Remembering Senna, Ratzenberger 19 years after Imola weekend

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This year marks 19 since the horrific, black few days at Imola in 1994, and the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger during the San Marino Grand Prix weekend. Ratzenberger was killed Saturday, April 30, in qualifying, with Senna’s fatal accident on May 1 during the race.

May 1 is poignant for other reasons; the day was also Senna’s first win for McLaren, at Imola, 25 years ago today in 1988. With the all-conquering McLaren MP4-4 Honda, Senna and teammate Alain Prost dominated the season with 15 wins from 16 races between them. It was the first win for Senna before he captured his first World Championship.

In 1994, both Senna and Ratzenberger were destined for new, great horizons before the weekend. Senna switched to Williams after his final years at McLaren were dispiriting thanks to a down-on-power engine, while Ratzenberger was due to compete for Toyota in that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Test driver David Coulthard and 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell filled the second seat at Williams the remainder of the year, with Mansell winning his final Grand Prix at Adelaide in the season finale.

Ratzenberger’s place at Le Mans was taken by then-Jordan rookie Eddie Irvine, and the team finished second with Irvine, Mauro Martini and the also late Jeff Krosnoff. As a tribute, Ratzenberger’s name still was displayed over the cockpit.

Senna, of course, was set to pay tribute to Ratzenberger during the San Marino race. An unfurled, blood soaked Austrian flag was found in his Williams after the accident.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”