Imola has staged some classic battles

Ben's Emilia Romagna GP preview

By Ben Edwards
C4F1 commentator

After a 24-year interval between F1 races in Portugal brought us a historic 92nd victory for Lewis Hamilton, I wonder what a 14-year gap will give us in Imola? 

The third Italian venue of the year has plenty of its own history to stir up emotions.

First used for a World Championship Grand Prix in 1980, the track became a stalwart of the calendar with classic moments, such as internal team conflicts between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi at Ferrari in 1982 and a similar argument in 1989 between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren.

Agreements had been made before the races about not fighting wheel-to-wheel at certain stages to ensure good results for the teams. But when it came down to it, both Pironi and Senna went for opportunities to steal the advantage from their teammates.

Sadly, both situations led to collapse of the relationships between each pairing. 

Villeneuve was still furious at the next outing in Belgium and some people believe his anger was an element in pushing so hard in qualifying that led to his life-ending crash.

At McLaren, the already tenuous relationship between Prost and Senna took a severe dive and didn’t recover until the Frenchman retired from the sport at the end of 1993. 

Once Prost was on the sidelines Senna was happy to engage with him, and on the fateful weekend at Imola in 1994 the two of them had several friendly conversations.

Tragic Times

Imola 1994 - it still shakes me to this day. 

I was working as back-up commentator for Eurosport’s F1 coverage, watching the action from a booth in Paris. The shock of Roland Ratzenberger’s death on the Saturday was immense and hit me hard but nobody could have expected what was to come on Sunday.

Senna’s fatal accident was shattering to the entire world of motorsport and beyond. Recognised as one of the true racing greats, he was the hero of a young karter named Lewis Hamilton as well as millions of others including deprived children in the favelas of Brazil.

It created a reset moment in Grand Prix racing, a time of renewed emphasis on safety which has had many beneficial effects over the years. In addition the circuit was modified and continued to be a key part of the championship race for another decade.

The man that Hamilton has just eclipsed in terms of race wins, Michael Schumacher, was always super-competitive at Imola. He won on seven occasions with both Benetton and Ferrari, but a highlight event for me was the one that got away.

Battle of the Titans

In 2005 Schumacher started 13th after an error in qualifying. It had been a tough start to the season for the man who had won the last five world titles in a row, but a regulation change had hurt Ferrari deeply and after three grands prix, he had only scored two points.

Sitting on the front row was the youngster who was leading the series, Fernando Alonso. 

By lap nine the Spaniard was in front, after pole-sitter Kimi Raikkonen suffered a breakdown with his McLaren, and Alonso looked set to take his third victory of the season.

But in cooler conditions, the Bridgestone tyres on Schumacher’s car began to work much more efficiently and the legendary competitor scythed his way through the field to be running in third place before the final pitstops.

As Alonso made his stop, Schumacher went on the attack to Jenson Button and was soon ahead, Button reporting later that Schumacher's pace was ‘absolutely staggering’. 

But the German was still due to make his own stop and when he re-emerged with 12 laps to go, Alonso was just in front.

All in a Name

What followed was an epic battle between two of the greats of F1.

Alonso’s Renault did not have the pace of Schumacher’s Ferrari, but he did have track position and controlled the race masterfully, denying Schumacher a chance to squeeze through.

The final stages were mesmerising, but it was Alonso who held on for victory by just two tenths of a second in the year that he would go on to take his first World Championship.

There was only one more race at Imola after that, and funnily enough it was Schumacher’s turn, getting his revenge on Alonso by a slightly larger margin of two seconds. 

Clearly they both excelled on the anticlockwise layout where riding kerbs can be a key part to fast lap times.

The track has seen minor changes since 2006 and combines some tricky corners over a more gently rolling landscape than in Portimao. 

Under the new title of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, named after the region it actually inhabits rather than the San Marino micro-state which is 50 miles away, the Imola circuit is all set to add yet more to the history books this weekend.

Join the C4F1 team for highlights of qualifying from Imola at 5:15pm on Saturday 31st October with race highlights and analysis from 6:30pm on Sunday.