Imola – A Retrospective
While the San Marino GP of the tragic May Day weekend of 1994 will always be remembered for the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, it must not be forgotten that it was also effectively the end of the classic Imola circuit. The fast, flowing circuit near Bologna in north-east Italy was heavily scrutinised after the event, and a year on, when F1 returned to the scene of the tragedy, they arrived to a very different circuit. The changes may have only been minor in comparison to other revamped circuits, but you could argue that the post-1994 Imola was as much of a separate circuit as the A1-Ring to the Osterreichring, or the new Nurburgring to the Nordschliefe.
Although you wouldn’t know it today, the Imola circuit, renamed the Autodromo Dino Ferrari in the 1960s after the late son of Ferrari founder Enzo (whose name was then added after his death in 1988), was originally built around public roads on the banks of the Santerno River just outside the town of Imola itself. Looking at the original layout gives some clues, with its fast sweeps and few heavy braking points. Inevitably, though, those fast sweeps were a bit too fast for the increasingly quick cars, with the first chicanes, breaking up the quick last corner, added in 1972. This was soon followed by another, Variante Alta, at the top of the hill after climbing up from Acque Minerale. After further renovations later that decade came the Gran Premio Dino Ferrari, a non-championship F1 event held in September 1979. Fittingly in hindsight, it was Gilles Villeneuve who qualified on pole for Ferrari, with further Italian interest with the win going to the Alfa Romeo-powered Brabham of ex-Ferrari driver Niki Lauda.
The following year, Imola replaced Monza as the host of the Italian Grand Prix, the only time the race was not held at the famous high speed venue. Brabham took the win again, with Nelson Piquet on the top step of the podium. Imola’s reward for a successful event was its own, the San Marino Grand Prix, named after the nearby micro-state, and so it retained a spot on the calendar. Another change was the addition of chicane on the approach to Acque Minerale due to the lack of run-off area.
The San Marino GP became a fixture on the calendar, usually as one of the first events of the season and the first European race of the season. It remained a popular event despite the fact that it was one of two Italian events on the calendar, its high speed nature and picturesque setting winning Imola many fans. There were great moments too, such as the battle between the Ferraris in the FOCA-boycotted 1982 event and Mansell’s high speed spin while chasing Senna in 1990. But as the speeds of the cars crept up, so did the danger. Despite being modernised before it began to hold F1 events, the circuit did not keep up with the times, leaving it with a bumpy track, high kerbs, thick concrete walls and an increasingly old-school appearance which by the mid 1990s was becoming increasingly anachronistic and out of touch with the developing sport. 1994 would be a watershed for both Imola and F1 circuits, in terms of appearance and safety.
It is easy today in hindsight to criticise the Imola circuit for being dangerous, especially when you look back in particular at the serious accidents at Curva Tamburello before Senna’s. Nelson Piquet missed the 1987 race due to concussion after slamming into the wall rear first in practice. Gerhard Berger escaped with minor injuries from his serious crash, notable for the spectacular eruption of flames once his car had come to a rest, early in the 1989 race. There were also two testing accidents there for Michele Alboreto and Riccardo Patrese in 1991 and 1992. So the warning signs were there. However, Tamburello was an easy flat-out corner, and the run-off area wasn’t exactly minimal. What was dangerous about it was what was dangerous about the circuit in general – the bumps, concrete walls and the generally poor condition of the track as a whole. That combined with a high speed corner was a deadly combination.
Tamburello probably could have survived into the modern era. Even if we ignore the fact that Senna was killed by a flying wheel, which could have happened just about anywhere, there were possible solutions that would have both kept the corner as it was and made it safe. While there was no room to expand the run-off area due to the presence of the Santerno River not far behind the perimeter wall, there surely would have been other solutions. With a better track condition with less bumps and a tyre wall on the outside, it would not have been as much of a danger. Today, there are more safety features available, such as the SAFER barrier and grippy tarmac run-off. And if they wanted more run-off area, they could have done what Suzuka have done with 130R – pull the corner inwards, making it less tight and allowing extra space to convert to run-off.
But, alas, the circuit owners had to be seen to be doing something drastic – in the new uber-safety-conscious environment, where kneejerk reactions became standard, it was inevitable. The corner had claimed the sport’s biggest name, and its poor track record was also exposed, meaning its fate was sealed. By the time F1 returned in 1995, Curva Tamburello had become Variante Tamburello, a left-right-left chicane.
It was the same story at Villeneuve, the fast right kink after Tamburello that claimed Ratzenberger. In normal circumstances, it was not a dangerous corner – it was easily flat out. However, in the event of a mechanical failure, it became lethal. Roland’s crash, caused by front wing failure, was not the first there – the corner is named Villeneuve due to the large accident Gilles had there in 1980. Like Tamburello, it was not the corner itself that was the problem – that was the presence of a large concrete wall on the outside of the corner with virtually no run-off area. Again, there should have been an alternative to radical alteration, but unfortunately, the post-94 SM GP hysteria meant a left-right chicane was added.
There were other changes too. Rivazza was altered to allow for more run-off, while the first Variante Bassa chicane, where Barrichello had crashed in practice, was removed. Acque Minerale was also reshaped, again removing the chicane and restoring it to something like its original shape. But despite the removal of two chicanes, partly to compensate for the addition of two, the character of the circuit was completely changed. The longest high speed run from Variante Bassa to Tosa was broken up into three short straights that were too short to allow for any overtaking. Tosa, once a major braking point at the end of the long run and a great overtaking opportunity, was now just another corner in a stop-start first half of the lap. Yes, Acque Minerale was improved, with the run from plunging Piratella through there and the kerb-hopping Variante Alta to Rivazza being a great pleasure, but there was now nowhere to overtake. Added to this, its old-school appearance was partly shed as the circuit received a cosmetic makeover. Thus, the post-1994 Imola was effectively a Hungaroring with trees.
That said, it continued to deliver great moments and was well-loved by the fans despite claiming one of their biggest heroes. Indeed, it was its lack of overtaking opportunities that produced some of its most thrilling races, such as in 1997 when Heinz-Harald Frentzen fought off his archenemy Michael Schumacher for his first win in F1, and in 2005 when a charging Schumacher was again held off by Fernando Alonso in a dramatic finale. The German legend has the most wins at Imola, with 7 starting with the infamous 1994 race and ending with the last race there in 2006, where he had revenge over Alonso by holding him off. 7 of the last 8 San Marino GPs were won by a Schumacher, with brother Ralf taking his first win in F1 there in 2001.
But by the mid-2000s, Imola was once again looking out of date. This time, it was the facilities, barely updated since they were built in the late 1970s, that were coming under fire. The circuit was now increasingly seen as a throwback to the 1990s in the face of the emergence of the enormous complexes of the Tilkerings such as Sepang, Sakhir and Shanghai. Plans were drawn up, ironically by Hermann Tilke himself, for a new pits complex and a redesigned pit straight involving the removal of the Variante Bassa to be built after the 2006 race. However, finding funds was difficult, and the start of work was delayed. In August, the provisional 2007 F1 calendar was released and Imola was absent. While the circuit owners SAGIS hoped for the race to be reinstated, permission was denied.
The work went ahead in the hope that F1 would return in 2008, but inevitably, with new races added to the F1 calendar at increasingly grandiose venues, a return to Imola seemed increasingly unlikely. Indeed, the work took longer than expected and it wasn’t until September 2008 that the circuit played host to international racing again, when it hosted a round of the World Touring Car Championship. But while it has the necessary FIA license to host such events, it does not have the license to host F1 races – its rating, 1T, means it can only host F1 test sessions. In addition, Rome now has a deal to host a second Italian race on a street circuit in the city, which has surely killed off any hopes of an Imola return. It seems that what made it so attractive throughout its time as part of the F1 year, its failure to keep with the times, is what will cost it any chance of hosting F1 again.