,” says Rudolf Ratzenberger, “he phoned home after winning the Suzuka 1000 kilometers. I’d never heard him so happy and proud. That victory led to him becoming enormously popular in Japan. I relish the memory.”
Ratzenberger was highly valued by Toyota, and rightfully so. He competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans several times for the Japanese marque, coming in fifth overall and winning his class in 1993, following a second-in-class finish the year prior. Rumor has it that Ratzenberger was paid the healthy sum of 100,000 D-Mark to compete at Le Mans. But not only did he manage to make a great living out of his racing, he also made many friends throughout his career.
One of those is Mika Salo, the Finnish former F1-driver who raced for the likes of Lotus, Tyrrell, and Arrows, and who got the call to replace Michael Schumacher at Ferrari after the German broke his leg in 1999. “To Roland, racing was a job,” says Salo, “he loved it, he thought it was the best job in the world and wanted to be the best at it, but it was also what made him his living. He took that extremely seriously. I never saw him spend a penny. He would do everything for you and would help you wherever he could, but he wouldn’t buy you dinner. I even gave him my old clothes, which he’d happily wear. He was saving all his money to buy a house in Salzburg.”
Ratzenberger did indulge every once in a while though: he bought this Porsche, for instance. Salo was surprised when he heard about Ratzenberger’s purchase. “He just suddenly had a Porsche. I had no idea where it came from, but I have to admit I got a bit jealous, so I bought exactly the same car. Well, not exactly. Mine was a 993, so it was better,” he grins.
Ratzenberger apparently loved the German marque, and secretly dreamed of driving his own 911 to Le Mans, just like Steve McQueen did in the movie. This story is confirmed by Harald Manzl, another of Ratzenberger’s friends, and the man who owns Roland’s 911 today. “That was his wish. He already drove a Porsche  in the race in 1989, but his real wish came true in 1993, when he drove his 911 to the race. That made him very happy, maybe it contributed to him finishing fifth in the race, his best result there.”
Ratzenberger eventually made it to Formula One, in 1994, but few know that he almost reached that pinnacle series as early as 1991 when he came tantalizingly close to racing for the then new Jordan team. A deal was in place for an Austrian beer brand to exclusively sell their product via BP stations, and BP was one of the Jordan team’s main sponsors that year, so it wasn’t inconceivable that an Austrian would take one of the seats at Jordan. The deal fell through at the last minute, leaving Ratzenberger with nothing. The drive went to Bertrand Gachot instead. We all know what happened next: Gachot ended up in jail for a few months and was replaced at Spa by a rookie named Michael Schumacher.
Ratzenberger would have to wait another three years for his chance to come, with the not-so-great Simtek team. For 1994 his sponsor, sports broker Barbara Behlau, paid Simtek half a million dollars, which got Ratzenberger in their car for the first five races of the season. “Roland wasn’t a euphoric guy,” says Harald Manzl, “he didn’t cheer, dance, or scream when he signed for Simtek, but I’m absolutely certain that has been his biggest satisfaction ever.”
Salo remembers it well too: “[Roland] mentioned it a few weeks before he signed the contract. We all tried to reach Formula One, so I told him he had to do what he had to do. A little later he showed up at a race of mine in Fuji, wearing a Simtek jacket and beaming. I laughed ‘Oh no, you’ve done it!’ To be honest, I didn’t really follow how he got along. It was a shit team, with that car it was impossible to get a good result anyway. A talented guy like Roland deserved a better car, but many guys in racing have that same problem.”
When the news of Ratzenberger’s death broke, Salo was in a restaurant in Japan, and Manzl was at the track, following his progress. While Manzl immediately knew he’d lost a friend and was devastated by this, Salo was determined not to let the loss of his best friend affect his mind. “I know that sounds weird, but that’s how a racing driver thinks. We’re a bit different that way. But of course I miss him. He was a great person. Even when he was racing against me he was always willing to help me and give me advice. When we were both racing in Japan he’d often come over to my place in Tokyo. We had a lot of drinks and went to a lot of parties. We did a lot of stupid, unprintable stuff. We had so much fun, Roland loved to have fun.”
Manzl concurs, adding: “He was such a wonderful guy. Only a few years ago did I realize I miss him so much more than I had ever admitted to myself.” It doesn’t need to be said that Rudolf misses his son, his words speak for themselves: “I cared so much more for him and his achievements than I might have shown during his lifetime. Praising people is not something I’m good at, and I sometimes worry I haven’t praised Roland enough during his lifetime. Only after his death have I really started valuing the enormous achievement he put in by reaching Formula One. I loved him.”
A few months after Ratzenberger’s accident, Manzl’s phone rang. It was Margit, Roland’s mother. “She asked me if I wanted to buy Roland’s Porsche,” says Manzl, “I didn’t need to think twice. I could afford it, and this car means the world to me.” Rudolf Ratzenberger says Manzl was the only candidate to buy his son’s car. “Porsche Austria contacted us, they wanted to buy the car for a sum much higher than what Harald paid us. But we wanted him to have it. We knew he would care for it.”
Manzl has tons of memories involving his friend and what is now his Porsche. “It’s not mine,” he clarifies, “it still is Roland’s. I merely take care of it for him. He told me so much about driving a Porsche like this. It’s thanks to him I know how to handle understeer and oversteer. Roland was an amazing driver. I dare say I’ve never had the privilege of riding with a better driver than him. He was always in control. He taught me how to change lanes at the last minute when there’s people on an overpass on the freeway, so you’d be safe if they threw something. He was so aware, and his talents were amazing.”
And like Salo, Manzl also experienced firsthand how much Roland Ratzenberger loved to have fun. “Roland was stopped by the French gendarmes on a toll road once, after they caught him clocking well over 120 mph. It cost him dearly, but it also taught him a lesson. After that he always threw away his toll ticket. He’d be fined at the end of the toll road for that, but the fine wouldn’t be hefty and without a ticket nobody would be able to work out his average speed. That gave him the chance to go as fast as he pleased!”
Ratzenberger was living in Monaco when he bought his 911, and the Monegasque license plate number is still engraved in the door windows. “But at some point, he had to move to the UK,” says Manzl, “and do you know how he did it? He simply chucked his belongings in his 911 and drove back and forth a few times. Can you imagine? A 911 with an open top and a chair and closet sticking out of it thundering through France? Typical Roland.” Manzl roars with laughter, and does so again when he thinks back to the time when someone saw him next to Ratzenberger in the 911 and thought he was Roland’s girlfriend. “I used to have long hair, you know,” laughs Manzl.
He may have died tragically, but the tales of his adventures with friends and in his Porsche street car teaches us that Roland Ratzenberger wasn’t a tragic man by any means. Manzl is convinced his friend is still watching over him, driving the 911 from somewhere. And when the car flashes past the camera on the Salzburgring circuit it lets out an almighty roar, as if to say: “Hey boss, I’m doing well. Hope you are too.”