Some of you may be thinking ‘that’s the San Marino GP track’. You’d also be correct – but in 2020 and 2021 Formula 1 officially referred to the race at the Imola circuit as the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. This may seem pointless, but from an official, record-keeping point of view, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix is distinct from the San Marino Grand Prix.
That aside, having picked up zero points from a winning position in Bahrain, I wanted better things from the first European race of the season. Straight away the track felt very different, for whilst the Bahrain International Circuit can be a little… sterile, Imola is an old-school, very fast, traditional venue. It is also a track tinged with tragedy, with Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna and Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger losing their lives to this track in 1994.
Something about Imola immediately feels powerful. It’s quick, it’s bump, and there are several quickfire, snappy kinks that come at you sharply. The track dips and crests like a rollercoaster in places, making life interesting when it comes to seeing where you’re going. The approach to turn 12 is undertaken at high speed, and for that matter you can zip through the Variante Villeneuve very fast, if you’re feeling brave.
Practice runs went reasonably well and I successfully completed some programmes designed to capture invaluable data for the team. My lap times were good on both the soft red-walled tyre and the yellow-walled mediums, and I also had the opportunity to sample the green-walled intermediate wet-weather tyres for the first time. Imola is challenging enough as it is, but in damp conditions a whole dimension of intensity was added to proceedings. The weather continued into the first parts of qualifying, but I sailed through into Q3 easily enough, topping the times in Q1 and Q2. I therefore had reasonable hopes of another improbable pole position, but after my first run in Q3 I was somewhat down the order, and breaking my front wing in my second run left the team scrambling to repair the damage from my error and get me back on track. I crossed the line to start one final flying lap with seconds to spare, and managed to improve upon my original Q3 time quite significantly, but it was only enough for 6th, some half a second slower than the pole sitter. Still, it was hardly a bad place to be, though the forecast for the race promised more rain. How would I fare in variable conditions?
The answer (after a few false starts where the AI cars exhibited dubious behaviour) was ‘pretty well’, but with room for improvement. I lost a few places at the start, muscled my way back in front of the Ferraris, and sat in 6th for a while, trailing the McLaren of Lando Norris. What I could not do was get close enough to pass, but if I finished the race where I started that would have to count for a reasonable achievement right? Alas, a setting on the game set to ‘yes’ buggered up my first stop when I switched to inters (the rain had started by that point and inters had become necessary). My team inexplicably wasted several precious seconds changing an unbroken front wing, dropping me to 9th. I was right behind a trio of Gasly, Ricciardo and Sainz, and though I could match them for pace I struggled to find a way by them, until I found myself within a position to try a couple of ambitious late lunges down the inside of the annoying turn 17. I was able to pass Sainz, then Ricciardo (though the cheeky Aussie came back by me on the pit straight when I hesitated behind backmarkers, I got him again a short while later), and then I tried a move on Gasly.
It was a case of third time unlucky and I pitched myself into a spin, undoing all my hard work and ending up back in 9th. Again I caught up to the trio but then we all pitted again for dry tyres as conditions improved. I opted for brand-new mediums (there was no chance of risking old softs, after the snafu in Bahrain), and the cars around me went for softs. I dare say that cautious approach (and another spin on a drying circuit) cost me any crack at moving up the order, but I finished comfortably ahead of 10th-placed Vettel to seal my first points for both myself and the team. I was nearly a while lap behind race winner Bottas, which served as a sobering reminder of how much work needed to be done, but points are points, and now I had two of them.