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Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

Chris Harris on F1: Formula 1 has outgrown Imola

It has history and the drivers’ hearts, but what Imola no longer has—as shown on Sunday—is the ability to deliver a real racing spectacle.

chris harris f1 imola verstappen track

Chris Harris on F1

A weekly column from Chris Harris chronicling the ups, downs, and chaotic in-betweens of Formula 1 races.

The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, born the “Autodromo di Imola,” first hosted a race for cars in 1953. Before that, it had been used exclusively for motorcycle racing. This fact will not have been lost on the Formula 1 drivers who started the race on Sunday. In ’53, Ascari’s Ferrari 500 had a rear track width of 1,245 mm (49 inches); Carlos Sainz’s current SF-24 is 2,000 mm (78.75 inches) wide across the hips. Has Formula 1, quite literally, outgrown one of the most famous circuits of them all?

Max Verstappen was gushing in his praise for Imola in the build- up to qualifying, declaring, “Honestly, it's just a fantastic track. I wish we had 24 of those on the calendar.” I believe the sincerity of these statements he makes in support of the old-skool tracks—Max is, above all else, a true racer. Suzuka and Spa are often equally lauded, Silverstone less so. But then, a 50-G slammer into the tyres at Copse can probably dampen one's enthusiasm for a place. (As can a partisan crowd.) 

Less easy to believe, perhaps until this weekend, were the usual Max woes leading into the weekend. Red Bull’s ability to convert something supposedly “undriveable” on Friday into a car capable of taking pole a day later is, for the non-cynical among us, quite remarkable. Ferrari showed exceptional pace in the first two practice sessions, while McLaren proved that Miami wasn’t a fluke for McLaren, with Piastri benefitting from all the upgraded parts. 

(Not to get sidetracked, but: It’s a continuing point of fascination for me that the teams can often only build one of something, and not two. Do they want different configurations so one car acts as a control for the new bits? Is it a way of subtly reminding the drivers of the hierarchy within the team? Or is it a punishment for something we know nothing about? Did Oscar forget to flush at the McLaren Tech Center? We may never know.)

The lead-up to Imola was marked by a poignant remembrance, with this year’s race being the 30 year anniversary of Senna’s passing. A respectful parade of current F1 drivers was convened, all wearing yellow Senna T-shirts. Well, all except Bottas and Verstappen. It wasn’t a good look, especially for the Red Bull driver. Apparently their T-shirts had been stolen—a ruse that was debunked pretty quickly. 

Verstappen yet again separating himself from the pack, as part of the tribute to Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger

Verstappen yet again separating himself from the pack, as part of the tribute to Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Could it be that the ancient Piquet/Senna rivalry is still simmering, and Max was showing loyalty to his girlfriend’s dad? Quite possibly. It was all rather immature and unseemly. But it did get me thinking: is there a current rivalry that might still be boiling away 30 years from now? 

Max’s reaction to Lewis in FP2 suggests their feud could have some legs. Otherwise, all we tend to see is one great social media love-in for all F1 drivers. I’m a strong advocate for more needle and rivalry. Maybe not at the level of Piquet calling Mansell’s wife ugly, or suggesting Senna was gay, but there’s a middle ground. At least give me Gasly calling Ocon ‘a twat.’

But to answer my own original question: Yes, I think F1 has outgrown Imola. I love the history and revel in anything non-Tilke, but this wonderful circuit meets my main criteria for determining if a track is past its expiration date. That being: Imola usually serves up a better qualifying spectacle than it does a race spectacle.

Qualifying was one of those hours that reminds us all just how impressive a modern Formula One car is. (Even a lowly Williams.) These are huge machines pushing over 1,000 horsepower through those rear Pirellis, with no traction control. The levels of skill, bravery, and accuracy on display from the first minute of qualifying were breathtaking. When Alonso backs it into the tyre barrier, you know the drivers are pushing. Hülkenberg continued his exceptional work and Mercedes continued its dismal season, with Tsunoda popping up between as he quietly builds a very impressive ’24 campaign. 

But this was to be the Max Verstappen show. He beat the rest to the pole and reminded people (myself included) not to always see him as the boy who cried wolf. Could anyone else have taken P1 in that car? Certainly not his teammate, who didn’t even reach Q3. Verstappen’s final lap was electric. The cheeky tow from Hülkenberg must have helped, but the way he attacked Imola’s narrow track was delicious. Qualifying on fresh slicks is about pushing a little further than you have before and hoping it sticks, reveling in the extra grip you’re afforded for those handful of corners. It’s about feel and car control; just look at Verstappen's minute steering corrections on that lap. His girlfriend's dad won’t like it, but his Imola pole was Senna-esque—right on the edge. The McLarens were close. I think we all hoped Ferrari would be faster—including the Tifosi, who are already beginning their Lewis love-in.

Piastri getting intimately acquainted with Sainz's wing at Imola

Piastri getting intimately acquainted with Sainz's wing at Imola

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The race was unspectacular. A shortened DRS zone didn’t help, but there were few overtakes—that Piastri could be so much faster than Sainz and still not overtake was a shame, and an indictment of the track. And the good behavior at the start (the race director must have threatened some stallions heads in beds) meant the race settled into a dead rubber all too quickly. When the action isn’t delivering, I tend to zone in on strategy quirks or interesting driving styles, but there were slim pickings at Imola. 

Verstappen built a decent lead before the first and only stop, until, with 10 laps to go, his hard front tyres really began to fail and Norris smelled blood. The McLaren closed the gap at a rate that completely supported Verstappen's feelings about the RB20 car on Friday. For a few too-brief laps, it looked like we might have a scintillating tussle for first. But even that fizzled out. Yes, the winning margin was under a second, and McLaren has now served notice on Red Bull’s superiority—but dear old Imola couldn’t deliver the spectacle we all deserved. 


Watch: Ayrton Senna Inspired Special Livery! | McLaren's 2024 Monaco Grand Prix McLaren Livery

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