17. Autodromo di Imola, Italy

Where legends are made, and lost

The third (and probably final) leg of my tour of famous European race tracks comes from a circuit that is able to evoke emotion like no other: Imola.

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Built in 1957 and hosting Formula One races regularly from 1980 to 2006, Imola is a fast, demanding circuit that rewards bravery, and punishes mistakes. It is also very undulating, as I experienced first hand whilst walking a lap of the track during one of the circuit’s public open days.

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For cyclists, joggers and other get-fitterers, the lap of the Autodromo Di Enzo E Dino Ferrari provides an opportunity to sweep the corners and climb the hills with little concern for traffic besides the occasional over-excitable child. For Formula One fans – such as myself – it’s a chance to get up close and personal with one of the most iconic racing tracks in the world, but it’s also a chance to reflect.

Imola is infamously dangerous, and there was no better example of this than the 1994 F1 race, when, early in the race, Ayrton Senna lost control of his Williams at the freakishly fast Tamburello corner, and crashed into the wall. The injuries he sustained would be fatal.

This is not the only time a racing driver has been killed while on duty – indeed only the day before Senna’s crash, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was also killed during the qualification session of what would turn out to be one of Formula One’s darkest weekends.

However, as I write this blog, I’m sitting on a park bench just a few yards away from the statue that has been erected in Senna’s honour, and the constant swarm of people – of all ages – taking pictures and paying their respects is a mark of just how loved and respected he was.

On the face of it, being a racing driver shouldn’t be a particularly big deal. So what, you can drive a man-made machine around in circles quicker than anyone else. Well done, have a prize. But motor racing is more than that, it’s about pushing the capabilities of a human being as far as they can possibly go – and sometimes even further. It’s about the constant desire for improvement, even though you can already do something most people can’t. It’s about putting your life on the line to achieve something nobody else can – that is what people respect.

In Senna’s case, people respected him more than most purely because he was one of the most talented and fastest racing drivers ever. But it was his desire and ability to do whatever it takes, his focus and determination to sacrifice whatever he needed to in order to achieve his ambition, that turned him from a driver who was respected, into a man who was loved, a man who is missed.

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