Autosport writers’ favourite Imola Grands Prix

Formula 1’s inaugural visit to the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in 1980 began an unbroken 27-year run on the calendar for Italy’s ‘other’ circuit, before it dropped off the schedule in 2006. But the onset of the COVID pandemic and an increased demand for European venues to meet F1’s required quota of events for 2020 prompted a return, with Imola proving a popular addition to the calendar for a generation of drivers that largely missed out on it first time around.

The tragic events of 1994, when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives, are indelibly sketched into Imola’s history as the circuit was changed significantly in the aftermath to improve safety. That also changed the character of the track, which previously featured a long flat out blast down to the first braking zone at Tosa — now interrupted by two chicanes.

But both before and after the changes, Imola yielded some entertaining races — perhaps most famously of all in 1982 when Ferrari team-mates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi bitterly fell out after their duel. After Michael Schumacher took his first Ferrari pole, fittingly, on the Scuderia’s home turf in 1996 Damon Hill turned the tables on Sunday to continue his successful title quest, while Ralf Schumacher took his and the Williams-BMW combination’s first F1 win in 2001.

Here, Autosport’s team of writers pick out some of their favourite F1 races from the circuit.

1985 — Senna and Prost pay a high gas price, Charles Bradley

After Senna ran out of fuel, Prost made it home to what he believed to be victory before he was disqualified

After Senna ran out of fuel, Prost made it home to what he believed to be victory before he was disqualified

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The 1985 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola is part of Formula 1 folklore, with three different leaders in the last five laps – none of whom won!

Renowned for being tough on fuel consumption, this was proved a year earlier when Elio de Angelis was one of three cars to run dry. Although he managed to salvage a podium finish, this year this graceful Italian was determined to play a cannier game.

His Lotus-Renault team-mate was the great Ayrton Senna, fresh off his maiden F1 victory at Estoril. Senna claimed pole position but warned: “Pole isn’t so important here. It will be hard on brakes and fuel consumption.”

The rules of the day were for 1.5-litre turbocharged engines that had the capacity to be the most powerful – and gas-thirsty – the sport has ever seen. And there was a strict fuel limit of 220 litres…

Senna darted into the lead, setting a high tempo for the others to follow. Despite a mid-race attack from McLaren’s Alain Prost, Senna was over 10s clear when his car began to suffer fuel starvation, and he was forced to pull over on the run to Tosa with four laps remaining.

That promoted Ferrari’s Stefan Johansson into the lead, sending the tifosi into raptures as he’d charged up from 15th on the grid in only his second start for the Scuderia. Alas, the Swede suffered an electronic issue which gave a false fuel reading, and he too ground to a halt.

Johansson’s demise handed the lead to Prost, who short-shifted around the final laps to claim victory – or so he thought! Prost’s car ran out of fuel at Variante Alta on the slowing-down lap and was found to be 2kg under the weight limit (including 2kg tolerance) in post-race scrutineering.

Prost thumbed a lift back from Renault’s Patrick Tambay and took his place on the podium before the stewards disqualified him. De Angelis inherited the victory, although it took two hours (and multiple sets of scales) for the scrutineers to persuade an irate Ron Dennis that Prost’s car was too light to be legal.

De Angelis – who crossed the line 38s after Prost – didn’t take all the credit for his frugality: “The engine decided to turn the boost down itself, that probably helped me finish.”

It would be de Angelis’s final F1 win, albeit one where he didn’t lead a lap! Thierry Boutsen’s Arrows was classified second, despite him running out of fuel and pushing his car across the finish line, one lap down, ahead of Tambay.

1989 — McLaren flexes its muscles as feud begins, Richard Asher

Senna ambushed Prost at the restart as seeds of distrust were sowed among McLaren's two stars

Senna ambushed Prost at the restart as seeds of distrust were sowed among McLaren’s two stars

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Imola hosted the second round of the world championship in 1989, but it was the first European race, following a single flyaway in Brazil. There, F1’s dominant force had been stung by a surprise win for Nigel Mansell and Ferrari. Following its record-breaking 1988, that hadn’t been in the script for McLaren. So the Woking squad responded in a manner it could never contemplate today: by booking eight days of testing at Imola.

The result was a crushing gain in performance for Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, with the McLaren drivers around a second and a half per lap quicker than third-placed Mansell in qualifying. They then lapped the entire field in the race, as Senna converted pole into a 40-second victory over Prost. Home racer Alessandro Nannini completed the podium in the colourful Anglo-Italian Benetton.

Of more enduring interest were the elements of foreshadowing the weekend produced. Gerhard Berger gave us a scary glimpse into the tragic future of Tamburello on lap four, when his Ferrari speared off the road and slammed into the concrete wall at the flat-out curve that followed the startline. The car burst into flames, and Berger sat in the cockpit for 14 seconds before an extinguisher was pressed into action. The Austrian escaped with minimal injuries — but nobody who watched it live will have forgotten how long those seconds seemed. The incident is all the more chilling to watch in hindsight, with the knowledge that Senna would not be so lucky when he struck that same wall five years later.

Imola 1989 was also one of the key ingredients in the toxic mix that led to Senna and Prost’s consecutive championship-deciding Suzuka collisions, the first of which came later that season. The seeds of discontent were sowed by a somewhat optimistic plan, the McLaren duo having agreed to no overtaking at the first corner of the race.

First time around, Senna led the duo through Tosa, the first proper corner in those days. But when the race was restarted following Berger’s shunt, the trusting Prost got the jump at the lights, left the door wide open under braking…and was surprised to see Senna take the gap. Probably unnecessary given the Brazilian’s pace over the next 57 laps, the move left Prost feeling betrayed. So bitter was the Frenchman that he skipped the post-race press conference. And that feud was really starting to bubble…

1991 — Race of survival rewards McLaren and Lotus, James Newbold

Prost and Berger both went off on the formation lap in 1991 on a disastrous day for Ferrari - although Berger would go on to finish second

Prost and Berger both went off on the formation lap in 1991 on a disastrous day for Ferrari — although Berger would go on to finish second

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It may have ended up with a routine-looking McLaren 1-2 finish, but the 1991 San Marino Grand Prix was anything but straightforward. Gerhard Berger finished second despite spinning off the road on standing water approaching the first Rivazza on the warmup lap, but Ferrari rival Alain Prost wasn’t so lucky. His stalled car was out before the race had even begun.

In a race of remarkable attrition, Lotus drivers Mika Hakkinen and Julian Bailey scored the team’s first points following its reboot under new ownership in fifth and sixth — having started 25th and 26th on the grid. That was despite gear selection problems which meant Bailey revved his Judd V8 to 15,500rpm on lap one and later caused a spin at Acque Minerali.

This was a race of survival, a point attested by Williams’ best hope of victory Riccardo Patrese pulling out of the lead with a faulty camshaft sensor which allowed Ayrton Senna a clear run to a history-making victory. Never before had a driver won three on the trot to open the campaign (although the feat had been accomplished three times during the 1950s when the anomalous Indianapolis 500 round formed part of the calendar).

Prost’s team-mate Jean Alesi joined him in retirement on lap three, skating into the Tosa gravel after what at first glance looked like a fantastically aggressive move on Stefano Modena’s Tyrrell for third and compounding a miserable home race for Ferrari. Autosport cartoonist Jim Bamber led his weekly strip on the Frenchmen with drinks in hand slinking into the background of lavish celebrations happening around them, remarking: «We’re safe here — nobody will think of looking for us at the Lotus party!»

Already before Alesi’s departure, Nigel Mansell had retired after contact with Martin Brundle’s Brabham, while Nelson Piquet gave Alesi a preview of what not to do at Tosa by throwing his Benetton at the scenery. When Modena was robbed of third by transmission failure, Roberto Moreno had a turn in the podium places until his Benetton began losing gears and through came JJ Lehto’s lapped Scuderia Italia Dallara for what would be the double Le Mans winner’s only F1 rostrum.

Two laps down in fourth was home hero Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi, but there was still time for one last heartbreak for Modena Lamborghini driver Eric Van de Poele. The Belgian had just squeaked through pre-qualifying in fourth, 0.188s ahead of Lehto’s team-mate Emanuele Pirro, and made it onto the grid in a very respectable 21st position. It would be the only time he made it onto the grid all season, but he made quite the impression, moving up to fifth before running out of fuel on the final lap just before the final chicane.

1997 — The day Frentzen lived up to his ‘Schumacher-beater’ reputation, Jake Boxall-Legge

Frentzen took his first F1 victory with Williams in 1997, finally coming good on the potential he'd long demonstrated

Frentzen took his first F1 victory with Williams in 1997, finally coming good on the potential he’d long demonstrated

Photo by: Motorsport Images

When Heinz-Harald Frentzen replaced reigning Formula 1 champion Damon Hill at Williams for the 1997 season, he arrived at the Grove squad with the tag of being a potential adversary to countryman Michael Schumacher. After all, Frentzen and Schumacher had been fierce rivals in German Formula 3 and the two ended the 1989 season tied on points — one point behind champion Karl Wendlinger.

The Moenchengladbach native’s reputation, however, was a millstone around his neck at Williams; Frentzen did not click with the austere management of Frank Williams and Patrick Head, and was very much second-best to Jacques Villeneuve in the opening three rounds. Then came an apparent breakthrough at Imola.

Frentzen dropped behind Schumacher off the line following a comparatively slow start from second, but immediately began to hustle the Ferrari driver in a bid to get back past. But the Rothmans-liveried Williams’ presence in Schumacher’s mirrors barely served as a distraction, and the two-time champion admirably held off Frentzen despite his compatriot’s greater speed.

Schumacher then stopped on lap 24, unshackling Frentzen and allowing him to start to chase a few quick laps to ensure he could overcut Schumacher. Villeneuve pitted from the lead two laps later, giving Frentzen a clear track to nail his in-lap before taking his own stop. Despite a two-second delay relative to Schumacher as the front-left tyre refused to part from the Williams FW19, Frentzen came out ahead of both rivals, and was immediately forced onto the defensive by heavy pressure from Schumacher.

Villeneuve’s drop to third had been exacerbated by an ailing gearbox, and his mid-race departure produced a duel between the Germans for the lead. While Frentzen had been pulling away from Schumacher with a clutch of quick laps around the three-mile course, he had one more stop to make — and a less-than-rapid execution from the Williams pitcrew gave Ferrari and Schumacher a glimmer of hope. The 6.9s stop that the Scuderia offered Schumacher was a rather nice trigger for a fightback, and gave the #5 car the momentum.

But time ran out, and Frentzen soaked up Schumacher’s assault to grab his first F1 victory. Although positive moments were few and far between for Frentzen during his spell at Williams, his fourth race for the team ensured he genuinely could beat Schumacher and rolled back the years to their scraps in F3. But it took another two years and a move to Jordan to ensure Frentzen could actually deliver on his promise…

2005 — Alonso takes the baton from Schumacher, Kevin Turner

Alonso's victory impressed  Schumacher and underlined his status as heir apparent

Alonso’s victory impressed Schumacher and underlined his status as heir apparent

Photo by: Motorsport Images

After five consecutive drivers’ titles for Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, rule changes for 2005 helped make things a little less predictable. Ferrari had a troubled start to the season, which required cars to run through each grand prix on one set of tyres. In the meantime, Fernando Alonso and Renault hit the ground running, the Spaniard arriving at Imola for round four with a third and two victories under his belt.

A mistake in qualifying limited Schumacher to 13th, while Alonso lined up second behind Kimi Raikkonen. When the Finn’s McLaren hit driveshaft trouble on lap nine of 62, Alonso was left in the lead. With Schumacher still only 11th and already 24 seconds back, Alonso’s main challenger appeared to be the BAR of Jenson Button.

But, as the tyres wore, Schumacher’s pace was incredible and he let rip as others peeled in for their fuel stops. After the first pitstops, Schumacher was up to third and he rapidly caught Button, jumping the Briton in traffic just before their second and final stops.

Once those were done, Schumacher was behind only Alonso and the F2005’s nose was up behind the R25’s gearbox with 11 laps to go. It seemed inevitable that the seven-time world champion would force his way past the then 23-year-old in only his 54th F1 start.

But, as would soon become familiar, Alonso showed both steely demonstration and his racecraft mastery, using the Renault’s torque and traction to stay just out of reach in a thrilling climax. He crossed the line to win by 0.215s, beating a car that had set a fastest lap 1.3s quicker than his own.

PLUS: Fernando Alonso’s greatest F1 drives

2021 — Just add rain! Sam Hall

The elbows out move adopted by Verstappen on Hamilton at the first corner set the tone for their 2021 rivalry

The elbows out move adopted by Verstappen on Hamilton at the first corner set the tone for their 2021 rivalry

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Imola 2021 was an event shrouded in controversy, with damp conditions allowing for bold overtaking attempts while increasing the chance of a costly mistake.

The opening exchanges set the tone for a thrilling afternoon as championship combatants Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen banged wheels at the Tamburello Chicane with the former sustaining damage as he was forced to bounce across the sausage kerbs.

I often find modern F1 cars less spectacular to watch than examples from decades past, but this was far from the case on this occasion as — even before DRS was enabled — drivers were often seen going three-wide along the main straight and into the first braking zone of the lap.

Verstappen pitted on lap 28 for slick tyres with Hamilton stopping one lap later and losing significant time. Fighting to recover, he slid his Mercedes off the track while lapping George Russell’s Williams at Tosa.

Hamilton’s front wing was severely damaged in the impact with the wall but a red flag interruption for a huge collision between the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Russell enabled him to fix the damage and resume the race in seventh, without lapped cars blocking his path back to the front.

The Bottas-Russell collision produced an out-of-character response from the latter, as he slapped the Finn’s helmet in frustration. The crash also came at a time when Russell was being heavily linked with Bottas’ Mercedes seat for the following year.

Following his error, Hamilton then put on a masterclass to navigate his way back to second behind only Verstappen, making use of DRS to scythe through the field. Although Hamilton and Verstappen had a run-in at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, it was Imola that set the tone for the battle that was to unfold.

The running also saw Lando Norris register one of his strongest performances to finish third and score his first podium of the year. Had it not been for the drama that unfolded elsewhere, this drive would have been worthy of far more than only a footnote.

Hamilton famously dug himself out of the gravel in reverse before charging back to second after the red flag

Hamilton famously dug himself out of the gravel in reverse before charging back to second after the red flag

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

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