imola 94

More Than 20 Years On, Imola Still Lives With the Ghosts of its Past

22 years on from the darkest weekend in modern F1 history, the Imola circuit still lives with the ghosts of its past.

by Jim Weeks
28 April 2016, 3:45pm

PA Images

The Hillsborough disaster has been front-page news for every publication worth its salt this week, after an inquest found that the 96 people who died at the ground were killed unlawfully. Though it is a historic old stadium that dates back to 1899, the Hillsborough name has come to be associated almost entirely with the events of that fateful day in April 1989. Aside from Sheffield Wednesday supporters, few can think of the ground in separation from those dreadful events.

This week also marks the anniversary of modern Formula One's lowest ebb: the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Over the course of the weekend both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger lost their lives in violent accidents, ending a long period of relative safety for grand prix racing.

It would be wrong to compare the deaths of 96 football supporters – many of them children – with the loss of two professional racing drivers who knew the risks that their sport involved. Clearly, these are entirely different kinds of disaster.

But Hillsborough and Imola do share something, with both venues having become bywords for tragedy in their respective sports. Just as Hillsborough cannot escape what happened in 1989, Imola is yet to shake the ghosts of Senna and Ratzenberger.

Officially titled Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari – named after the Ferrari founder and his son – the track is almost universally known as Imola, the Bologna town near which it is located. In existence since the early fifties, it first hosted the Italian Grand Prix in 1980 – the only time the race was not staged at Monza – and the following year the San Marino Grand Prix was created to allow the popular new venue to stay on the calendar. Situated roughly 100km from San Marino itself, the circuit can hold almost twice as many fans as there are people living in the microstate.

Imola in 1996, looking down the pit-straight towards the final chicane // PA Images

When F1 debuted at the venue in 1980 the sport was a brutal place, with an average of one driver per season dying over the preceding decade. Imola had not witnessed an F1 fatality pre-1994, but there had been serious accidents, particularly the fiery shunt suffered by Gerhard Berger in 1989.

Nevertheless, by 1994 death in the sport was beginning to become a distant memory. There had not been a driver fatality since Elio de Angelis died in a testing accident almost eight years earlier, while nearly 12 years had passed since Riccardo Paletti died at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.

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It would be unfair to suggest that this had made the sport entirely complacent – Professor Sid Watkins and his team worked tirelessly to improve safety and were often aided by drivers, notably Senna himself – but Imola had already offered warnings. Berger's shunt at the terrifyingly fast Tamburello should have been enough to force significant changes to the corner. But, in 1994, it remained a flat-out left-hander taken at more than 190mph, with an unforgiving concrete wall situated on the outside.

The Imola weekend began with a bad omen when, in Friday practice, Senna's fellow countryman and friend Rubens Barrichello crashed heavily at the Variante Bassa chicane. The youngster was knocked unconscious but escaped largely unscathed; given the car's sickening deceleration upon hitting the barrier, this was a minor miracle.

But there was to be no miracle on Saturday. During qualifying, the Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger suffered a huge accident in his Simtek. A damaged front-wing sent him into the wall at Villeneuve Curva, the car making impact at almost 200mph. As it slid to a halt the driver's head hung limp over the side of the cockpit. 33-year-old Ratzenberger was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.

Ratzenberger aboard his Simtek at the season-opening race in Brazil // PA Images

Senna made his way out to the crash site; Ratzenberger had been removed, but the Brazilian looked over the damaged Simtek. He later spoke with Professor Watkins, who suggested that he should consider withdrawing from the race; Senna, who had secured pole position, said he could not stop.

By race day Senna's emotions were running extremely high. He had endured a fraught start to the 1994 season: despite qualifying his Williams-Renault on pole for the first two grands prix he had failed to finish both, and was feeling the pressure of a young Michael Schumacher's fast-emerging brilliance. Barrichello's accident, followed by Ratzenbeger's death, had left him shaken.

And yet he raced. For Senna, it was the only logical solution; he could not have acted differently.

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The race started with the Brazilian holding his lead from Schumacher. Further back, Finnish driver J.J. Lehto stalled his Benetton and was struck by the unsighted Pedro Lamy. Debris from the impact was thrown into the crowd, with nine people suffering minor injuries. The safety car was deployed to clear the circuit.

When racing resumed Senna held his lead. Starting lap six – the second after the restart – the Williams went straight on at Tamburello and slammed into the concrete wall. When medics arrived on the scene the severity of Senna's injuries were instantly clear – he had suffered massive head trauma – leading to the race being red flagged. Professor Watkins and his team worked on Senna for 15 minutes before he was airlifted to hospital.

Around half an hour after the crash the San Marino Grand Prix was restarted, Schumacher taking a sombre win. Two hours after its conclusion, Senna was declared dead.

PA Images

His death sent shockwaves throughout Formula One, the wider sporting world, and the three-time champion's native Brazil. F1 underwent a major safety overhaul in the subsequent years, which served to make it a far safer place – not unlike the changes to English football stadia that followed Hillsborough. There were attempts to prosecute the Williams team for his death on the basis that Senna crashed due to a car failure, though they were subsequently acquitted.

While Ratzenberger's death did become a secondary story – an inevitable consequence of Senna's global fame – efforts have been made in recent years to remember the Austrian properly, in isolation from Senna and the events of Imola '94. As such, a clear and affectionate picture of Roland has emerged, showing him as a man in his own right rather than simply the driver who died the day before Senna. Today, memorials to both men can be found at the track.

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22 years on, it remains impossible to separate Imola from the tragedy that occurred there. Perhaps the generation who remember the circuit long before 1994 – those who can recall Tambay winning in a Ferrari, the thrilling 1985 race, or Senna's hat-trick of victories – are able to separate it from those awful events. If you knew it as just another track, you could perhaps divorce yourself from the two lives lost there.

But for those who came to the sport around or after the 1994 season, it is difficult to hear the name or see the circuit's distinctive start-finish straight and over-hanging trees without thinking of Ratzenberger, his head hung limp over the Simtek cockpit, or Senna's lifeless body being extricated from the battered Williams. Every return visit became a memorial, no race weekend passing without mention of 1994. On TV, in print and online, the memories were always brought flooding back. Imola could never exorcise its ghosts.

A statue of Senna in a park near the Imola circuit, adorned with his famous blue cap and a Brazilian flag // PA Images

The circuit fell off the F1 calendar after the 2006 race, the victim of insufficient investment and the huge money being offered by circuits in Asia and the Middle East. It has remained in use for other series, however, and has since undergone several improvements.

Today it would be welcomed back on to the F1 schedule by fans and many inside the paddock – if nothing else, it is preferable to Bahrain or Azerbaijan – but its decade-long separation from the sport has been a good thing. It has allowed 1994 to settle properly into history, to make it feel less recent and raw. It will never escape them, but Imola might yet be able to live peacefully with the ghosts of its past.

@Jim_Weeks