Practice must make perfect as Formula One returns to iconic Imola circuit

With little chance to draw breath since Lewis Hamilton became the most successful Formula One driver in terms of race victories, the COVID-19 Formula One calendar takes a quick hop from Portugal to Italy for the 2020 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

In times gone by, this most iconic race was known as the San Marino Grand Prix, sadly infamous for the tragic loss of the great Ayrton Senna and star in the making Roland Ratzenberger in 1994.

The venue has gone through its fair share of changes since that fateful weekend, and all aspects of motorsport safety have changed for the better as a result. Indeed, the circuit has not hosted an F1 race since 2006, but BWT Racing Point driver Lance Stroll is one of those who has experience of the modernized track having European Formula 3 title at Imola.

“It feels like a lifetime ago! There was a lot of champagne that night,” said Stroll in his team’s race preview. “It was so emotional and a huge achievement in my racing career. I worked so hard to win it and that just makes the idea of returning to Imola all the more special.

“I’m very excited! Not only is Imola such a famous circuit, but we’ll have the two-day format as well, which has the potential to really mix things up. I also have great memories there, so it’s a weekend I’m relishing.”

In contrast, teammate Sergio Perez has never had the pleasure of driving at Imola before. But the weekend can’t come soon enough, the Mexican securing the unofficial title of ‘driver of the day’ having come from last on the grid to seventh after being bunted off the circuit on the opening lap in Portimao.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge as the two-day format means we will only have the one practice session. We will definitely come into the weekend having maximised simulation and watched plenty of onboards to make sure we head into qualifying and the race as well-prepared as we can be. I’ll also give it a go on the PlayStation!

“I’ve enjoyed racing on circuits that we didn’t expect to visit. Places where we don’t have years of data to fall back on. It puts the emphasis on maximising track time and analysing the limited information you get from practice, especially on a shorter weekend format. I think we’ve risen to the challenge so far, and all credit to the team that we’ve been fighting for good points even at new circuits.”

It will certainly be a baptism of fire for Perez, as there will uniquely only be one 90-minute practice session at Imola for him to acclimatize to a brand new circuit – PlayStation not withstanding! It will mean a frantic Saturday of team strategy discussion as they look to balance race pace high-fuel running with flat out qualifying runs on the C2-C4 range of Pirelli tyres.

Another Acronis-partnered team hoping to make the best of a unique weekend  is the Williams Racing F1 Team, hoping to make new strides under new management.

“Although we have raced here in the past, this is essentially another new circuit and will present all the challenges that we have faced recently in Mugello and Portimão” commented Dave Robson, Head of Vehicle Performance. “However, this week there is the additional complexity of the shorter event format. A single free practice session shortly before the qualifying practice session will put a lot of pressure on the drivers and engineers alike and we are likely to see a range of approaches from the teams.

“Over the years, the circuit itself has been remodelled numerous times, but it retains the fast-flowing nature, the unusual anti-clockwise direction and the famous corners at Piratella, Acque Minerali and Rivazza. The run from the second part of Rivazza to the chicane at Tamburello is now flat-out passing the new pit complex. Setting the car up to meet the demands of such an epic circuit will be difficult in just 90 minutes, but it’s a challenge that we are looking forward to.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.