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Thoughts at Imola

I wonder if there is there anyone on earth who does not know that the Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari at Imola, 20 miles to the south-east of Bologna, is the home of the San Marino Grand Prix. One must suppose that there are a few tuaregs in the Sahara, Kalahari bushmen, eskimos in the snowy wastes of Greenland and pygmies in Papua New Guinea who have never heard of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, but they are few and they are far between.

Imola is now a sinister word, a place of death, just as Hockenheim is forever labelled as the place that killed Jim Clark and Zolder is where the great Gilles Villeneuve perished. To be honest it is a shame because Imola has always been a joyful place where the tifosi came to celebrate the cult of Ferrari, to sing and dance and hurl abuse at anyone who tried to beat their beloved red cars. Over the years the San Marino GP one of the great F1 meetings of the year: there was the optimism of Spring; the fervent fans with a contagious enthusiasm; superb food and wine so pure that you never had a hangover unless you had been dumb enough to touch the rough old brandy which usually follows.

The rolling hills to the south of Imola are full of little towns with quirky family-run hotels where serendipity is the way of life, although it could be a kind of pasta that only Mama knows how to make. Every year we would go to see how the kids were growing up. The girls in this region blossom juicily and the few romantic buccaneers left in F1 circles make the most of the local beauties. The local boys all look like racing drivers and all drive like lunatics.

Everyone appears to be called Costa, from the man who designs Minardis (the local team) to the man who founded the Imola circuit and the local tobacconist. There are more Costas in Emilia Romagna than there are Van der Merwes in South Africa or Joneses in Abergavenny.

It is, therefore, surprising that there isn't actually a major car company called Costa to line up alongside the region's famous manufacturers: Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and today Bugatti as well. There have also long been many small car-builders as well, typified today by Minardi but including in the past such as Osca and that most spaghetti-sounding car-builder of them all Stanguellini, which always makes one want to add "carbonara" whenever you mention it.

It was the local car industry which decided the commune of Imola to build a race track back in the 1950s, working on the principal that the manufacturers would use the track for testing their machinery. It didn't work out like that and so Imola had a fairly checkered career from a financial point of view.

In April 1963 eager to grab some start money between races at Pau and Pescara, some of the F1 teams of the day stopped off at Imola for an event which was called the Shell Gold Cup. Jim Clark and Trevor Taylor came with their Lotus 25s and even though the field included such as Jo Bonnier, Jo Siffert and Lorenzo Bandini, Clark took pole by over 2.5s and led from flag to flag.

Thereafter Imola sank back into obscurity until the summer of 1968 when a very bright spark came up with the idea of naming the track after Enzo Ferrari's son Dino, who had died of leukemia in 1956. That decision guaranteed patronage for Imola from the Old Man of Maranello and within a couple of years the track had been rebuilt and international racing arrived. It was not until the autumn of 1979, however, that F1 returned to Imola for the Dino Ferrari Grand Prix, a non-championship event which was won by Niki Lauda in a Brabham-Alfa Romeo.

A year later Imola hosted the Italian GP, won by Brabham again, this time with Nelson Piquet driving. Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone was obviously much taken by the track because in 1981 the San Marino GP began. San Marino is nearly 50 miles away, a tiny independent republic which comprises of all of 23 square miles and is completely surrounded by Italy. San Marino is a bit like Monaco without the harbour and without the princesses. There is a big rock which rises out of the ground and a palace on top. It survived because no-one could be bothered to climb to the top and chip away a hole in which to stick an Italian flag. Its existence, however, was very convenient for F1 because it enabled the World Championship to visit Italy twice every year. Since then the race has entered into F1 folklore with such memorable events as the fight between Ferrari drivers Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve in 1982, which saw Pironi steal the race from Villeneuve. After that Villeneuve swore never to speak to his team mate again and nor did he as he died a fortnight later in practice for the Belgian GP at Zolder. The year after that Villeneuve's friend, Patrick Tambay took Ferrari No 27 to a symbolic and emotional victory.

As the years passed the track became more and more of a challenge with small run-off areas and became famous for some high-speed accidents. Tamburello corner was flat out but if drivers had problems there were some monster crashes but the drivers all emerged largely unhurt: Nelson Piquet, Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto and, most-famously, Gerhard Berger went into the Tamburello walls - but all emerged unscathed. But, finally, Imola's good luck ran out on a miserable weekend last year.

This year the sportswriters of the world converged on Imola to write mood pieces. They had to work hard because the F1 paddock was surprisingly unemotional last weekend. The past has gone and it was business as usual. Perhaps the Williams team was a little quieter than normal but that is perhaps understandable as the Italian investigation into the Senna crash is still open an has yet to decide if there is a case for taking action against the team or not.

The track has been emasculated, of course, since those dark days but, in the finest F1 tradition, the horse had long bolted by the time the FIA closed the stable door. Large chunks of the track have been completely reprofiled. The Senna accident overshadowed everything of course, but if you remember carefully you will recall that several spectators were hurt when wreckage flew over the debris fencing at the start and landed in the grandstands. This year the fences were higher but in the pitlane - where Michele Alboreto's Minardi lost a wheel and slewed into a crowd of Ferrari mechanics - was much the same as ever.

The focus of the world's media attention was Tamburello Corner which was daubed with slogans about Senna and dotted with bunches of flowers. The wall which Ayrton hit is still there, an unofficial monument to the man.

Poor Roland Ratzenberger was overshadowed in death although it is nice to be able to report that a few of his friends did not let Roland's death go unnoticed. There was a few bunches of flowers at the corner he died laid there by his friends, notably Johnny Herbert and Mika Salo.

These simple ceremonies contrasted with the launch of a brand of sunglasses named after Senna. Such a thing can be judged harshly, but I guess that if the sales produce some money for the Senna Foundation's food programs in Brazil, children will be fed and clothed.

Formula 1 is too self-obsessed and cynical to pay much attention to charity work, unless there is something to be gained. Exploiting the Senna name in a commercial way is one thing, but I hope that the sport will also remember that charity begins at home. Over the weekend on the Imola press office notice board there was a small note from the External Affairs Department of the FIA asking if anyone might be interested in helping to establish a trust fund to pay for the education of the son of a wonderful lady called Sylvie Shannon.

Sylvie, who died recently after a long battle with cancer, which she fought with courage and humour, was the best advert that the FIA ever had, bringing a human face to what can sometimes be a faceless and impenetrable organization. It would be nice to think that while Senna sunglasses will help to feed the world, F1 folk will look after one of its own.

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