APRIL 29, 2004
Should Imola be dropped from the F1 calendar?
With the San Marino Grand Prix expected to disappear from the World Championship calendar in 2005, there is a certain amount of nostalgia surrounding the track at the moment. Imola's "classic" status is arguable. It has been around in F1 terms only since 1979, although there was a non-championship F1 event in 1963 attended by a few teams on their way between Pau and Pescara. In the autumn of 1979 there was a second non-championship event known as the Dino Ferrari Grand Prix which was put on as a precursor to Imola getting the Italian GP in 1980. Although the Italian GP went back to Monza in 1981 Imola then became a World Championship event, naming itself the San Marino GP after the tiny republic of San Marino, perched on the top of a small mountain 50 miles away.
The event started with a bang - quite literally - when Gilles Villeneuve emerged unscathed from a high-speed accident at the corner than now bears his name. The 1982 race was a sad affair with most of the teams staying away because of the political battle between the teams and the governing body. The race was not very enthralling until the final laps when Didier Pironi passed Villeneuve to win, a move which ended their relationship. Two weeks later at Zolder Villeneuve died in a violent accident. A year later Villeneuve's friend, Patrick Tambay - who had replaced him at Ferrari - took Ferrari No 27 to victory. It was a magical and emotional result which helped build up the reputation of Imola. In the years that followed the accidents were often bigger than the races with Nelson Piquet surviving a huge crash in Tamburello in 1987 and two years later Gerhard Berger escaping from a fiery Ferrari in the same corner. But Imola's luck ran out in 1994 when Grand Prix racing endured a nightmare weekend with the death of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. It was the end for Tamburello Corner. When F1 returned to in 1995 the corner had been turned into a chicane.
The annual visit to Imola has always been popular with the F1 circus. There was always a contagious enthusiasm from the fans and, with the beautiful rolling hills of the region, the quirky little hotels, the superb food and wine it was always a popular venue. But none of this put it on the same level as the great circuits such as Monza, Silverstone, Spa or Monaco. Perhaps it compares better to the new Nurburgring, Barcelona or Hockenheim. A good track but not a classic.
Imola survived because of Ferrari's support but in an era when there is constant pressure to improve Imola did little. It's facilities have been out of date for 10 years and very little effort has gone into changing things when one compares it to the work and investment which has been done at Hockenheim, the Nurburgring, Monza and even the much-maligned Silverstone. Imola is suffering now for that inability to change.
But the biggest problem is not that people want to leave Imola, it is that the spectator numbers are falling. This year the track claimed 130,000 spectators over three days. Malaysia boasted 140,000.
Admittedly Bahrain had a much smaller crowd but then there has been no time to build up motor racing interest in the Middle East. Malaysia is in its fifth year with F1 and is now starting to pull in people in large numbers. Imola is dropping away and compared to the big races, which boast three-day figures of 200-300,000 it is not impressive.
Some argue that replacing Imola with a race outside Europe at a new track without tradition is a crime but there is a good argument that spreading the sport around the world is a good idea. Traditions have to start somewhere. Europe has long enjoyed the advantage of being the birth-place of the sport but that does not mean it has a right to a monopoly of the big races. There were few motor racing traditions in Africa, Latin America and Australia until Europeans started sending cars out for races in the 1930s. Now we talk of Brazil's tradition in racing or the culture of racing that exists in South Africa but it was not always the case and Europe must wake up to that fact.
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