Imola. A name which holds an ominous ring, eternally entwined into Formula 1 history following the tragic events which unfolded on the race weekend of 1994, with the loss of both Roland Ratzenberger and the great Ayrton Senna. The circuit has seen many revisions throughout its lifetime, although remains one of the most difficult tracks in Europe, and this weekend F1 returns for the first time since 2006.
Motor racing has been present at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari ever since the early 1950s when the idea to create a racetrack was born. The first iteration of the circuit remained largely unchanged from the first motorcycle races in 1953 all the way until 1971. The track had few bends, comprised only of long, flat-out straights running from Acque Minerali to Rivazza, and from RIvazza all the way to Tosa. From an early age, Imola was a track made for speed.
Initially named after the Saterno River which borders the track on the paddock side, the circuit was renamed Autodromo Dino Ferrari in 1970 after Enzo Ferrari’s son, who had died from leukaemia in 1956. Following the death of “Il Commendatore” himself in 1988 the track was renamed once again.
It wasn’t until 1963 that the circuit hosted its first international F1 race, a non-championship event won by Jim Clark in a Lotus 25. The race organisers are said to have been disappointed by the lack of a race entry from Ferrari. Soon after Clark’s victory, the track was given its first covered grandstand, erected on the main straight, as well as new run-off areas and spectator banking at Tosa.
The racetrack was only transformed into a true permanent facility at the end of the 1970s, with the construction of barriers, grandstands and new pit buildings giving the circuit a new breath of life. As a result of such heavy investment, the circuit was awarded another non-championship Grand Prix, this time won by the Brabham of Niki Lauda. This was the start of what would become an illustrious career in F1 for the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari.
In 1980 the Italian Grand Prix was awarded to Imola, following disputes with the race organisers at the "Temple of Speed" in Monza. However, a year later this feud had resolved, and Imola was consequently given the title of the “San Marino Grand Prix”, as the decision was made to retain the circuit in the F1 calendar alongside Monza.
Imola has been the stage for some of F1s most incredible stand-offs. Most notable of all being the 1982 edition where Ferrari teammates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi would have their iconic falling out. Following a tough start to the 1982 season, the championship was in the hands of Renault, and the Ferrari duo had failed to amass any significant points. In a year where turbos had become pivotal for success and ground effect had drastically increased downforce, the cars were unimaginably quick.
This was a fearful combination when coupled with Villeneuve, considered then to be the fastest driver of all time. By lap 44 of the San Marino Grand Prix, the Renault’s of both Prost and Arnoux were out, and the scarlet duo led the field in a magical display of drafting and position swapping. However, in the closing laps of the race, team orders arrived, demanding both drivers to “SLOW”. Villeneuve interpreted the pit board to mean hold position, however his teammate did not, and Pironi flew past the Canadian on the final lap, taking the victory from race-leading Villeneuve. What ensued became one of the sport’s biggest fallouts to date, and Imola had been the venue for it.
Around the same time in the early ‘80s, changes were being implemented at the Rivazza and Acque Minerale corners in order to slow the circuit, which still featured alarmingly fast straights. However, it was Tamburello which required alterations, yet received the least attention…
Tamburello was a long sweeping bend following the start/finish straight which drivers would tackle flat-out. There were many concerns regarding the bumpiness of the corner, as well as the very limited room between the track and the concrete wall. However, at the time little was done, mostly due to the inflexibility of the circuit posed by the river directly behind the corner. In 1987 Nelson Piquet suffered a horrific accident at Tamburello, followed soon after by Gerhard Berger in 1989. Both accidents saw the drivers miss the next Grand Prix, such was the severity of each. Yet little was done to slow the corner down, and in 1994 Imola became engrained in motorsport history, as Formula 1 suffered one of its darkest ever weekends.
The motor racing world was changed forever, and immediate action was taken to improve both car and circuit design. The racetrack at Imola underwent a drastic redesign in the winter of 1994, and Tamburello was no more, instead replaced by a chicane. The same was done at Villeneuve in an attempt to slow the track further. Run-off areas were improved significantly, and the implementation of tyre walls was witnessed on a drastic scale at circuits around the world.
The San Marino Grand Prix continued to hold a place in the F1 calendar up until 2006, when the decision to drop the event was made following discontent in regard to the pit and paddock facilities, which had remined largely unchanged since the rebuild in 1979.
Financial difficulty followed, and the circuit underwent periods of rebuild and bankruptcy. However, in 2011 a complete resurface was finished and the FIA granted the track a Grade 1 status once again, fit to host Formula 1. Fourteen years later, and the sport returns to Imola this weekend for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. We hope that following this race, the legendary Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari will find a permanent place on the F1 calendar once again…