Monday 26 September 2011

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore Part V - San Marino Grand Prix

Alfredo Ferrari, nicknamed Dino was the son of legendary Enzo Ferrari. Right since his childhood Enzo groomed Dino to be his successor and hence sent him to some of the best schools in Europe. Fate has it, Dino suffered from a muscular dystrophy (a sort of muscle degeneration which results in death) and passed away at a very young age of 24 in 1956. He was actively involved in the designing aspects of the Ferrari race engine and his untimely demise cut short of his dream of overseeing the project which he had initiated. In the fifth edition of Lost Track, a racing circuit whose name is a tribute to the pioneers of Ferrari, one who managed to live and sustain his dreams (Enzo Ferrari) and the other (Dino Ferrari) who had all the talent to succeed his father, but was not able to.

In 1980, the Italian Grand Prix arrived at a different location. For the first time, the race was moved out of Monza to another circuit in a town named ‘Imola’. One of the reasons was a direct result of Ronnie Peterson’s death in the opening lap of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Although the race was intact at Monza the following year, a move was decided by F1 authorities and Imola hosted the Italian Grand Prix in 1980. Owing to political manoeuvring and a subsequent compromise resulted in Monza hosting the 1981 Italian Grand Prix and Imola as a separate race in the F1 calendar.
Imola was introduced into the F1 calendar as San Marino GP, named after a nearby municipal state. Since Italian GP was a regular at Monza, the name San Marino was chosen for this 5 km circuit.

The race under the banner of San Marino took off in a grand way with Nelson Piquet (driving Brabham-Ford) winning the race enroute to his first of three championships he won as a driver. The1982 edition had a lot of drama with race marked by a boycott of many teams as part of a political war, unrelated to the event itself, involving the two dominant forces within the sport, the FISA* (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile) and the FOCA (Formula One Constructor’s Association). This caused the field for this race to be only 14 cars as many of FOCA-aligned teams such as McLaren, Williams, Lotus and Brabham didn’t participate and that left only Ferrari and the Renault cars to be competitive on track.

The race especially the final stages was an epic - Despite the Renaults of René Arnoux and Alain Prost qualifying 1-2, their cars failed in the race leaving Ferrari occupying the top two positions with Gilles Villeneuve leading Didier Pironi. The third-placed Tyrrell of Michele Alboreto was far behind, so Ferrari ordered their drivers to slow down to minimize the risk of mechanical failure or running out of fuel. Villeneuve interpreted this order to mean drivers retaining their positions. However, Didier Pironi thought they were free to race and passed Villeneuve. Villeneuve thinking, Pironi was just trying to bring in some excitement to the dull race, passed Pironi immediately. On the last lap, Villeneuve took it easy and Pironi passed him in the final stages of the lap and took the top step on the podium. Enraged with Pironi’s act, Villeneuve famously vowed – “I will never speak to Pironi again in my life”. So it remained. Still not in talking terms, Villeneuve crashed and died in the next race (Dutch Grand Prix) during qualifying.

This track known for its high-speed corners namely ‘Tamburello’ will be remembered for eternity in Motorsports.  Nelson Piquet had a near death miss when he crashed his Williams in 1987 onto the very corner which would consume the life of the legendary Aryton Senna seven years later.

In fact, the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994 will be known as the darkest race Formula One ever witnessed. It all started with Rubens Barrichello crashing hard into the fence at the Variante Bassa in which he decelerated violently and was knocked unconscious for a few minutes.There was also the death of Roland Ratzenberger at the Villeneuve Corner in the Saturday qualifying session, and the death of Ayrton Senna during the race itself at the 6th-gear Tamburello Corner. Senna in memory of Roland was found with a folded Austrian flag in his pocket, when he was examined after the crash.

As a result, for the 1995 race, the Tamburello and Villeneuve corners were altered from flat-out sweeping bends into slower chicanes, and the Variante Bassa was straightened. It was also the catalyst to changes being made to other circuits, and the sport as a whole, in an attempt to make it safer.

Ever since 1994, the race has been mostly dominated by Michael Schumacher, who has won the same record breaking seven times between 1994 and 2006. In 2003 Michael Schumacher and Ralf Schumacher raced despite the death of their mother just hours before the race. Both Schumachers sported black armbands and no champagne was sprayed on the podium as a mark of respect.

The fierce battles between Alonso and Michael Schumacher with each driver out manoeuvring in successive races (2005 – Alonso and 2006 – Schumacher) were some of the moments, Imola managed to capture in its final two years of hosting San Marino Grand Prix.

Constructors had complained about the poor quality of the facilities at Imola so, after much talk of dropping the San Marino Grand Prix from the Formula One championship, especially since there was another grand prix held in Italy, on 29 August 2006, the race was excluded from the calendar released for the 2007 season, and has not featured since.

Although the passion of Italians for Formula One is unparalleled, we can safely say, Imola won’t be taking part in Formula One under San Marino Grand Prix, and the only possibility is if hosts Italian Grand Prix instead of Monza. In hope to make a comeback into the Formula One calendar, there is a lot of renovation work that’s being handled by the track owners.

Imola which was a catalyst to changes being made to other circuits, and the sport as a whole, in an attempt to make it safer, was initially named only after Dino Ferrari. After the death of Enzo Ferrari in 1988, the circuit was renamed to honour both the Ferraris as ‘Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari’.

*The Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) was the governing body for motor racing events. The organisation's origins date from 1922, when the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) delegated the organisation of automobile racing to the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale de la FIA), an autonomous committee that would later become the FISA. A restructuring of the FIA in 1993 led to the disappearance of the FISA, putting motor racing under direct management of the FIA.

Enzo Ferrari (left) with Dino Ferrari 

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