Imola (Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari)

Imola is a fairly average little town, on the plains to the east of the Apennine mountains - the backbone of Italy. Nowhere on the earth is there such passion for racing cars for this is the region of Enzo Ferrari, of Lamborghini, Maserati and the towns of Modena and Maranello. In the hills behind Imola the Mille Miglia weaved its way through the hills and the famous Passes of Futa and Raticosa on the run between Florence and Bologna.

It was in the depressed post-war world that the town of Imola decided to launch a program of public works in order to provide jobs and restart the local economy. Four motor racing enthusiasts Alfredo Campagnoli, Graziano Golinelli, Ugo Montevecchi and Gualtiero Vighi proposed the construction of a new road linking existing public roads which could be turned into a racing circuit at which the local car companies could test their products. It seemed like a good idea at the time and once all the red tape was out of the way construction began in March 1950. Two years later Enzo Ferrari sent a sportscar to the track for a test run with Alberto Ascari, Gigi Villoresi and Giannino Marzotto sharing the driving. The Moto Guzzi and Gilera motorcycle companies also sent along riders. It was not until April 1953, however, that the first motorcycle races were held at Imola and it was June 1954 before the first car race - a sportscar event which witnessed a stirring battle between Luigi Maglioli in a Ferrari and Luigi Musso in a Maserati.

Keen to expand the organizers collected a large purse of start money and asked the Formula 1 racers if they would like to take part in a non-championship event in April 1963 between the races at Pau and Pescara. As Imola was en route a lot of the teams took the money and ran in the Shell Gold Cup, Jim Clark leading from flag to flag in his factory Lotus 25. Ferrari did not attend. Two years later a grandstand was built and in 1969 the circuit hosted a round of the Motorcycle World Championship.

In an attempt to win the approval and support of Ferrari, the Imola Council agreed to name the circuit after Enzo Ferrari's son Dino, who had died of leukemia in 1956. The decision guaranteed patronage from the Old Man of Maranello and within a couple of years the Circuit Dino Ferrari had raised the money for the construction of ring roads around the track so that finally it became a permanent closed circuit. In the autumn of 1979 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 - with Monza out of favor - Imola hosted the Italian GP and Brabham won again with the young Brazilian Nelson Piquet. F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone gave the Italian GP back to Monza in 1981 but, keen to continue with races at Imola, launched the San Marino GP. The tiny republic of San Marino - a quirk of Italian history - is 50 miles away, perched on the top of a small mountain which no-one had bothered to conquer.

In 1981 the first San Marino GP was won by Piquet but will long be remembered for an incredible accident when Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari suffered a tire failure and spun at high speed into the barriers in the fast corner before Tosa. The Ferrari was torn to pieces but Villeneuve miraculously emerged unscathed. The corner would later be named after him. 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. It turned into a fight between the two Ferraris of Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Pironi took the lead and won at the very end, a move which infuriated Villeneuve who claimed that the Frenchman had broken team orders. He swore never to speak to Pironi again and nor did he, for two weeks later, while trying to outqualify Pironi, he was killed in a violent accident at Zolder in Belgium. 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 further cemented Imola as a place where anything could happen.

The run-off areas at the track were worrying, a fact highlighted in 1987 with Nelson Piquet having a huge accident at Tamburello Corner when he suffered a high-speed tire failure. In 1989 Gerhard Berger had a similar accident but his ended with the Ferrari in flames. He was plucked from the wreck by alert fire fighters and suffered only light injuries.

Imola's luck ran out in 1994 when Grand Prix racing endured a nightmare weekend with the death of Roland Ratzenberger at Villeneuve Corner in qualifying and, on race day, the accident which claimed the life of the great Ayrton Senna. It was the end for Tamburello Corner. When a very subdued F1 circus returned to Imola in 1995 the corner had been turned into a chicane.

But while the circuit will always be tainted by the memories of that evil weekend in 1994, the natural joy and enthusiasm of the Ferrari fans has dulled the pain and the F1 circus enjoys its annual Springtime visit to the Autodromo Enzo & Dino Ferrari (it was renamed after Ferrari's death in 1988). It is a time of optimism, before the pattern of the F1 season is set and the crowds are always buzzing at the possibility of a Ferrari victory (which have come, courtesy of Michael Schumacher in 1999 and 2000). It is a contagious enthusiasm and, with the beautiful rolling hills of the region, the quirky little hotels, the superb food and wine, it is hard to find anyone who says that they do not like Imola. In recent years however the Italians have been slow to upgrade the facilities and with increasing pressure on the European venues the circuit iss now in danger of being dropped from the F1 calendar.