The end of April used to mean one thing to F1 folk – it was time to head to Bologna and thence to Imola, to the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, for the first European Grand Prix of the season. After the jet lag inducing trips to the early flyaways it was something to look forward to, and on the Thursday morning I always left for the airport with a smile on my face in anticipation of what was guaranteed to be a weekend of good conversation, good food, good wine and, most importantly, good motor racing.
Inevitably the name of Imola is more often than not associated with the tragic 1994 San Marino GP weekend and the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, but that should not overshadow the great races that we enjoyed there, and the contribution that the venue made to the sport.
In existence since 1953, the circuit hosted a non-championship F1 race as far back as 1963. It then dropped off the F1 radar until 1979, when another non-championship race was slipped into the calendar the week after the Italian GP at the behest of Bernie Ecclestone.
The event was known as the 'Grand Prix Dino Ferrari,' reflecting the fact that the track was named after Enzo's late son (in fact Ferrari Sr's name was added after his death in 1988). It was of course well supported by the local team, with newly elected World Champion Jody Scheckter joined by Gilles Villeneuve, while Alfa Romeo also fielded two cars. Among the British FOCA teams McLaren, Brabham, Lotus, Wolf, Arrows, Tyrrell, Fittipaldi and Shadow took part, all bar the last with just one car.
It was a low-key affair with little media coverage, ultimately won by Niki Lauda, but the race paved the way for what was to follow. Amid much politicking in Italy the circuit displaced Monza as the home of the country's Grand Prix in 1980 – the first and only time that has happened in the race's long history.
For most of us that race was the first time to see the new and improved Imola, and even for those who had been there in past years for sportscar or other events, it was to be a pleasant surprise. The pit garages were among the best seen up to the point and set new standards, with lots of space and wash rooms and showers all built in. The media, medical and hospitality facilities were also top notch.
The circuit itself also proved popular. It had fast and sweeping bends and spectacular gradients, and in that regard was very different from flat Monza. There was one drawback – a fiddly little new first gear chicane at the Acque Minerali corner, which Villeneuve and Jean-Pierre Jabouille supposedly had a hand in designing. They didn't have a lot of room for manoeuvre, but its stop-start nature didn't sit too well with their fellow drivers. Nevertheless the overall package went down very well.
Remembered for a huge crash for Villeneuve, that 1980 race was won by Nelson Piquet. The whole weekend proved so successful that Imola gained a lot of momentum, but an upgraded Monza had already been promised the 1981 Italian GP. Rather than enter into a sharing arrangement a clever deal was brokered whereby Imola was given an early season date using the name of the tiny republic of San Marino.
Talk of raising funds for a recent Italian earthquake disaster helped the idea to get approval, and sure enough we returned to Imola in the spring of 1981 for the first San Marino GP. However, somewhere along the way the charity element appeared to be forgotten...
Nevertheless Imola was on the calendar, and there it stayed for another 25 years, and usually (aside from a spell in the mid-'80s) it had its special place as the first European race of the season. That traditionally meant more media attention as those who couldn't make it to the flyaway races showed up, while it was also the first annual appearance of the teams' trucks and motorhomes. And as the years went by and F1 became more of a development race Imola also represented the first opportunity for teams to introduce the major upgrades that their R&D guys had been working on while the cars were travelling around the world for the opening races.
The real appeal of Imola was its wonderful location. Most team and media folk stayed in historic nearby towns such as Brisighella and Riolo Terme. In such places there was no shortage of fine restaurants, and it was a joy to get up in the mornings and tackle the spectacular winding roads that led across the verdant rolling countryside to the track.
Over that quarter of a century the San Marino GP produced some great races, and very often McLaren was at the centre of the action. It's perhaps surprising therefore to note that the team only logged six Imola wins to the eight apiece of regular rivals Ferrari and Williams – in fact the total should have been a lot higher, had fortune smiled on the Woking lads more often.
Inevitably the names of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna loom large in the story. The Frenchman won in 1984, and he was first across the line the following year, only to be disqualified for being marginally underweight – one of the few instances in history when an actual race winner has been kicked out. He made amends by winning a second time in 1986.
Remarkably the 1988 and 1989 races produced identical outcomes – Senna and Prost first and second on the grid for McLaren and Honda, and first and second at the flag, with Ayrton leading all the way but his team-mate setting fastest lap! It wasn't all smiles after the latter race however as Prost was adamant that his team mate had broken a pre-race agreement. Tension between the pair moved up a notch...
In 1990 Senna shared the front row with his new team-mate Gerhard Berger, only to retire with a frustrating wheel issue after just three laps. Gerhard led until losing out to a flying Ricardo Patrese a few laps from home. In 1991 Senna and Berger successful completed a one-two to secure McLaren's fifth Imola win, and the third with a Honda engine.
Over the next 15 years McLaren scored just one more Imola win, although the total should have been much higher. The sole success of the Mercedes era came in 1998, when David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen shared the front row, and DC won the race.
Much to the chagrin of Ferrari, McLaren would dominate qualifying for the next few years. Mika was on pole on 1999 and 2000, and David in 2001, and yet for a variety of reasons victory slipped through the team's grasp each time. Kimi Raikkonen finished second on his first Imola outing for McLaren in 2003, and later took pole for the 2005 race, but alas the Finn was an early retirement.
Inevitably financial reasons eventually put a stop to the race after 2006. Thus the only guys on the current F1 grid who raced in the San Marino GP are Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg. Lewis Hamilton did at least have his chance in GP2, but for the most part a whole generation of drivers has missed out on Imola – although I notice that young Max Verstappen did get to compete there in Euro F3 last year.
I would love to think that one day Bernie will find a way to bring it back, but at a time when even the future of Monza as an F1 venue has been called into question, I fear that its return is unlikely...