European season commences at San Marino

European season commences at San Marino

After three long distance races with varying climates, Formula One finally touches down in Europe for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari has officially hosted the event since 1981, although there has been racing...

After three long distance races with varying climates, Formula One finally touches down in Europe for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari has officially hosted the event since 1981, although there has been racing at the track for over fifty years. Motorcycle racing was initially the attraction and the first car race was in 1954, a sportscar event between Ferrari and Maserati.

Photo by Brousseau Photo.
A non-championship race in 1979 was won by Niki Lauda then Imola, south east of Bologna, hosted the 1980 grand prix while Monza was undergoing work. The event was so successful that the San Marino GP was made a fixture and is the nominal home of Ferrari. The Scuderia's Maranello is base not far away and the track is named after the founder of Ferrari and his son.

Nelson Piquet won the race in 1981 but the event was more remembered for a huge crash by Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari at the fast corner before Tosa. The Ferrari was destroyed but Gilles walked away -- the corner was later named after him. Imola has seen more than its fair share of nasty accidents and the track was heavily revised after the tragic deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna won three times, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill twice. In recent years, Michael Schumacher has won four times, the victor last year, and Ralf Schumacher took his maiden win at San Marino in 2001. David Coulthard was the last non-Schumacher to win, in 1998.

The anti-clockwise circuit is quite long, at 4.9km, with a couple of fairly short straights and medium-high speed corners. Brakes are important with the stop-and-go nature of the track -- there are now many chicanes -- and high downforce is required. It's a challenging circuit for both drivers and cars and the uphill gradient from Acque Minerale requires good engine power.

The difference in climate from the first three races means tyres are important but the smoother surface of the Imola track means slightly less wear. Bridgestone had the edge last year in cooler conditions and both manufacturers will most likely opt for a softer compound.

The short pit lane at Imola lends itself to a multi-stop strategy although with the no refueling rule, it's anyone's guess what strategy teams will be on. It was a Ferrari one-two last year, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello taking the honours in front of the hysterical Tifosi. It was an unspectacular race but one of high attrition, only eleven cars finishing. All the non-finishers were mechanical related, Imola is tough on cars.

A view of the paddock area at Imola.
Photo by Brousseau Photo.
Nick Heidfeld had the most entertaining time, although probably he didn't enjoy it much. The Sauber driver managed to pit four times, radio confusion leading to him stopping at the wrong time and a drive through penalty for speeding compounding his frustration. Pole position man Michael had an easy time of things to win his 56th race and Ferrari's 147th.

How Ferrari will fare this time around is uncertain. Obviously the team will want to do well at its home race and make up for the ignominious double DNF in Brazil. The F2002 is on the pace but Ferrari, despite its continual denials, is struggling. However, the team has decided not to bring out the new F2003-GA until Spain and the F2002 does seem reliable -- apart from Barrichello's fuel feed problem in Brazil. Rumour has it that it wasn't actually a problem but he simply ran out of gas. Ooops.

Having had a taste of victory, Kimi Raikkonen is champing at the bit for more. McLaren is looking good while Williams have yet to really find their feet. This has given Renault the chance for a bit of interference and they've done it in fine style too, the only team to finish both cars in the points so far. Fernando Alonso is proving as good as expected, save for unpredictable Jaguar wheels getting in his way.

The surprise of Brazil was Jaguar's Mark Webber. The Australian very nearly blasted McLaren and Ferrari off the front row in qualifying, taking third a mere four hundredths of a second off pole man Barrichello. He went on to fight with the front runners all the way in the race until crashing out spectacularly at the entry to the pit straight. His own error, he admitted afterwards, but Webber certainly gave everyone something to think about.

Imola should be interesting: the first three races were unpredictable, what with the new rules, the weather and the long-haul drag. Now in Europe, we should soon get a clearer picture of what is happening. Undoubtedly the top four are Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Renault but Ferrari is going to have to work hard to win this race. Renault has qualifying sorted out but the engine can't quite compete on sheer speed in the race. Neither can Jordan be counted out after Giancarlo Fisichella's stellar performance in Brazil.

McLaren has got it together at the moment and is likely the biggest stumbling block for the others come Sunday -- but they're a bit uneven in qualifying. A Ferrari front row wouldn't be a surprise at Imola but it's by no means a given.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Ralf Schumacher , Michael Schumacher , Mark Webber , David Coulthard , Nick Heidfeld , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Nigel Mansell , Niki Lauda , Alain Prost , Ayrton Senna , Damon Hill , Gilles Villeneuve , Nelson Piquet
Teams Ferrari , Sauber , McLaren , Williams , Jordan