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Friday favourite: Why there's more to Imola than its tragic past

The fatal accidents that overshadowed the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix venue are invariably close to the top of things that come to mind whenever Imola is mentioned. But it remains a spectacular circuit to drive and, for Le Mans legend Dindo Capello, holds some special memories that make it his favourite track

Mick Schumacher, Haas VF-22, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR22, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36

Given his status as a three-time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours, with a remarkable record of 10 outright podiums at the event, you’d have imagined that Rinaldo Capello would choose the French circuit as his favourite track. But a long-forgotten test at Imola, which ‘Dindo’ believes was instrumental in putting his name on the map, means it’s the current host venue of Formula 1’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix that stands out above the rest for the 59-year-old Italian.

“Imola, for me, has been a big part of my career, because the only reason why I could race in Formula 3 without any sponsors and any money was due to a test I did with Prema Racing,” Capello tells Autosport at Monza before commencing his duties as grand marshal for the recent World Endurance Championship race. “Imola has always been my favourite race track.”

Imola will forever be remembered for the tragic events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which transformed attitudes towards safety in motorsport and resulted in considerable changes to the layout too. But Capello, who admits to a preference for anti-clockwise circuits such as Laguna Seca and (in its pre-2007 configuration) Misano, believes Imola today is no worse off for them. He enjoys in equal measure the challenge presented by the modern layout and the original, with the flat-out Tamburello and kink before the first braking point at Tosa’s left-hand hairpin.

“Even after the changes they made, after the terrible accidents of [Ayrton] Senna and [Roland] Ratzenberger, it’s still keeping its own character,” he says. “The chicanes they made to make the Tamburello corner slower and the Villeneuve corner slower are just not the classic zig-zag but something you have really to drive.

“Tamburello chicane you have to get in slow, and then the rest is in acceleration. The next one's entrance is very, very fast and actually between the left and the right there is a braking point for the exit. It’s completely the opposite compared to the first chicane they made.

“Apart from that, I remember it has always been the most demanding track for braking and fuel consumption. And, for me, it’s in Europe the best race track together with Spa.”

Capello’s crucial test that smoothed his progression from Formula Fiat Abarth in 1985 came after a back-to-back comparison with British karting ace Mike Wilson aboard Prema’s Ralt-VWs. Wilson was already a three-time world champion for the Birel factory team and exploring a move into car racing.

Imola has undergone significant revisions since the events of 1994, but Capello believes it still retains its essential character

Imola has undergone significant revisions since the events of 1994, but Capello believes it still retains its essential character

Photo by: Sutton Images

Now a grandee team in junior single-seaters that has expanded into sportscars too, Prema was then a relative newcomer to the scene having made its F3 debut in 1984 and run Gianfranco Tacchino to third in that year’s Italian championship. It started the 1985 season with Giorgio Montaldo, who ended the year fifth, and Stefano Livio, but soon needed a replacement for the latter.

For the test at Imola, Capello was initially given the older RT3 model, while Wilson was entrusted with a new RT30. But it didn’t take long for the future sportscar legend to get down to the pace.

“Prema was quite impressed,” he recalls. And when Wilson elected to stick to karting, going on to win another three world championships by the end of the decade, Capello was able to take the car earmarked for him.

“Chuck McCarty was an importer of Ralt in Italy,” adds Capello. “He gave me the car which was normally for Mike Wilson and Volkswagen which was providing the engine [for Wilson], they gave it to Prema for me. That is thanks to the test in Imola and the feeling I had and I have with the race track.”

"The thing I like the most is the feedback of all F1 drivers. After they raced for the very first time in Imola with F1, they get surprised about how nice it is to drive" Dindo Capello

He took pole at Misano later that year, although Autosport reported that the “highly talented but grossly underfinanced” Capello retired from the race after contact with Felice Tedeschi, but results were thin due to a lack of grunt from his engine and a lack of finance to change it.

Although he won the Monza Lotteria F3 race in 1988 with a Dallara-Alfa Romeo, Capello’s career only took off once he switched codes. And that coincided with success at Imola – he won a Porsche Carrera Cup Germany round on home soil in 1992, and finished second to works Audi team-mate Emanuele Pirro in both Italian Touring Car Championship races in 1995.

In 1996 the title went to Capello and he also won at Imola that year, despite a nudge at the final Variante Bassa chicane from the CiBiEmme BMW of chief title rival Emanuele Naspetti. The sometime March F1 driver beat Capello in race two, but would be denied the crown by a stop-go penalty for contact in the Vallelunga finale with the other works-run Audi Quattro of Yvan Muller.

Capello says Imola was fundamental to making the step up to F3, kickstarting his long and successful career

Capello says Imola was fundamental to making the step up to F3, kickstarting his long and successful career

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

“I remember that [Imola] win because our Audi A4 was with a lot of ballast and we were struggling – braking and acceleration up and braking downhill was terrible,” Capello remembers. “In the last chicane, the BMW didn’t brake and pushed me off. But I just kept full throttle and jumped the chicane.”

That segment of track is no more, having been replaced amid extensive renovation works in 2008. Significantly increasing the speed onto the pit straight with its several kinks, it is the only change that Capello feels was ill-judged.

“The only thing I do not like about the new layout, for me is the main straight is now too dangerous,” he says of a section where Nurburgring ace Marcel Tiemann was hooked into the wall at the start of a GT Open race in 2010, abruptly curtailing his career. “The walls are very close to the edge of the track if you have a contact there. That’s the only part I would make it a little bit different.”

Capello never raced a Le Mans prototype at Imola, sitting out the six-hour Intercontinental Le Mans Cup round in 2011, although he won an Italian GT round there in 2011. But the track will host the pinnacle of sportscar racing when the World Endurance Championship arrives in April 2024.

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Although Capello predicts that the width of the track will be “really on the limit”, he’s hopeful that it will prove an eye-opener to more drivers – who missed out on racing at the track in the European Le Mans Series or GT World Challenge – in a similar manner to when it returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after a 13-year absence.

“The thing I like the most is the feedback of all F1 drivers,” he says. “After they raced for the very first time in Imola with F1, they get surprised about how nice it is to drive.”

Capello has raced at Imola in recent years in Italian GT and still relishes its challenge

Capello has raced at Imola in recent years in Italian GT and still relishes its challenge

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

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