F1’s Imola track breakdown: A classic circuit steeped in tragedy and triumph (2024)

Formula One fans, you know what time it is.

The Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix became a meme during the 2023 race week, with fans, teams and journalists poking fun at the lengthy name. While the sponsor seems to have changed this year (from Qatar Airways to MSC Cruises), the official name remains a doozy —Formula 1 MSC Cruises Gran Premio del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna. (The race ultimately was canceled due to flooding in the Emilia Romagna region.)

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This is one of F1’s two races in Italy and takes place at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, more commonly known as Imola. The track rests around 45 kilometers (roughly 28 miles) east of Bologna and is renowned as a classic circuit with a complicated history. It runs counterclockwise and has a brisk, flowing nature.

Enzo Ferrari was on hand when construction began in 1950, and later described in his book how the circuit could become similar to a famed German track: “A small Nürburgring – I repeated that day looking around – a small Nürburgring, with equal technical resources, spectacular and an ideal path length. This belief has been achieved through the decades that have passed since then.”

Before it’s time for “lights out and away we go,” here’s what you need to know about the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, a track marked with history and tragedy.

F1’s Imola track breakdown: A classic circuit steeped in tragedy and triumph (1)

Longstanding ties with speed

This area of Italy has long been associated with speed, dating back to 80 BC when the Romans built a large amphitheater called the Forum Cornelii that probably included gladiator chariot racing.

The idea of a motor racing circuit in the area didn’t emerge until the 1940s. Ferrari had a presence as planning for the track was underway. As he wrote in his book, “My first contact with Imola dates back to the spring of 1948. I thought from the first moment that this hilly environment could one day become a small Nürburgring due to the natural difficulties that building the road belt would have to cross, thus offering a truly selective path for men and machines.” Nürburgring is an incredibly technical track in Germany, with some parts being blind and tight.

Construction for Imola began in May 1950, and the first testing session occurred two years later, in October. The original layout took drivers along the Santerno River to Tosa (Turn 7) uphill to what we know as Piratella and Acque Minerali. Then, the track descends towards Rivazza. In 1970, the circuit was renamed Autodromo Dino Ferrari in honor of Enzo Ferrari’s son, who died in 1956. When Enzo died, his name was added.

Motorcycles were some of the first races at the track, but a race with F1 rules took place in the 1960s. As time passed, smaller changes were made. The first extensive revision came in 1972 and 1974 when two different chicanes were constructed in an attempt to slow speeds heading into Rivazza. The track used public and private roads throughout these early years, but it became a permanent facility in the 1970s.

F1 held a non-championship race at Imola in 1979, and it officially joined the championship calendar the following season.

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Tragedy triggers change

Safety concerns remained prevalent at Imola even with the chicane additions over the years. A chicane’s series of tight corners is meant to help slow down the vehicles. However, one portion of the track, in particular, caused the most concern — Tamburello. It’s a fairly narrow location with little area between the track and the wall.

Nelson Piquet crashed and was injured at this turn in 1987. Two years later, Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari caught on fire after he crashed into the wall that separates the circuit from the river. Then came 1994, an injury-filled and deadly race weekend for F1.

It started with Rubens Barrichello’s wreck on Friday, when he suffered relatively light injuries, considering the impact. On Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger died when he crashed at Villeneuve (which is around what we know as Turns 5 and 6). Fans were injured on race day by debris from a collision. Then Ayrton Senna ran off the track after a few laps, crashing at Tamburello. The three-time world champion suffered fatal injuries, dying on May 1, 1994.

Imola underwent a massive overhaul. Tamburello and Villeneuve were changed, run-off improved across the circuit, some corners were tightened, and Acque Minerali (Turns 11, 12, 13) became a corner again, though with run-off.

F1 continued racing at Imola for the next decade, but the San Marino Grand Prix was dropped from the slate after 2006, unless facility improvements were made. Though F1 left the region, bikes and sports cars raced there over the years, and Hermann Tilke was involved with the modernization of the track. It wasn’t until 2011 that Imola was awarded Grade 1 status again after it was resurfaced (a necessary step for F1 to compete again at a circuit). Even so, the series didn’t return until the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic-affected season.

The annual F1 race at Imola is now known as the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.

Points of interest

Imola is a narrow track with limited overtaking opportunities but has a lengthy DRS zone. Track position is critical for this race, which makes qualifying even more important. That being said, Pirelli has opted to go softer with the tire compounds for this weekend, which could lead to a variety of strategies.

Some tweaks have been made over the years, like installing a few double curbs and reducing the asphalt run-off at a few locations, but the circuit largely remains unchanged. Here are a few points of interest to keep an eye on, mixed with some history.

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Tamburello was altered after Senna’s fatal crash in 1994. (Melzer/ullstein bild via Getty Images, Drew Jordan/The Athletic)

Variante Tamburello: Turns 2, 3, 4

A statue of Senna honors the Brazilian champion at this portion of the track. It has been 30 years since he died. This area of the track layout was changed into a chicane after his death, and curb usage and precision are keen as drivers exit onto the short straight.

Variante Villeneuve: Turns 5 and 6

Another monument, honoring Ferrari legend Gilles Villeneuve, rests here. He suffered a puncture and heavily crashed here during the 1980 F1 race but was unhurt.

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Another chicane was put in at Turns 5 and 6. (Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images, Drew Jordan/The Athletic)

Piratella (Turn 9) and Acque Minerali (Turns 11, 12, 13)

These corners are said to have an old-school feel. Daniil Kvyat once said, “An F1 car through corners like Acque Minerali – the entrance is so fast, it’s so cool. It really gives you a lot of adrenaline.”

It’s a climb through the hills to Piratella, but then the terrain drops as drivers speed towards Acque Minerali. They need to nail their braking just right through this portion as they ready for Sector 3. The one and only DRS detection zone comes just after Turn 15, after all.

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Rivazza: Turns 17 and 18

Essentially, it’s a U-turn. This sequence features two left-hand 90-degree turns and is a potential overtaking position before the drivers head towards the only DRS zone or the pits.

(Track video courtesy of EA Sports F1 —learn more about “F1 24″ here. Top photo design: Drew Jordan/The Athletic)

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Madeline Coleman is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering Formula One. Prior to joining The Athletic, she served as a writer and editor on Sports Illustrated’s breaking and trending news team. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow Madeline on Twitter @mwc13_3

F1’s Imola track breakdown: A classic circuit steeped in tragedy and triumph (2024)
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