Imola remains one of F1's greatest thrills despite its tragic past

Nearly 30 years after Ayrton Senna's death, the Italian circuit retains the soul of the sport

The F1 cars race at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola in 2021. Reuters
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Imola has always been one of my favourite tracks – and favourite places.

Fast, rolling, demanding and dangerous despite being neutered by safety changes after Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, it remains challengingly old-school – and resolutely loved by the sport’s cognoscenti.

Despite dozens of attempts and billions spent worldwide, F1’s track designers are yet to recreate this chemistry of twists and turns.

The circuit is on the edge of a city of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Maranello is 90km north, Monza and Milan a few hours further in the same direction and F1 heads to the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this weekend of the first visit to Europe this season.

The days are immersed in the region’s motor racing obsession and the nights consumed with its other love; pizza. Well into the early hours, boy racers would roar up and down outside on their vespas, the tinny sound echoing through rooms with wall-to-wall tiling and showers that leaked continually.

Much as I, like so many others, was profoundly affected by the death of Senna, my love for this place and Autodromo Dino e Enzo Ferrari has been unrelenting.

Even in my time Tamburello, a flat out left-hander, had seen significant accidents before Senna’s. There had been warnings. Nelson Piquet knocked himself senseless there, Gerhard Berger was hospitalised by an inferno he was lucky to escape. And, of course, a little further down the track the day before Senna’s demise, poor Roland Ratzenberger became a victim too, just three Grands Prix into an F1 career he had worked so hard to achieve.

No-one who was there will ever go to Imola without vivid memories of a bleak weekend, even as the 30th anniversary approaches.

And yet it is great to see the circuit persists in a rapidly changing sport, modernised but somehow its essence largely untouched.

Leclerc wins the Australian GP

If Monza is the raging heart of Italy’s motor sporting passion then, for me, Imola feels closer to its soul.

The brutal chicanes slapped in after ‘94 have been refined and improved. It has emerged from its bleakest hour arguably better and stronger. Much like Ferrari themselves.

After two of the worst years in their history, Maranello has emerged from the first three races as clear title favourite, capitalising on radically changed regulations that appear to have caught out all its rivals.

Even this early, the statistics scream in favour of their poster boy, Charles Leclerc, becoming the next champion.

He has won two of the first three events, finished second in the other, started on pole twice and set fastest lap in all three.

More significantly, perhaps, he has led nearly nine out of every 10 laps raced so far. And there is something serene about the way he is doing it.

Max Verstappen is ranting on the radio and branding his car’s lack of reliability “unacceptable” and Lewis Hamilton is yet to harness his Mercedes' speed – or his own.

Brazilian Ayrton Senna died in an accident at Imola in 1994.

Having retired twice in three races from different fuel-supply issues, the Dutchman is already 46 points adrift and one team source labelled his occasionally dark moods as a “time bomb”.

Boss Christian Horner has attempted to smooth over the problems insisting it is better to have a fast car with issues than a slow car and have to find speed.

That appears to be the problem faced by Mercedes, their championship positions flattered by Red Bull’s lack of reliability.

Some are suggesting Mercedes' issues are so fundamental they have already gone back to the drawing board and are working on an entire B-spec design rather than use the traditional route of refining what they have – a significant move in a price-cap formula.

And with a power unit also well down on both their title rivals, Mercedes will rue the timing of Imola because 71 per cent of every lap is spent at top speed.

At 205 kph, Imola also has the third highest average corner speeds of the year after Silverstone and Suzuka, making balance crucial, and one of the widest variety of corners seen all year, both stats playing to Ferrari’s strengths.

Leclerc’s rivals will be hoping for salvation from the chaos usually generated by the Sprint formula with only one practice session before Friday qualifying and a 100km race on Saturday.

Last year, Verstappen set the tone for the season with a first chicane lunge on Lewis Hamilton that earned him an unexpected victory. This year, it’s difficult to look beyond a Leclerc and Ferrari.

Updated: April 21, 2022, 5:54 AM