Ayrton Senna's Death: The Decline and Fall of Imola's San Marino Grand Prix

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2014

A Brazilian flag and flowers adorn a statue of Ayrton Senna, in a park close to the Imola track, Italy, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. It is a testament to Ayrton Senna's lasting impact on Formula One that the 20th anniversary of his death will be observed this week with five days of commemorations at the Imola track where he had his fatal accident. Current and past F1 drivers, mechanics, racing officials and fans will pay their respects to Senna and Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger, who also died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. (AP Photo/Marco Vasini)
Marco Vasini/Associated Press

For perhaps the first time since the period prior to Ayrton Senna’s death on 1 May 1994, Imola felt like a happy place on Thursday.

Over 5,000 people flocked to the circuit for the first of a four-day tribute, which will see exhibitions, films, conferences, a football match, a charity dinner and car parades take place at the venue where the three-time Formula One World Champion died.

The spring sunshine was complemented by an array of brightly coloured flowers surrounding the statue of Senna which sits peacefully and contemplatively behind Tamburello corner, the scene of the fatal accident.

A few yards away, a board displaying Senna’s image on the wire fence at Tamburello invited the congregation to plant their signatures, almost acting as a medium for Senna’s pilgrims to contact him.

Among the scribbles of the public, you found those of Gerhard Berger, Riccardo Patrese, Pierluigi Martini and Ivan Capelli, Senna’s friends and fellow competitors, as well as those of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, modern-day world champions who were attending on behalf of Ferrari, plus members of Senna’s family.

They all went to Imola not to mourn—but to celebrate.

It was the “human heat” that Senna had spoken about following the most heroic victory of his career, at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, in action.

The venue of the San Marino Grand Prix, however, has rarely enjoyed such vibrancy in the two decades since Senna’s passing. The forgotten victim of F1’s darkest weekend was not Roland Ratzenberger, the Austrian driver who, like Senna, has been beautifully honoured this week, but Imola itself.

Over the last 20 years, the Italian track has regressed from hosting one of the most important and eagerly anticipated races on the calendar, as the first European event of the season, to being completely absent from the range of Formula One’s radar.

The loss of identity that the circuit suffered as it made the necessary efforts to improve its safety standards in the aftermath of the 1994 event only added to the feeling of guilt at Imola that it was the scene of the death of the greatest driver who ever lived.

That guilt was illustrated by Oliver Holt, chief sportswriter of the Mirror, who earlier this week described how the spectator grassbank at the Tosa corner, an area of the circuit which was renowned for its thriving atmosphere, had become tarnished by weeds.

It is a racetrack’s equivalent of “letting yourself go”; a lack of self-respect that you would never expect of Sakhir in Bahrain, for example, or Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi—the type of sleek, stylish, gleaming facilities that have replaced Imola on the F1 calendar.

The morphing of Tamburello into a chicane—an indirect tribute to Senna, you could say, given the S-shape of the left-right sequence—and similar developments to the subsequent Villeneuve curve, meant the circuit-defining 20-second period on full throttle between the final corner and Tosa, which included a trip through one of the fastest, thrilling curves in F1, was lost forever.

Although the track became much more technical from a driver's perspective as a result of those changes, the spectacle of an Imola race remained near unharmed  

The 2005 and 2006 races at Imola, in fact—the last San Marino grands prix to date—were among the finest races of those seasons. The former saw Fernando Alonso’s Renault somehow keeping the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher at bay, while the roles were reversed a year later when the seven-time world champion resisted the attacks of Alonso.

The excitement that those grands prix made it all the more disappointing when it fell off the calendar in 2007 as the circuit’s pit complex underwent a makeover. And with it still yet to return, what are the chances of Imola returning to the F1 schedule in the future?

As long as the sport continues to experiment and persevere with making a name for itself in the Eastern and North American markets, the likelihood of a return is desperately slim—but there is a way that the issue could be forced.

Formula One has a habit of rewarding its successful protagonists with grands prix as well as trophies and points. When Schumacher, Senna’s last great rival, enjoyed his period of dominance, Germany had races at Hockenheim and the Nurburgring.

The latter’s status as home of the European Grand Prix was lost when Spain, a country with little motorsport heritage until Alonso won two world championships, ended up with two grands prix between 2008 and 2012.

And Red Bull’s success over the last four years with Sebastian Vettel will be rewarded later this year with the first Austrian Grand Prix since 2003 at a track which the reigning world champions own.

IMOLA, ITALY - APRIL 23:  Ferrari fans watch from the stands during the San Marino Formula One Grand Prix at the San Marino Circuit on April 23, 2006, in Imola, Italy.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

With Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, Italy, located only 80 kilometres from Imola, the track’s future as a grand prix venue depends heavily on the on-track success of the Prancing Horse, whose president, Luca di Montezemolo, claimed in the week of the 20th anniversary of Senna’s death that the Brazilian would have ended his career at Ferrari.

If Alonso or Raikkonen, the leaders of the tribute to Senna yesterday, could somehow manage to reclaim Ferrari’s former glories in the near future—as unlikely as that currently seems—the prospect of a return to Imola could suddenly become very real indeed.

Yet for all its brilliance as a racing venue, you cannot help but hope that F1 never returns to the town.

The beauty, charm and calm that Imola now possesses in its current, saddened state makes it a perfect place for a character as complex, influential and thoughtful as Senna to be honoured time and time again. 

And besides, who would want to create new memories at a place so pivotal in history?