Born in Salzburg, Austria, Ratzenberger was an immensely popular and self-effacing Austrian Formula One driver. He began racing in German Formula Ford in 1983.
In 1985 won both the Austrian and Central European Formula Ford championships. He finished 2nd in the German Formula Ford title, 4th in the British series and also came second in the prestigious Brands Hatch Formula Ford Festival. A hard working and talented driver.
He won the Festival the following year and and with from the ATS wheels he joined West Surrey Racing for the 1987 British F3 Championship.Hse was on the podium at Spa but this was the only bright spot in a dissapointing season which saw him finish 12th in the standings, although in the F3 Euroseries he was 5th.
He was a dissapointing 12th again in 1988 now driving with Madgwick Motorsport. In touring cars that year, he joined the Schnitzer BMW team to race a BMW M3 in the World Touring Car Championship. He finished on the podium twice with two 2nd places. In the UK he gained a degree of fame because his name was similar to that of the TV puppet 'Roland Rat' and he even appeared alongside him on TV-AM.
By the end of 1988 his career had stalled. The WTCC had folded and two average seasons in British Formula 3 did not help. Thus in 1989 he raced in the British F3000 championship, winning at Donington and finishing 3rd in the series. That year he also raced sports prototypes driving a Brun Porsche 962 finshing 4th at Spa with Oscar Larrauri though he retired in the third hour in his first Le Mans with Maurizio Sandro Sala and Walter Lechner.
Like many other professional racing drivers he headed to Japan. He raced a BMW M3 in the Japanese Touring Car Championship in 1990 and 1991, finishing 7th both years. He then returned to single seaters in 1992 in Japanese Formula 3000 with the Stellar team. Late in the year he scored two consecutive poles and took a dominant win at Suzuka to finish 7th in the final standings, ahead of Eddie Irvine. He stayed in Japanese F3000 in 1993 but slipped to 11th in the Championship.
He had raced at Le Mans again with Brun in 1991 and with the SARD team in 1990, 1992 and 1993. His best finish coming in 1993, when, driving with Mauro Martini and Naoki Nagasaka, he finished fifth in a Toyota 93 C-V.
In 1994, with help from the Monaco-based sports manager, Barbara Behlau, Ratzenberger was able to fulfill his dream of racing in Formula 1 and signed a five race deal with Nick Wirth's new Simtek team. He failed to qualify for the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos and then, two weeks later, he made his only F1 Grand Prix start at the Pacific Grand Prix at the TI Circuit in Aida, Japan, finishing 11th.
The third race of the season was at Imola. Ratzenberger once again showed his passion and determination for, having gone off the track at the Acque Minerali chicane the lap before, with qualifying time running out and believing that he still needed to make up one place to get on the grid, he weaved the Simtek a few times to check that it seemed OK and went for one more fateful lap. On the way to the Villeneuve bend, the front wing broke, the aerodynamic load on the weakened mounting proving too much. He ploughed into the wall at over 300 kph, the force breaking his neck. Ironically the time he had achieved earlier in the session would have been enough to qualify.
Ratzenberger was the first driver to perish at a Grand Prix in the twelve years following the 1982 deaths of Riccardo Paletti and Gilles Villeneuve. Then only 24 hours later, Senna was also lost.
At Monaco pole position was replaced by a Brazilian flag and an Austrian flag was painted on the second spot. As the drivers paid their respects, Frentzen, Hill, Niki Lauda, Gerhard Berger, and David Brabham gathering around the painted red and white flag.
Simtek carried 'For Roland' painted on their airbox for the rest of the season and at Le Mans his name remained on the door of the Toyota he was due to drive.