Matt Bishop Monthly Edition 3

Matt Bishop Monthly Edition 3

As I write, the Formula One circus is making its way away from the Autodromo Internationale Enzo e Dino Ferrari. There will be no racing there this weekend, no tifosi cheering on the red cars, no nothing in fact, all of it prevented by an act of god: flooding on a biblical scale. Thousands of nearby residents have been evacuated from their flooded homes, and some have drowned. There are more important things in the world than Formula One, and it was the right decision to abandon the race. 

The now suddenly silent circuit hosted the San Marino Grand Prix from 1981 until 2006, and, since 2020, has staged the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. It is in Imola, which is not in San Marino and never has been, but is rather 61 miles (98km) north-west of it, and is a sizeable town within the metropolitan district of Bologna, in Emilia Romagna, hence the race’s more logical current official title. A championship Formula One Grand Prix was first held there in 1980, the only year since the inauguration of the Formula One World Championship in 1950 that the Italian Grand Prix has not been held at Monza. Prior to the Formula One era, Monza had also mostly held sway, first hosting the Italian Grand Prix in 1922, continuing to do so annually until 1928, after which no Italian Grand Prix was held until 1931, when it returned to Monza as an annual event until 1938, when World War Two supervened, the single hiccup being the 1937 Italian Grand Prix, which had been held at the Circuito del Montenero, in Livorno, on the western coast of Tuscany. Oh and the very first Italian Grand Prix was run on the Circuito della Fascia d’Oro at Montichiari, near Brescia, in Lombardy, in 1921. 

Why was there no Italian Grand Prix run in either 1929 or 1930? The explanation is a sad one. The 1928 Italian Grand Prix was won by a Monegasque driver, Louis Chiron, in a French car, a Bugatti T37A, beating Alfa Romeo’s star drivers Giuseppe Campari, a sometime opera singer distinctly broad in the beam, and Achille Varzi, who was partial to a bit of morphine from time to time. But, although the tifosi may have resented Bugatti’s humiliation of Alfa Romeo, the cause of their sadness was tragic in a universal sense. On lap 17, while attempting to overtake Giulio Foresti’s Bugatti T35C on the start-finish straight, Emilio Materassi lost control of his self-modified Talbot 700, which veered to the left at 125mph (201km/h), bounced through a wide and deep protection ditch, and flew into a full grandstand. A fine driver from origins humble, having driven buses in his native Borgo San Lorenzo, near Florence, Materassi had won the daunting Coppa Ciano four years running (1925-28), the prestigious Gran Premio di Tripoli in 1927 and the famous Targa Florio in 1927, too. But his luck ran out in the 1928 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, as did that of 22 spectators, who were slaughtered as Materassi’s Talbot crashed among them. There was little appetite for racing in Italy for a while afterwards. Only in the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours, in which Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh and 83 others were killed, have more spectators’ lives been lost in a motor race.

But this blog is supposed to be about Imola, where the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was to be run this weekend. Moreover, I need to cheer you up a bit, after descriptions of so much death, decimation and destruction. Although Imola has experienced more than its fair share of modern-era tragedy, in the surrounding area in the past few days and on track most notably in 1994, when not only Roland Ratzenberger but also Ayrton Senna were killed there, and although motorsport cannot ever be completely safe, Formula One is immeasurably less dangerous now than any top-tier racing was back in the day.

A number of great drivers have won championship Formula One races at Imola - Michael Schumacher (seven wins), Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost (three apiece), Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Max Verstappen (two each), and Nelson Piquet, Didier Pironi, Patrick Tambay, Elio de Angelis, Riccardo Patrese, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. There have also been two non-championship Formula One races at Imola, in 1963 and 1979, and they too were won by all-time greats: Jim Clark and Niki Lauda. In April 1963 Clark put his works Lotus-Climax 25 on the pole and in a race of just 156 miles (251km) lapped every other car except Jo Siffert’s Ecurie Filipinetti Lotus-BRM 24. The only Gran Premio Dino Ferrari was a non-championship Formula One race held at Imola in September 1979, the rationale being the need to validate the circuit’s championship status so as to be able to host the Italian Grand Prix proper there the following year (1980). Only 16 cars were entered in the 1979 event, but they were driven by some of the very greatest drivers of the era. Gilles Villeneuve put his Ferrari 312T4 on the pole, but in the race he faded to seventh. Niki Lauda won it in a Brabham-Alfa BT48, the sole success for that narrow-bodied, swoopy-styled but oh-so-flawed Gordon Murray-designed ground-effect 60-degree-V12-engined beauty. Carlos Reutemann was second in a Lotus 79. Jody Scheckter, who had won the Formula One World Championship for Ferrari amid scenes of Monza joy the previous Sunday, finished third in the other 312T4. Fourth, fifth and sixth were Riccardo Patrese in an Arrows A1, Jean-Pierre Jarier in a Tyrrell 009 and Keke Rosberg in a Wolf WR9. 

Max Verstappen may well have triumphed this coming Sunday, thereby joining Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost as winners of three championship Formula One races at Imola, but the torrential rain in the region has prevented that. Personally, old romantic that I am, I would love to have seen either Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso take the laurels. But the show must and will go on, and the Formula One circus is already readying itself for Monaco, where Hamilton has won three times, Alonso twice, and Verstappen once. This weekend our thoughts should be for the people of Emilia Romagna, but we can also allow ourselves to look forward to the 74th Monaco Grand Prix.

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