Károly Méhes looks back on his last visit to Autodromo di Imola, a circuit he visited regularly for the San Marino Grand Prix. Imola made an unexpected return to the F1 calendar in 2020 as host of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix – the race returns in 2021.
Images © Károly Méhes
From my first visit in 1993 to my last in 2006, my Formula 1 year nearly always started with a trip to Emilia Romagna. My yearly routine was the same: I would leave my home in the south of Hungary at around 6am and drive through Croatia and Slovenia, crossing the Italian border at Trieste before hammering down towards Bologna and Imola. If the traffic wasn’t too bad, I would be strolling into the Paddock around 3pm. Always held in April, the San Marino Grand Prix opened the European Formula 1 season and often attracted celebrities and big names – it was not unusual to bump shoulders with Piero Ferrari or Luca di Montezemelo in the overcrowded Paddock.
Remembering Gilles Villeneuve
Aside from the usual Formula 1 activities, my days were busy at the final San Marino Grand Prix in 2006 – starting with a ceremony at one of the main squares in the nearby town of Imola. The square was being renamed after Gilles Villeneuve, the French-Canadian driver who lost his life in 1982 and achieved the status of legend. Perhaps even more so in Italy than his native Canada. Among the invited guests was Gilles’ widow Joanna and his son Jacques, who was still racing with Sauber. The Ferrari management duo of Jean Todt and Stefano Domenicali also turned up to pay their respects to one of the team’s most well-known drivers as a large crowd gathered around Gilles’ Ferrari 126CK, which he had taken to victory at Monaco and Jarama in 1981.
Lorenzo Bandini Trophy
After paying my respects, I made my way to the nearby town of Brisighella, where the late Ferrari ace Lorenzo Bandini had been born in 1935. It was that time of year when the Trofeo Lorenzo Bandini (established by his sister Gabriella) was presented to the most promising driver of the previous season. Mark Webber took the honors in 2006, while Scott Speed was also recognized. The presentation of the trophy is always a big event in the town, attended by the mayor and other dignitaries. After the speeches, we retired into the mild spring evening for pasta and Lambrusco.
Martini returns to Formula 1
Italian drinks company Martini also made a welcome return to Formula 1 as a minor sponsor of Ferrari in 2006 after more than 25 years out of the sport. To celebrate, they organized a party in the Paddock and invited along the former management of Brabham – the team for which they had been the title sponsor in the mid 70s. Bernie Ecclestone, Gordon Murray, Herbie Blash and Charlie Whiting (the latter two were then part of the FIA) were presented with a light blue jacket commemorating the Brabham-Martini partnership, which they proudly wore throughout the evening. But past was nothing compared to the present when Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa appeared! The Brabham folks were immediately forgotten as everybody pushed forward for a handshake with the current Ferrari stars.
As for the town of Imola, I have to say I like it a lot. The Autodromo di Imola was constructed in 1953 on the outskirts of the pretty town. Just a 15-minute walk from the Paddock, you’ll find yourself in the heart of the town centre, surrounded by cosy trattorias and bodegas. Most of the shop windows featured some kind of Ferrari-related decorations on race weekend and the atmosphere was electric. It’s a special place that holds a lot of dear memories and I’m excited to see it back on the Formula 1 calendar in 2020.