Imola's maestro: How Michael Schumacher mastered F1's 'big -balls' circuit

F1

No F1 driver comes close to matching Michael Schumacher's tally of seven wins at Imola. It's a record that has real meaning, at a circuit that challenges the best, writes Damien Smith

Michael Schumacher celebrates winning the 2000 San Marino GP

Schumacher and the Tifosi celebrate Imola win No3 in 2000

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Formula 1’s continent-hopping adventures continue. From a double-header in the Middle East to a red-eye return to Australia, the grand prix teams have travelled back to Europe – briefly – for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at dear old Imola this weekend.

Imola’s position as the first European race on the schedule, as it was last year, is a pleasing throwback to past F1 traditions, especially in an era where promoter Liberty Media is focused on expanding into new territories and establishing fresh roots. Calendar congestion, team burn-out and the sense that some races will have to be sacrificed, or at least rotated, are common themes right now, which makes the revival of Imola as an F1 favourite all the more surprising. The race formerly known as the San Marino GP made a welcome return in 2020 as F1 scrabbled with admirable determination to piece together a full schedule at short notice in the second half of a pandemic-ravaged year. The assumption was Imola represented little more than a familiar port in a storm and that its return would amount to a brief cameo. Not so. In March F1 announced the glorious Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari would continue hosting the Emilia Romagna GP until at least 2025. After years of hearing the region couldn’t afford F1’s exorbitant hosting fees, a new contract has been minted at a supposed $25m a race. Again, unexpected. Again, in a good way.

Nestled in a beautiful part of the world, fast and undulating Imola is proper ‘F1 country’ beloved by most drivers and fans – although it must be said, there’s a sense that over-sized modern grand prix cars have outgrown the narrow ribbon of track somewhat. Overtaking has always been a challenge here, especially in the post-1994 era when the chicanes were added to Tamburello and Villeneuve, and the place will offer a stern test to the new regulations this weekend. Yes, drivers should be able to follow each other closer, but whether that results in more overtaking is another matter entirely. Let’s see.

So who do you think of when Imola comes around? Ayrton Senna? Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi? Depends on your age, I suspect. For me (in my late 40s), Imola is too glorious to be overshadowed by morbidity over poor Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. Instead, for me the place will always be Michael Schumacher territory. Beyond his own indirect and unfortunate association with Senna’s fatal accident on May 1 1994, he went on to win the San Marino GP seven times, a clear record, during the two decades he bestrode F1. Schumacher was so good around Imola – hell, he was so good around everywhere! But his domination of this race had real meaning, given its status as a ‘proper’ big-balls circuit.

Michael Schumacher stops after red flag at Imola in 1994

Imola 1994: Schumacher’s victory a footnote to the tragic race weekend

Grand Prix Photo

Imola caught him out on his first F1 appearance when he spun into retirement while challenging Benetton team-mate Martin Brundle in 1992, then he fell into an inherited second to Alain Prost’s Williams a year later. But it was in ’94 that the Schumacher-Imola association was truly forged.

Had Senna not speared off on lap seven into Tamburello’s wall, would Schumacher have beaten him anyway that day? Given how hard Ayrton was having to push to stay ahead and how comfortable Michael looked running second – plus what we now know of how aerodynamically sensitive the Williams FW16 was at that early stage of its development – it’s not difficult to conclude the Benetton B194 would have hit the front at some point. Yes, the dark insinuation of illegal traction control still casts its shadow over that car, and yes, everyone involved at Benetton back then still vehemently denies such claims. Whatever the truth, Schumacher found himself in perfect harmony with what his old engineer Pat Symonds maintains was a “just a damn quick car”.

From the archive

“It had a really good chassis and a very driveable engine,” he says. “[The Ford-Cosworth V8] definitely wasn’t as powerful as the Renault, as we’d find out when we got the V10 in 1995, but you could build a very nice car around it. And the aerodynamics were very benign, so it was dead easy to set-up. You could tune it to the circuit very quickly and it looked after its tyres. It really was a good car. When you try to make your aerodynamics benign – by that I mean not very peaky or sensitive – you often have to give away a bit of downforce to do it. But actually the 1994 car had as much, if not more, than any of its contemporaries.”

Schumacher never was fallible though, was he? He dropped his Benetton early in the 1995 race having just switched from wets to slick tyres, but took his first Ferrari pole position in ’96 despite now living with a clear car disadvantage compared to Williams. A trio of second places between 1996-98, beaten by Damon Hill, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and McLaren’s David Coulthard respectively only augments his status and consistency through the decade, before Mika Häkkinen gifted him a second Imola victory in 1999 by spinning out of the lead. By 2000, fully recovered from the broken leg sustained at Silverstone the previous July, Schumacher claimed an Imola trio – and a straight hat-trick for the season as pole winner Häkkinen lost out on strategy. A clean pass for victory was rarely the story at Imola – although that was the case at most circuits back then. Lest we forget, ‘the show’ has been much improved in this modern era, even before this new aerodynamic reset, thanks largely to the advent of dreaded DRS.

Brother Ralf Schumacher scored an emphatic maiden victory for Williams-BMW in 2001, on Schumacher’s ‘turf’ – he really was world-class when the stars aligned – but a run of three Imola victories on the trot began for Michael in 2002. That year and in 2004, Schumacher and Ferrari domination almost throttled the life out of F1 as he racked up his astounding tally of statistics. We’d never have guessed then that anyone would ever match, never mind surpass, such supremacy.

Ferrari of Michael Schumacher drives past a walking Mika Hakkinen in the 1999 San Marino GP

Schumacher speeds to victory in ’99, past a walking Ḧakkinen

Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images

A fantastic tactical game with Fernando Alonso and Renault brought a hard-fought final Imola win in 2006 during the last year of his ‘first’ F1 career – but the Schumacher-related San Marino GP that really sticks in the mind the most was his defeat in 2005. Funny how near-misses often stand out above the (many) victories.

That 2005 race was among the best ever seen at Imola. Kimi Räikkönen led early on in Adrian Newey’s rapid McLaren MP4-20 until a driveshaft failure spoilt his day. As Alonso picked up the lead, Schumacher rose from P13 on the grid to reel in the Renault, making up more than 30 seconds. What a performance, in a season when he was mostly hobbled by the one-off no-tyre stop rules that threw Ferrari and Bridgestone. The final 11 laps, as Schumacher hounded a cool-headed Alonso, was compendious of F1 back then: fantastic cars powered by the squalling last-generation V10s, that were also near-impossible to race even for the world’s finest drivers. Never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for DRS…

Michael Schumacher celebrates winning the 2004 San Marino Grand Prix

2004 race was Imola win No6

Grand Prix Photo

Michael Schumacher chases Fernando Alonso in the 2005 San Marino GP

Schumacher magnificent in '05 but couldn't pass Alonso

Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images

Imola will likely once again highlight why artificial means are still required to spice up the racing in this new era. Nothing is ever perfect, but it’s worth remembering that F1 is better now in many regards than it was through most of Schumacher’s long reign. Now, after a tricky first three rounds – non-starting in Saudi Arabia after that nasty qualifying crash and a returning Kevin Magnussen stealing his Haas thunder – how fitting it would be if Mick Schumacher could score his first F1 points at his father’s happy old hunting ground.

Imola is good for the soul. Even, it seems, for the breathless business of F1.