Modern Traveller takes a trip to Imola’s Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, to experience the passion and devotion that accompanies club motorsport in Italy.
We slip between the metal panels of a padlocked gate, following in the footsteps of a father with his young son. Marshals a short distance away give us a casual glance in the manner so ubiquitous with the Italian lifestyle, before turning nonchalantly back to their orange-suited colleagues.
Carefully, we climb the wooden bleachers, rotten planks looking decidedly unsteady beneath our feet. Near the top of the hill, where a view over several Tarmac turns stretches out in front of us – including the infamous Tamburello corner, now slowed by the modern addition of a chicane – we take a perch.
Things, here, have seen better days. Many grandstands are closed, likely due to disrepair, with weeds growing in and around the plastic buckets that once sufficed for seats. Besides the main straight, there’s been little renovation to this venue so steeped in history since 2006 – the last time that Formula 1 engines ignited here in earnest.
Yet, still, at 8am on a cold October Sunday, the fans are here. The event? A club meet – the Gruppo Peroni Race – that features a mixed card of different classes. But, one gets the feeling, it could be any series. These men – for they are predominantly male, the fans huddled on benches and fences – are here for the thrill of speed, the smell of race fuel and the roar of engines in anger, as one might well believe they have been for years – and their fathers before them.
This is motorsport at its grass-roots, with added poignance: Imola – which is, in fact, the town, though the name remains as much synonymous with the circuit in the same way as Silverstone and Le Mans – was once home to Grands Prix which saw more than 100,000 spectators squeezing into grandstands.
It’s also a circuit infamous for one particular weekend in 1994 – a weekend in which the lives of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were lost in separate incidents. The latter is the more remembered, for such is the nature of fame, but both flames flickered out at that fateful Grand Prix meeting – and Imola, the circuit, never really recovered.
A period of great soul-searching followed, of mourning and of reflection. Changes were made to the circuit in line with reactionary – though understandable – safety expectations. The changes, many felt and still feel, sacrificed – somewhat unnecessarily – the charm and character of one of the increasingly rare traditional circuits.
Traditional how? In that it’s a circuit that weaves between trees and ploughed fields, running close to houses and containing a public park at its centre; a track that crests and hugs the side of hills; a stretch of asphalt imbued with the kind of character that the long straights and featureless surroundings of many a modern autodrome can but dream of matching.
So it is, against this backdrop of history – both emotional and physical – that fans in their few still flock to watch teams and drivers in the age-old pursuit of speed. Some machines are new, some old – as, indeed are the racers who steer them – but all arrive in the crowded paddock with the same passion in their hearts.
Some big ticket events do still visit the course at Imola – including the European Le Mans Series – and the number has grown since the facility received its category one rating, meaning it’s safe enough, once again, to host high-level motorsport.
There’s a difference, though, between a rating and reality and, whilst the circuit might be safe for racing, it’s a long way off meeting the demands of the top-end motorsport circus – namely, the Formula 1 paddock and its requisite trucks, motorhomes, corporate facilities and the rest.
That’s not to say that Imola would benefit from a complete overhaul: it is, after all, the history, the very Italian sense of revelling in the run-down aspects of this once-great venue – much like one might find at Monza, surveying the crumbling concrete of its banked oval – that makes it so magical.
Rather, the question is what Imola’s continuing role might be. The track itself is plenty good enough for racing, but investment is needed to restore those signature hillside seats before it can host a truly big event. That investment won’t come, though, until such an event agrees to visit.
Thus, Imola is stuck between a wall and a gravel trap. Short of some benefactor agreeing to part with hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of euros to shore up the facilities, it will not be until a sufficiently sizeable race series heads to the former home of the San Marino grand prix before it receives the treatment it deserves.
Of course, that’s not a question that seems to hold much import to those fans. Sure, many would doubtless love to see high-level motorsport return on a regular basis, but their love affair with the Autodromo is not rooted in a need to see the fastest, newest vehicles.
One only needs to see how many make the pilgrimage to Imola for the track’s open days – hosted a handful of times a year – to walk that hallowed asphalt, to pay their respects at the scene of Senna’s untimely death, and to imagine hurtling around behind the wheel of something speedy, to understand the grip this place holds on the collective consciousness of the motorsport community.
Sitting on those bleachers up on Tosa hill, it’s at once both impossible and very easy to imagine the place full. On a damp, chilly day in autumn, with just four other fans up there with us, it feels about as far from mainstream motorsport as one can get.
Then again, surveying the scene – marshals hopping to action to brush debris from the track between rounds, fans turning their heads in unison to follow the progress of whatever machine is thrumming past, and, of course, the drivers doing their thing – it seems everyone here is ready: ready for Imola to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of race fans from across the world.
Turn up on race day at the Italian round of the World Superbike championship and you’ll get a different impression again, no doubt – one of Imola stepping up to host an international event, of an ageing circuit putting its best face forward to show what it can do.
Whether that will win Imola a round of the Formula One World Championship remains to be seen, as question marks continue to hang over the current venue, Monza, and F1 enters a period of new management.
Perhaps, though, that doesn’t really matter. Perhaps what’s more important is for all sorts of race series to look beyond the easy appeal of Italian venues such as Monza and Mugello, and put some faith in Imola.
With a few of those events, a little bit of love and a bit more cash, Imola could once again return to its glory days, as a place where the focus is the connection between fans and the action on track – not corporate boxes and inaccessible paddocks.
Where many a modern track builds big, expensive grandstands and facilities beyond the reach of the majority who attend, Imola is perfectly placed to fill a growing void as a circuit with ample capacity, easy access and a uniquely green setting.
It’s been done before – at Austria’s Österreichring, now the Red Bull Ring, for example – and could be done again, to great effect, at Imola. Here’s hoping.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS