Editorial

Under The Emilia-Romagna Sun
Imola: Ten Years After

 by Steven N. Levinson
April 28, 2004

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Ayrton Senna1987 at Honda 100 GP celebration

F1 race fans remember exactly where they were on May 1, 1994. Racing lost one of its greatest drivers. No one was neutral about the incomparable and irascible Brazilian. Either you loved him, hated him, hated to love him or loved to hate him.....or all of the above. He was that sort of personality. For Brazilians he was the embodiment of Brazilian nationalism and patriotism.

Like most, I had a mix of feelings about Senna until the 1993 season when he drove an uncompetitive McLaren-Ford to five victories. Until that time, his outrageous arrogance and outright disregard for anyone standing in his way more than justified my contempt.


Senna leads teammate Gerhard Berger at Monza in 1990

I had some sort of connection to Senna.  I had seen his debut at the 1984 Brazilian GP at Rio's Jacarepagua Circuit . He qualified 16th in the Toleman and dropped out on lap 8. Thereafter, I saw his participation in 21 additional GP's and 6 victories, including his first Brazil GP win (on his 8th attempt) at Interlagos in 1991.

But 1993 finally won me over for good. He won in the rain at Interlagos, then had the most incredible drive at Donington Park, wherein he passed 6 cars in the first lap in a driving rainstorm on route to a dominating victory. No wonder Autosport readers declared this his greatest drive.


Senna died in his Williams 10 years ago at Imola in 1994
Getty Images

Then in Canada, he got as high as 2nd, before succumbing to an electrical failure. The next day at Montreal's Dorval Airport I nearly walked into him. I was stunned by his presence. He was much taller and muscular than I had thought. In addition he has this incredible charismatic electricity that restrained anyone from getting TOO CLOSE to him. Without a word, after a short time, he reached over and signed my newspaper. For me it was definitely an "OTHER WORLD" experience.

This being the 10th anniversary of that horrible weekend in 1994 that also claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and all the talk of the San Marino GP going off the calendar next year, I decided to go to the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo E Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy for the 24th San Marino GP.

Imola is located about 25 miles southeast of Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. I arrived at Bologna's Guglielmo Marconi Airport on Friday afternoon and took the remainder of the day to relax.


The author, Steve Levinson, in Bologna, Italy

Saturday morning I took the train from Bologna's central station for the half hour ride to Imola. This was the biggest bargain of the trip. The round trip fare is only 4.8 euro ($US 6). The morning air was delightfully cool, portending a very warm day in the sun. From the Imola train station, it's about a 10-12 minute walk directly to the track which is basically in the old city of Imola. After all, this is Italy, where everything is old and there are piazzas and small specialty shops everywhere. The last block leading up to the bridge is lined with very nice homes. Then comes race control/ticket check then a short walk over the bridge and you enter the circuit. None of the neighbors seem to be up in arms over the crowds or the noise created by the Gran Premio. No wonder, as the crow flies you are probably a mere 75 miles (at most) from Modena and Maranello.

The main entry is between the Paddock (left) and Tamburello (right). One immediately feels something very special. A sense of history and tradition is evident. This is not just another race track. It has its own special character. There are still homes and vineyards on the track site. Proceeding to the right I was directed to the Senna Memorial. Here is a statue of a sad and contemplative Senna. Probably as he appeared on Saturday April 30, 1994, after learning of the consequences of Ratzenberger's accident. The statue is in Tamburello. Even though a chicane was added, after ten years, the area is shrouded in Senna's memory. For obvious reasons, Tamburello and Senna will forever be commingled in our minds. One simply cannot escape that feeling. A white sheet had draped a nearby fence, where fans could write notes of remembrance and appreciation to their fallen hero. And many did. Many carrying Brazilian Flags, "Nacional" Hats, and various Senna shirts.


Vineyard inside the Imola circuit

I continued on my journey to see as much as I could. Next came the Villeneuve chicane leading up the hill to Tosa!  The stands in Tosa are on an enormous hillside and look as though they reach to the heavens. No wonder they were "sold out". You could see a great deal of the track from there. There is both seating and a grassy area for viewing that resembles nothing seen at the "modern tracks" like Bahrain, so currently in vogue by Max and Bernie.

From Tosa, discretion became the better part of valor, and I decided that I would then go to Rivazza . You needed a different ticket to get into the Tosa lawn area from which you could view "Piratella". I reached Rivazza by going along "Via Luigi Musso" named after the very brave and martyred Italian Ace of the 1950's. Who could forget Musso, who thoroughly unsettled the Indianapolis 500 set at the 1958 "Race Of Two Worlds" at Monza where he put a 4.2 liter V-12 Ferrari on pole. Tragically, 8 days later Musso was killed at the French GP at Rheims.

At Rivazza, you had seating as well as a large general admission hillside area. I realized it would be impossible on race day to see anything of the downhill section leading into Rivazza, or the Variante Bassa, let alone Traguardo. Although TV screens would permit such viewing. After a brief "Passing Out from Jet Lag" I proceeded to the back section of the course.  My first stop was the Variante Alta (High Chicane) where the cars come blasting up the hill from Acque Minerali, thru the chicane with very little lift. It was impressive!

Even with the firecracker sounds of traction control, negotiating the Variante Alta required the utmost driver skill, bravado and chassis handling. It was here during qualifying, that a slight mistake cost Michael Schumacher the pole. Suffice it to say, from now on the name "Variante Alta" has a totally new meaning to me.


The author, Steve Levinson, in Piazza Maggiore

I continued my trackside exploration by settling in at the right hand corner known as "Acque Minerali". Somehow, if a circuit in America had a corner named "mineral water", it just wouldn't seem the same. But Acque Minerali...that's a name. It was all pure "magic'!

After qualifying, I waited to see a portion of the F3000 race where Vitantonio Liuzzi ran away from the field before heading to the train station for my trip back to Bologna.  Here I wanted to see the "Great Square" ...the Piazza Maggiore. There you can see the Basilica di San Petronio and another building that currently houses the Mayor and Bologna City administrators that was built in 1478.  Everything there was built between 1200 and 1500.


Near the Piazza Maggiore

No wonder Alex Zanardi loved his hometown so much. From there we walked around the various side streets that housed butchers, bakers, florists, vegetable shops, as well as shoe, clothing and accessory shops. My sightseeing sojourn was cut brutally short, when a violent wind storm wreaked havoc on the local vendors tents and created a maelstrom of dust that quickly filled my eyes. This was then followed by a 25 degree temperature drop and a cold rainstorm. With that I called it an evening and returned to my hotel. 

The weather ran the gamut from an incredibly warm and sunny day to near tornado conditions.


Sea of Red Passion

The next day dawned bright and sunny and somewhat cooler than Saturday. The Bologna train station was a sea of RED PASSION. I chose to view the race from Acque Minerali. In the absence of any ticket in Tosa, it was a "safe bet" to at least see something, and have the freedom to move elsewhere.

As promised, in tribute to the three time world champion, Gerhard Berger, Senna's long and close friend carried the Brazilian flag and drove the 1985 Lotus Renault for 3 laps around the circuit. It was an emotional moment for all, but I could not possibly imagine the emotions that Berger felt. I keep waiting for Gerhard's "Tell All" book about what Senna was really feeling and thinking during his brief 1994 F1 season with Williams and his thoughts about his chief protagonist Michael (pronounced "MEE-KYLE" Schumacher.)


Senna Memorial at Imola

As for the race itself? Its mystery and magic was quickly unmasked after the first pit stop. Button drove well, but was no match for the Schumacher Ferrari. Yes, the Jumping German in the Red Computer was "AL COMMANDO", as the Italian announcer said repeatedly. Button however, has become the sensation of the 2004 season.

In the words of Max and Bernie, F1 is a "High Tech Chess Game!"    Being "old school" and an "old fogey," I prefer racing over chess. Yes, the "driving" had passion. I'm sure that camel racing has passion in Bahrain, and archery has passion in Mongolia. Bernie is threatening to leave Imola for Turkey or India. Ferrari want to remain at Imola. NOW, THIS IS REAL CHESS, my friends!! I hope Ferrari wins. I want to return to that electric, magical place, where grandmothers, babies and children of all ages are dressed in RED. It's called Imola!!!  I want one more weekend "Under the Emilia-Romagna Sun!"

The author can be contacted at SteveL@autoracing1.com

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