It’s been a fixture for 25 years but the San Marino Grand Prix, the next stop on the F1 calendar, isn’t what it was.
2005 hasn’t been a bad season so far and now, at Bahrain, we have had our first real corker of a race. There was plenty of passing up and down the field, driver errors and battles for position, and no controversy to speak of. A shame, then, that the next race on the calendar is the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola.
The Formula One circus first arrived at Imola in 1980, then for the Italian Grand Prix, on the only occasion that the race was not held at Monza. The political difficulties that kept the race from Monza were resolved for the following season, but the fast sweeps of the parkland Imola circuit had proved so popular, and the fiercely partisan Italian crowd so valuable, that Imola remained on the calendar as the ‘San Marino’ Grand Prix, the tiny principality of San Marino being not that far from Imola.
And so every year the Italians were treated to a double helping of Formula One and, in Imola, congregated in vast numbers on the hills overlooking the Rivazza and Tosa corners, and poking through advertising hoardings or perched atop rickety makeshift scaffhold terraces elsewhere. The two scarlet Ferraris were cheered lustily, and no more so than when they finished first and second in 1982. That particular race is a story in itself, and as a result Patrick Tambay’s win for Ferrari the following year was deeply emotional.
Imola saw a fair share of drama over the years – Nelson Piquet’s violent accident at Tamburello in 1987, and Gerhard Berger’s two years later. At that same 1989 race Alain Prost flew into a storming rage with team mate Ayrton Senna, whom he believed had betrayed a pre-pace pact the two had agreed.
But in 1994 the San Marino Grand Prix changed motorsport. The deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Senna thrust the inherent dangers of F1 into the public spotlight. In reaction, the Imola circuit was hastily redrawn into a mess of chicanes for 1995. The Tamburello curve where Senna had died became a chicane. The Villeneuve curve where Ratzenberger died became a chicane. In all, of nine corners on the circuit, four are chicanes, and there is no stretch of straight suitably long enough for modern F1 cars to stand a half-decent chance of getting alongside one another.
As a result the quality of races at San Marino in the past decade has been poor. The 1995 one was a dramatic wet-dry affair which perhaps did too much to instill confidence in the new layout, but most other events since then have been monotonous follow-my-leader affairs decided by who can make the quickest pit stop.
Partly because of that, crowd numbers at the event have dwindled. The mobs on the hills are more sparse than before, not just because the racing is dismal and the tickets are dear, but because the six years of Ferrari dominance under the Schumacher-Todt-Brawn axis have not captured the hearts of Italian spectators. There was widespread revulsion at their blatant race-fixing in 2002 and Schumacher, a controversial driver to begin with, has not endeared himself to the Tifosi in the way that true heart-on-their-sleeve fighters like Gilles Villeneuve and Nigel Mansell did.
The possibility of the circuit being revised to improve the opportunity for racing seems remote. The confines of the local geography are such that expanding the track is impossible – this was the very reason why the wall at Tamburello that killed Senna could not be moved. It is possible that some room to pass could be created by removing the chicanes at Variante Alta or the final corner, but the organisers seem reluctant to countenance it. With gate receipts down, they probably lack the required funds anyway.
With the teams embarking on an exhausting 19-race calendar this season and more venues with more substantial financial clout vying for a place in the F1 sun, the San Marino Grand Prix is under serious pressure. It has a contract for now, but with the major economies of Mexico, Russia, India and South Africa looking to hold a race soon, the pressure is not going to dissipate.