Imola is one of the most legendary tracks in the world. It hosted the Formula 1 San Marino Grand Prix from 1981 until 2006, seeing some of the best racing and most daredevil driving of anywhere on the calendar. Imola has a dark side, however, that permeates the air. In 1994, two drivers were killed in separate incidents at the Tamburello corner, a flat-out sixth gear sweeper. The first was Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, and the second was Brazilian champion Ayrton Senna. Senna’s legacy is inseparable from Imola, and is much of the reason for the circuit’s rarified feel.
On June 28th, I drove around Imola for the first time. One day later, I was to participate in the 12 Hours of Imola in an Audi RS3 TCR campaigned by CadSpeed Racing, who worked incredibly hard to keep the car on track through all manner of unfortunate events, driving with the great James Kaye and Irish touring car champion Erik Holstein. But instead of focusing on the race, I would like to talk about the track, and just so we don’t get distracted by the mighty RS3 , the car we’ll be using to take a tour is Erik’s rental Volkswagen Polo diesel that I used for my first laps around the circuit.
Taking a lap around Imola is an experience unlike any other; you’re exposed to all facets of its character and its history. So, jump into the Polo and get those rotelle-sized wheels rolling.
The first thing you’ll notice about Imola’s front straight is that it isn’t really straight. Where you’re meant to put the car isn’t clear until you learn the track, but you always know you’re at Imola. As you pass over the finish line, the four horizontal red lights that initiated the thunderous noise of Formula 1 cars for twenty-five years sit idle. The grand-stands are empty. But ‘Imola’, writ large on seemingly everywhere around the front straight, tells you all you need to know.
Turn 1 is called the Variante Tamburello. It is a sharp left followed by a right followed by a smooth left out onto another straight. It’s fairly straightforward. Its legacy is not. This is the corner, albeit in a completely different configuration, where Ayrton Senna was killed. Driving through the corner, you can’t help but think about the footsteps you’re following in. Even if Tamburello is no longer the monstrous challenge it once was, you’re still reminded of the inherent dangers drivers always face but rarely think about.
The next corner is the Variante Villeneuve (by this time I should explain that ‘variante’ is in English ‘chicane’, even though that’s French), which looks very similar to Tamburello on paper but is taken very differently. In the Polo you’ll be doing maybe 120 km/h at the entry and can carry pretty much all of that through the fast left hander that leads immediately into a right that requires a quick stab of the brake. This VW doesn’t like the quick change in direction, but race cars do. Villeneuve isn’t the most historically important or characterful, but it feels wonderful when done right.
Villeneuve leads directly into the second-tightest corner on track, a uphill left-hander hairpin called Tosa. My most vivid memory of this corner is not what it feels like to drive, but rather what it looks like on TV. You see, if you look out of the top of the left window in the Polo, you’ll see a house on top of a hill within the corner, like a peninsula of civilization protruding into the track. This is the first sign of Imola’s surprise, one I wasn’t aware of. The track does not sit on a piece of land entirely devoted to it. The track is surrounded by the city of Imola. People live inside the track. There’s a bar on the inside of the front straight, and a park. Even the city’s stadium is located within the circuit. Only Monaco and the Nürburgring are similar in this way, but somehow, Imola seems more a part of its city. The track wouldn’t be what it is without the city, and nor would the city be what it is without the track. You don’t race at Imola. You race in Imola.
Tosa leads out onto another not-really-straight which goes up Imola’s hill for the first of two times. As you go up, it’d be a good time to let faster cars go past you, which in the Polo includes a Citroen Jumpy. Erik, whilst driving the Polo out of this corner, clicked at the car as though it were a horse, trying to get it to accelerate meaningfully (he, as I found out later, is a retired professional showjumper).
After the car has reached a sufficient gallop, the next corner, Piratella, hoves into view. This is a fourth-gear left hander that leads down into the lowest part of the track.
Named after the adjacent park, Acqua Minerale is the most thrilling, in my opinion, of the corners at Imola. You fly down the hill (fly is relative in an 80 hp diesel) and set up for the first of two rights. In the VW, you can throw it into the first one, let it track out and just as it does so you’ve got to get onto the brakes hard to turn in, over the rumble strips, and straight back up the hill. Everything happens quickly through Acqua Minerale, and as you go through you can’t help but wonder what it would be like in an early-2000s F1 car.
As you crest the hill for the second time, you’ve got an actually-straight-straight that leads into the final Variante, called Alta (which means ‘high’, as it is the highest point on the circuit). The straight is lined on the left side with trees through which sunlight dapples onto the pavement. This is also the tightest corner on track, a true chicane with huge kerbs that throw the Polo onto two wheels.
You exit Alta to a gentle left that goes gently down the hill and into a sweeping right. As you come around the right, the view opens and you look into the distance. Multicolored fields drape the distant hillsides, each dotted with terracotta roofs. Then the road dives away towards the bottom of the hill and a sequence of two ninety-degree lefts called Rivazza. Just to the left in the braking zone is a bar and restaurant located in a small house, and a few homemade bleachers in the backyards of residents, presumably still there from the Formula 1 days. Going through these two in a fast car is like restraining a fighting bull; only once you’ve exited the second Rivazza onto the front straight can you truly let fly.
Coming onto iconic front straight again, you’re hit with the same feelings as before. This is Imola. It may not have the same glamour it once had, but the icon endures.
Tags: endurance | Audi | 24H Series