Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Opinion

In the shadows of Melbourne and Spa, F1 does the right thing over Imola

OPINION: For the first time since the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula 1 has cancelled an event last-minute, not including the COVID-19 calendar-shifting. But where it has in the past failed to act until it is too late, in the case of the Emilia Romagna GP the championship made a timely, morally correct call. From the ground in Italy, here’s the full story of how that decision came to be

A view of the wet track

The unease felt exactly the same. For the second time in just over three years, it was time to fly to a race that had disaster looming large around it.

But with this weekend’s 2023 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix cancelled, the outcome for Formula 1 is very different to that dark March week down under in Australia in 2020. Then the championship had rather dithered over what to do in the face of the unfurling, horrifying, COVID-19 pandemic.

Its situation back then wasn’t as clear cut as it may have seemed to some, nor was hindsight’s somewhat smug benefit available. There was no telling, really, of just how bad things were going to get for the world over.

But the hospital horrors in China and Italy had already provided a hint of what was being spread around the world. And there had been enough time, as well as something of ‘safety in numbers’ given the NBA and some other motorsport series had already decided to start cancelling events, to stop the near-2000-total paddock personnel boarding flights.

F1 was lumped with Lewis Hamilton’s shrewd “cash is king” tag ahead of arguments playing out long into that famous Melbourne night and scenes of fans then turning up to the Albert Park track ahead of F1 practice sessions that would never take place the next day. The championship’s reputation was dented.

Just 17 months later, four useless weather update promises and over three hours came and went between the controversial ‘start’ and ‘finish’ at the 2021 Belgian GP. This is still shamefully registered as a ‘race’ in F1’s history books and etched into the minds of many fans that got soaked for nothing on that day in the Ardennes.

PLUS: The critical calls that led to the memorable moment of an infamous Spa F1 weekend

And now, after five briefings regarding the developing situation had not been followed by any call over whether this weekend’s Imola planned race would go ahead or not following devastating heavy rain and flooding in the Emilia-Romagna region, once again plenty of the paddock headed to the airport. By the time many had landed, that situation had changed – the event was off and, at the time of writing, is unlikely to be replaced.

The 2021 Belgian GP turned into a farce as F1 botched its handling of the weather-affected 'race'

The 2021 Belgian GP turned into a farce as F1 botched its handling of the weather-affected 'race'

Photo by: Erik Junius

The Mugello circuit that hosted a 2020 COVID replacement round, to celebrate what Ferrari had determined was its 1000th race, is just 44 miles from Imola. But it could never be a viable stand-in at such short notice this time given the infrastructure requirements of moving and installing an F1 event. Plus, there were reports of awful landslides taking place nearby there too.

But it was nice to wonder for a moment, as travel agents were dialled and booking management tabs opened, if a return to that delightfully undulating, picturesque and challenging MotoGP heaven might’ve been a possibility. Why it was not is also central to the story of why 2023’s Imola event had been called off.

Above Florence, the Tuscany rivers were visibly bloated, many nearby fields flooded, but the scene at least calm and manageable. Two hours’ drive up the road into Emilia-Romagna, the picture was very, shockingly, different.

The Giro d’Italia cycling race had passed into the opposite direction only the day before. Starting in the torrential rain that had been soaking north-eastern Italy since Monday, at least one commentator had hyperbolically described the weather accompanying the early part of that stage as “apocalyptic”. Tragically for many on the ground in Emilia-Romagna, this was rather the reality.

The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari and its darkest moments are often referenced along with its watery neighbour. The Santerno’s placing is the reason why the Tamburello corner was considered so fearsome during the circuit’s previous stint on the F1 calendar

Because by Wednesday, 21 rivers in the region had burst their banks – with eight people killed and over 5,000 displaced by the surging torrents. Some people had been trapped in their homes by the water, others climbing to roofs to avoid it. In Riolo Terme, a huge piece of industrial drilling equipment had swept into the Senio river. Bridges had collapsed in other towns, with wide-spread power loss to homes.

In Faenza, the home of AlphaTauri, mayor Massimo Isola called the situation "a night that we will never forget – we’ve never known such flooding in our city, it is something unimaginable”.

In Imola itself, the swollen Santerno river sits just metres from the track’s paddock on its northern edge, the Acque Minerali park to the inside. Its windy banks require a bridge to be crossed to access the site that is now barely above the water – while the flooding has just come on to the circuit’s side of the river.

AlphaTauri's home of Faenza was badly affected by this week's unprecedented rain

AlphaTauri's home of Faenza was badly affected by this week's unprecedented rain

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

In the two days between Emilia-Romagna officials issuing a red alert weather warning and the race being called off, the Santerno had been tracked surging as the rain lashed down in Imola and the mountains to its south-west, water racing into the land below. It rose from 1m to 3.8m on Tuesday – critically above its declared 3.5m safety threshold. It eased back to 2.9m overnight before rising again as the rain intensified in Wednesday’s early hours. It has now receded back to 1.4m.

The Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari and its darkest moments are often referenced along with its watery neighbour. The Santerno’s placing is the reason why the Tamburello corner was considered so fearsome during the circuit’s previous stint on the F1 calendar. There was no room to install wider run-off areas or alter the profile of the corner where, amongst other shocking incidents, Gerhard Berger went through a post-crash fire, and Ayrton Senna lost his life. So the track was altered to include chicanes to slow the cars down through that section.

But while the water had breached the Santerno’s banks enough to flood the F1 broadcasting area and the support paddocks on Tuesday and Wednesday, this was not the reason why the race was cancelled. After all, forecasts had the rain finally abating on Wednesday.

That call centred first on infrastructure. The disruption caused by the flooding and its impact on the roads around the circuit – and across the surrounding region – was itself at risk of getting made much worse by the arrival of thousands more personnel and vehicles.

Nearby hotels were also flooded, putting people out on the street. Teams had been arriving since Monday when the initial garage set-up technician crews had left bases across the UK, Switzerland and Emilia-Romagna (where Ferrari is also based, Maranello 55 miles away) and the rain had started falling.

When these staff came to install the garages as usual on Tuesday, with the red alert in mind and able to feel the heavy rain themselves, team managers and travel co-ordinators were in regular contact with F1 – the principal information source and guide for the teams given its position as commercial rights holder and race promoter.

They found out decisions from various meetings on the unfolding situation shortly after each had been held, in as close to real time as possible. These are understood to have stepped up a gear once videos of the flooding at the track and the towns nearby had begun to spread on Tuesday afternoon, which also reflects when the Santerno had burst its banks.

Approaching 4pm local time on Tuesday, the call came down for the paddock to be evacuated as it had begun to be difficult to navigate due to the heavy rain washing around, plus the flooding to the northern end of the site. This was an orderly instruction for the approximately 150 team staff (plus others going through the remaining event set up work, including set up the team motor homes and finish installing the miles of cables and other F1 systems) by then on-site. This figure is typical for a European F1 race build-up.

The Imola circuit was evacuated on Tuesday before personnel were instructed not to return on Wednesday

The Imola circuit was evacuated on Tuesday before personnel were instructed not to return on Wednesday

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

The evacuation came following an official note issued by F1 rather than a dramatic, sudden escape taking place. By this point, more event staff had begun to arrive – and for the teams this included their mechanics.

Nearing 10pm on Tuesday they were issued with an instruction not to attend the track and to stay at their accommodation if possible – the same message issued to officials and media too on Wednesday morning. By then, though, additional support staff were embarking on their typical schedules – the drivers and team bosses set to come even later, with Mercedes duo Hamilton and George Russell still at their Brackley base having been doing last-minute simulator preparation when the decision was made to call off the race.

Many of the buses and hire cars associated with the event had started to get caught up in traffic – with rescue equipment including fire engines and life rafts being passed through this under priority – even as they had barely left Bologna. Traffic was better coming from Florence, but the routes converged at the areas most heavily hit by the floods.

Going ahead with fully setting up and then starting to hold something as trivial as a motor race amid such scenes was not just impractical, it would’ve been morally wrong

So, here then comes the second, much more important, consideration of this whole saga. This is how not calling off the race and allowing thousands of people and vehicles to descend into a town just 80 square miles wide, plus others nearby of a similar size or smaller, would inevitably disrupt efforts to help those imperilled by the floods.

Going ahead with fully setting up and then starting to hold something as trivial as a motor race amid such scenes was not just impractical, it would’ve been morally wrong.

This is surely what Italian deputy prime minister and transport minister Matteo Salvini was getting at when he asked those with the power to do so to "postpone" the race "in light of the bad weather emergency that is scourging Emilia-Romagna" on Tuesday morning.

It’s also what F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali – an Imola local – meant when he referenced needing to “to ensure safety and not create extra burden for the authorities while they deal with this very awful situation” in F1’s statement announcing the news. This landed at 1.15pm local time on Wednesday just as many flights, including special charters arranged by some teams, had done so. The race was indeed finally off.

F1 just did not want to take from the required emergency services response to the flooding and the priority of saving lives.

The region will feel a financial fallout from this year's grand prix being cancelled

The region will feel a financial fallout from this year's grand prix being cancelled

Photo by: Erik Junius

Its call might not have been swift enough to stop a few flights for those already accruing thousands of air miles a year, and some overseas fans too that shouldn’t be forgotten, but it didn’t matter. The fewer people even attempting to make the road journey from destination airports – Bologna the nearest and busiest for F1 personnel – the better.

Given the extent of the initial damage had not been revealed until Wednesday morning, timing-wise there really is little F1 could've done - especially with the forecast suggesting the river levels would wall in the following days as they have indeed done. Once the devastation was fully understood, F1 and its fellow stakeholders acted promptly.

We know what comes next. With the efforts of the rescuers and stranded people no doubt in their hearts, at some point the business bods central to the decisions to include Imola on the calendar and then strike it out will have to discuss the fallout.

It’s a brutal thing to consider right now, but it is the reality. Emilia-Romagna will sadly now have to count an economic cost too.

The first suggestion from F1 itself is that local hotel and restaurant businesses hopeful a replacement Imola race date can be found in 2023 sadly will not get one. The calendar from this point is just too congested.

Any attempt to cram in another event between Silverstone and the Hungaroring in July would require an unprecedented quadruple-header. And while the unlikely can’t be ruled out in F1 terms, especially where money is involved, it’s something that didn’t happen even during 2020 and the season that ended up being just 17-races long despite tracks offering to host more than the doubles registered in Austria, Silverstone and Bahrain.

Such decisions will be taken in the coming days and weeks, with more news likely to come out across the Monaco and Spain weekends coming up fast. Contracts can be renegotiated and insurance policies implemented. The early suggestion is the track may escape financial peril caused by having to refund tickets and still pay its race-hosting fee, with force majeure cited. Plus, it could get a race in 2026 beyond its current contract length too.

F1 must now seriously consider the environmental impact of its current continent-hopping calendars

F1 must now seriously consider the environmental impact of its current continent-hopping calendars

Photo by: Williams

But the important thing right now is that F1, for once, cannot be criticised for failing to act until it was too late.

In our time of climate crisis, such catastrophes are occurring more regularly. Just two weeks ago, two people were killed in flooding in Faenza. When it comes to re-staging this event for 2024, perhaps the timing of such unfortunate events will be considered when F1 comes to putting together the plan to group races together by region for sustainability races. Spring rain is common. This devastating flooding is not.

Hopefully, the calendar work will be accelerated given little in the 2023 schedule was different to 2022.

There is no excuse for not at least thinking about it, let alone getting rid of absurd journeys of people and equipment, such as the recent Baku-Miami double-header. That would be a step in helping the crisis, along with car technology developments and team organisation breakthroughs from the geniuses that inhabit the F1 community also helping end it for good one day.

That is for the future. Now, F1 is rightly thinking of the people that have died around this part of Italy this week and minimising its impact on those still in danger.

F1's immediate thoughts are with the people of the Emilia-Romagna region

F1's immediate thoughts are with the people of the Emilia-Romagna region

Photo by: Erik Junius

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Flat Chat Podcast: Ageless Alonso, Ricciardo's rumoured reshuffle & F1's calendar
Next article F1 all clear for Monaco GP as staff allowed back into Imola track

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe