Between the porticoes of Bologna and the glimmering mosaics of Ravenna lies the tidy comune of Imola, only 30 minutes by train from Bologna’s Central Station. For certain folks, there is one reason to stop over in this unassuming town: to pay respects to Brazilian race driver Ayrton Senna da Silva, arguably the greatest Formula One driver of his generation, if not one of the all time greats.
It was more than twenty years ago on May 1, 1994, that the three-time world champion was killed in a violent racing incident during the Formula One San Marino Grand Prix at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy. On lap seven of the race, Senna was driving flat-out through the curve at Tamburello when he ran wide and slammed into the concrete wall.1 And so, the life of a brilliant, charismatic, ruthless competitor was cut short.
What made this man so great? On the eve of the release of the 2010 documentary Senna, former racing driver-turned-analyst, now motorsports journalist Sam Posey articulated his theory:
Once in Imola, the pilgrim’s path is straightforward. Head south from the train station along Via Appia, past the Bastioni di Port’Appia—the historic city gate towers dating back to the Italian Renaissance. then the Palazzo Comunale (town hall) and its large clock. Walking through the narrow street of Imola’s historic center, it’s hard to imagine it packed with visitors during a grand prix weekend. On that sleepy weekday morning, we felt like we were surely the only visitors in town.
Continuing south along Viale Dante Alighieri, the street widens to a tree-lined boulevard flanked by elegant homes. To my surprise, the sound of racing rang through the streets. It wasn’t just my imagination—it just so happened that an open track day was under way. Although Imola is no longer on the Formula One calendar, cars, motorcycles, and even bicycles continue to race on the circuit.
By the time that the Santerno River comes into view, the road to the racetrack is clear. Beyond the bridge, the circuit entrance is emphatically awash in Italian rosso corsa—from the red wall emblazoned with the words “Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari”, to the race control tower bearing the mark of the Prancing Horse, and to the [albeit faded] sculpture of F40s hurtling skyward like four-wheeled rocket ships.
We headed for the heart of Parco delle Acque Minerali to visit the Ayrton Senna memorial. The racetrack completely surrounds the park (an inversion of what we saw in Monza), so we walked along a road that briefly took us underneath the racetrack itself. A bold portrait of Ayrton Senna was spray-painted onto the tunnel interior.
Past the soccer pitch, then a children’s playground, there—along the tree-lined parkway facing inward towards Tamburello corner—sits a bronze sculpture of Ayrton Senna.
Measuring two meters tall, it sits contemplative, surrounded night and day by the condolences of fans who leave flowers, poetry, flags (those of his beloved Brazil and others) and photos. In the background of this colorful yet somber scene, the chirping of birds is interrupted by the thrum of cars racing on the track.
Although we felt alone, it turned out that we were not the only ones who had decided to pay a visit that afternoon. We chatted with a Canadian couple, who, like us, had planned a stopover in Imola while in Italy for the grand prix.
After going our separate ways (promising the Canadians that we’d make it to Montréal some day), we retraced our steps to the track entrance. We trudged down along the riverbank, where a well-trodden dirt path through the grass runs along the river on one side, the circuit on the other. The sun was beating down on us pretty hard, and we walked faster, if only to get under the shade of the trees where the river bends. There, after scrambling up a steep dirt hill where a fearsome concrete retaining wall once stood, is the exterior fencing at that infamous corner: Tamburello. Along the chainlink fence: a makeshift memorial, one that has been added to over the years since that tragic weekend.
Among the flags, quotes,2 dried flowers, and other mementos, someone had attached a set of pinwheels to the chainlink fencing. On that balmy afternoon, in the middle of an Indian summer, the wind was absent. But as soon as the cars on the track blew past, their folded wings began to whirr and dance. Then, just as quickly as they sprang to life, the pinwheels came to a stop. Or was it just my imagination?
Like the many others who had come before us, we left our own mark on the memorial.