Featured: F1’s History in Imola
F1 is returning to Imola this weekend, marking the second year on the calendar in a row after its return in 2020 as it substituted for a number of canceled Grand Prix. Ahead of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, let’s have a look at the history the circuit has made with F1 over the last four decades.
Written by Giuseppe Dino, Edited by Aiden Hover
The track, which was built in 1953, hosted its first F1 Grand Prix back in 1980. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari hosted the Italian Grand Prix, with Monza taking a year off the calendar. The race was won by Brabham’s Nelson Piquet, while Williams celebrated their first World Constructors’ Championship Title.
With Monza’s return in 1981, the Grand Prix was renamed “Gran Premio di San Marino”, a name it would keep until 2006. The track underwent some slight changes to the “Acque Minerali” section, while fans witnessed Gilles Villeneuve’s second and last pole position of his career, as well as young Michele Alboreto’s debut, with the race won again by Nelson Piquet.
The 1982 Grand Prix famously ended Ferrari’s Villeneuve and Pironi’s friendship: the drivers, while comfortably running in the first two positions during the race, were shown a pit board ordering them to slow down to avoid crashing into each other. However, Pironi ignored the message, and overtook Villeneuve, going on to win the race followed by Villeneuve and Alboreto. The friendly relationship between the two Ferrari drivers was never restored, as Villeneuve tragically lost his life during the following Grand Prix weekend in Zolder.
1983 saw an all-French podium: Patrick Tambay took the win for Ferrari, with Alain Prost second and the other Ferrari of René Arnoux third. This is still to this day the last F1 podium monopolised by one nation. The first win by an Italian driver in Imola came in 1985, after an eventful ending to the Grand Prix: Ayrton Senna had been leading for the whole race until, with four laps to go, he spun and was forced to retire; new race leader Stefan Johansson ran out of fuel not long after; Alain Prost then went on to win the race, only to be disqualified for irregular weight, with the win being finally handed to Elio De Angelis, to the delight of the local fans.
1989 was marked by yet another polemic. McLaren drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had agreed before the race to not overtake each other for the whole race after the first corner. Senna took the lead at the start of the Grand Prix, and Prost kept his promise. However, the red flag was brought out after Gerhard Berger’s scary accident at Tamburello. At the restart, Prost managed to overtake Senna after the five lights went out, but Senna, feeling Prost had broken his promise, reovertook him at Tosa, then winning the race. This was the event that caused their rivalry to finally break down.
The last win by an Italian came in 1990 thanks to Riccardo Patrese. The Williams driver pulled off an amazing overtake on leader Gerhard Berger with 10 laps to go at Tosa. The podium was completed by Alessandro Nannini, who put in a stellar performance, keeping Ferrari’s Alain Prost behind and setting the fastest lap on the second to last lap.
Imola’s fame grew even more in the fateful Grand Prix weekend of 1994. On Friday, Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello hit the barrier at the exit of the penultimate chicane at over 200 km/h. Luckily, he got away with “only” a broken nose and sprained wrist. Unfortunately, the same luck did not assist Simtek’s Roland Ratzenberger. The Austrian driver had a front wing failure while negotiating the Villeneuve corner in qualifying, which sent him against the barriers at 314 km/h. The force of the impact inflicted a basal skull fracture and multiple other injuries, causing the driver to lose his life. Sunday took away another great life. The start saw JJ Letho stalling on the grid. Lotus’s Pedro Lamy hit the back of the stationary Benetton, causing bodywork and tyres to fly all over the track. The safety car was immediately called onto the circuit, and when it came in on lap 5, Senna was leading the race. However, two laps later, his car went straight on at Tamburello, hitting the barrier at 305 km/h. The red flag was waved, and at 2:55 pm local time the race was restarted, while false news around the paddock reported the Brazilian was ok. Two hours and twenty minutes after the end of the race, won by Michael Schumacher, Senna’s death was announced by the medical staff. The time of death given was 2.17 pm local time, meaning he had died instantly on the impact, differently from what reports had said.
The circuit was modified for 1995 to ensure better safety for the drivers – in adding the Tamburello and Villeneuve chicanes, and modifying the Acque Minerali section. Luckily, no more deaths have been recorded at Imola during F1 events ever since Senna’s fatal accident.
In the following years, several drivers have taken their first success at the San Marino Grand Prix: in 1997 Heinz-Harald Frentzen took his first win in Imola, while in 2001 it’s Ralf Schumacher to take his first F1 win there, again with the Williams team. In 2004 Jenson Button took his first pole position in F1 here, while in 2005 and 2006 fans witnessed two great battles against Renault’s Fernando Alonso and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher with the Spaniard winning the first and the German winning the second. 2006 also saw Schumacher break Senna’s record of 65 career pole positions.
Imola disappeared from the calendar after 2006, only to come back in 2020 to fill in the blank spaces left by the circuits removed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The layout was slightly changed again, with the removal of the last chicane, significantly lowering the lap times. Valtteri Bottas took pole position with Lewis Hamilton winning the race, following a display of his great mastery in tyre conservation, pulling off an amazing overcut on his teammate with the assistance of a well-timed virtual safety car. The race was marked by Max Verstappen’s sudden retirement due to suspension failure, and George Russell’s unlucky spin under the safety car at the entrance of Acque Minerali, denying him what could’ve been the first points in his F1 career. The two Mercedes drivers were joined on the podium by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, taking his second podium of the season.
Imola is returning for the second year in a row this weekend, and with the rivalry shaping up between Mercedes and Red Bull, as well as a midfield fight looking closer than ever, we definitely can’t wait to see how the racing will unfold this time!