Imola 1994: The reflections of a commentator

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend is one that will be remembered for generations to come. The weekend that Formula 1 lost, not only a rookie living his dream, but also a legend. I never watched Formula 1 in 1994, I was too young back then to watch it. My first experience of watching Formula 1 on the television came five years later. Having not watched that weekend ‘as live’, it is difficult for me to put into words the events that surrounded that weekend. I couldn’t imagine being a Formula 1 fan on that weekend, I just couldn’t.

Watching ‘Senna‘ helped bring it home to those that were not around to watch Imola 1994 live at the time. No matter how many times you watch it, you just wish there was an alternative ending. Roland Ratzenberger going around Tosa on another lap, or Ayrton Senna escaping free from Tamburello. Sadly, both of them thoughts are images we will never see. Every time I watch the entire Imola sequence, I can feel shivers go down my body knowing that the inevitable is about to transpire. The closest emotions that I can think of would be Felipe Massa’s crash during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying session, or Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident during the final round of the 2011 IndyCar Series season. Both of them moments instantly shook me up. The former felt like watching a clock tick by, minute by minute, hoping for good news to come out of Hungary, hoping for a flicker of positivity.

And, for every Formula 1 fan worldwide currently, we have the same each and every day for the past four months with Michael Schumacher, albeit in an accident outside of the confines of a race track. One aspect that I can appreciate about Imola 1994 is that amount of work that has gone in by Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA and many, many more names to improving the safety of the sport that we love, year-in year-out. I spoke to Allard Kalff, who was Eurosport’s lead commentator for the San Marino Grand Prix weekend, commentating alongside John Watson. Kalff was a close friend of Ratzenberger’s. “The weird thing was that on Saturday, I had a really shitty feeling as I knew Roland pretty well. He used to stay at my place, first in Holland and later also sometime in England. So Roland dying during qualifying was a huge shock”, Kalff recalls.

“We all understand the risk of motor racing and realise these things can happen, even in 2014, so you accept the fact that something terrible has happened.” Nowadays, inaccurate rumours can spread via social media time and time again. Despite the lack of social media back then, the rumours spread from people walking into the various commentary boxes. “We did our best not to follow the many rumours that people were spreading around by walking into our commentary booth. The rumours went from ‘he died on the spot’ to “he only has a broken finger’. I am sure the people in Paris [at Eurosport’s headquarters] wanted to stay or move away from the pictures coming from the circuit but it was a case of, just keep going. I still believe John Watson was great keeping himself, and probably me, together”, Kalff noted.

As Kalff alluded to above, the weekend at Imola seen some harrowing images beamed around the world, both during the initial accidents, and also in the aftermath that followed. Those that watched the Senna movie will recall the overhead shots that were shown. Back in 1994, the control of the World Feed was in the hands of the local broadcasters’, whether that was the BBC for the British Grand Prix, or RAI for the San Marino Grand Prix. RAI took the decision to broadcast close-ups of Senna’s lifeless body in the car. BBC had their own camera in pit lane and so were able to cut away from the World Feed during the red flag stoppage. Other broadcasters, such as Eurosport did not have cameras readily available in the pit lane, and so stuck with the World Feed. “We didn’t have a protocol other than ask the people in Paris to go to a commercial break. The thing is that we didn’t have any communication with anybody really, so we were in the dark on what was happening”, explained Kalff.

Like I said at the start of the piece: I never watched Formula 1 in 1994, and was only introduced to the sport five years later. However, I wanted to write a small piece on the weekend, with the thoughts of one of those, who was there on the day and witnessed Formula 1’s blackest weekend. I’ll end with this quote from Kalff, as he summed up the weekend: “You try to work as good as you can and cry when back in the hotel room, or even a little bit before that.”

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5 thoughts on “Imola 1994: The reflections of a commentator

  1. I might be a little older than you. 1994 was the first season I watched in full, being 11 at the time. Imola is etched in my brain as a result. The Ratzenberger incident is not something I saw. The Senna one I can recall very clearly still with Murray Walker’s commentary and the cut aways you mention. Truly a dark weekend for the sport.

  2. I remember the events of 1994 very well.People often forget about Roland who we lost on April,30 .Roland was a racer he fought to achieve his dream of f1.Then on May,1 we lost Ayrton a great racer. I was at the 10th anniversary at imola.There is a nice statue of Ayrton
    In the trees opposite tamburello.Sadly there is nothing for Roland ratzenberger,we should remember both drivers. It still hurt,s even now. I will never forget that awfull weekend,Truly a dark weekend for Motorsport.

  3. Like yourself, I was too young to have seen the 1994 season, being only 5 months old when it started, so for me “Senna” was the first time I got to see what sort of character he was, both on and off the track. Even though I knew how it ended, it was still very emotional watching it, and I can’t even begin to imaging what it would have been like at the time.

    On an unrelated note, there is a slight error in this article. It was 2011 when Dan Wheldon tragically lost his life, not 2012.

  4. David, you need to improve your English, you can’t say “Them thoughts”, should be “Those thoughts” and “Them moments” should be “Those moments” otherwise a good article.

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