The grim reality that made Imola's F1 weekend impossible to save

18 May 2023

Sure, there have been rain impacted races, like Spa in 2021, and days lost to extreme events like the typhoon that hit Suzuka qualifying day in 2019, but the abandonment of an entire grand prix just days before it starts is quite unprecedented.

But just like the last non-COVID cancellation, of the 2011 season opener in Bahrain because of the political situation in the country, there are times when what is going on outside of a circuit make it impossible for anything to take place on track.

Red alert

From the moment the Emilia Romagna region was placed under a red alert weather warning on Monday evening, it was always likely that there was going to be some disruption to the Imola event.

However, with the long-term forecasts predicting improvement as the race weekend got nearer, the hope was there that once the worst 24 hours of weather passed, the way would be clear for things to improve enough for F1 to go ahead.

However, throughout Tuesday, the situation changed dramatically as the extent of rain that fell in the local region far exceeded even the worst case scenarios that had been predicted.

Whereas there had been talk of 100mm on rain falling in the worst affected areas throughout that day, and 150mm average by the end of Wednesday, things were considerably worse than that.

By Wednesday lunchtime, rainfall in the mountains south of Imola – which crucially feed the rivers in the local areas - had been measured as reaching up to 250mm over the previous 36 hours.

River alarm

This excessive rain served to swell the rivers dramatically throughout Tuesday. At the circuit, which is situated right next to the Santerno River, alarm bells went off pretty early about how fast it was rising.

Having been just one-metre high at 6am on Tuesday, it had hit the first warning level of two metres just after 11am – and showed no signs of slowing.

As it neared the second flood warning level of 2.5m at 12pm, the decision was taken to evacuate the circuit as a precautionary measure in case the river burst through the banks and flooded the entire track.

The below graphic of the river levels shows just how quickly it rose, and how the peak was so much greater than the floods that affected the region recently.

Hydrometric level river graphic

Hydrometric level river graphic

Photo by: Uncredited

Even without the impact of the river, some areas of the circuit were already under water by Tuesday afternoon, with footage of F1’s television compound being flooded circulating on social media.

As F1 personnel decamped to their hotels, the situation got worse rather than better – as a grim picture emerged of the devastation impacting the area. Towns and villages were under water as rivers burst their banks to impact tens of thousands of people.

As the Santerno hit a peak of 3.8 metres at 7pm, widespread flooding beset the region, as officials warned of at least another half a day of rain.

Making the call

Although Wednesday morning brought with it some respite, as the rain eased slightly and the level of the Santerno started to lower, the news was dire from around the rest of the region about homes and businesses flooded, bridges collapsed and there being widespread devastation.

It was clear that things were going to now move not towards a compromise solution to keep the race on at all costs, but instead in calling the whole thing off.

Things at the track did not look ideal either, with the Santerno river have run over in to the F2 paddock next to F1 and leaving it under water.

While there remained scope in theory to compress the F1 event in to two-days, or even run it behind closed doors, it was the awful situation around the circuit that meant even getting F1 personnel in and out would have been difficult enough.

The reality of hire cars being left underwater, flooded local hotels, closed roads, collapsed bridges, the risk of landslides and areas of the Imola circuit being overrun with dirty water from the Santerno meant there were few reasons to feel the event could go ahead from a practical viewpoint.

It was not only impossible to envisage getting hundreds of thousands of spectators in and out each day, but even managing it for a couple of thousand essential F1 staff would have posed significant challenges – and not been without risk.

Having thousands of extra vehicles clog up the local roads at a time of extreme danger was an illogical thing to let happen.

But, perhaps more importantly than the pure practical matters, were the issues of morality.

For at a time when it was clear there was a dire emergency going on near the circuit, it would not have been a good look for F1 to push on with a sporting event that required resources from the local emergency services that were really better placed elsewhere.

In the end, there was no dispute between F1, the FIA and local authorities that there was no way things could carry on, and that the right thing on all fronts was to call it off.

A 2024 return

While the timing was not ideal, with many team members having already arrived in Italy or being on their way when the final announcement was made, F1 was certainly more on the front foot than it had been at Australia 2020 when that was abandoned only on the Friday morning.

Imola’s cancellation at least means that emergency services can commit their resources where they are more needed, which is in helping those impacted by the flooding.

The 2020 Australian Grand Prix was called off at the 11th hour due to the COVID-19 pandemic

The 2020 Australian Grand Prix was called off at the 11th hour due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

And the way the calling off has happened in agreement of all parties means that the situation is clear from the promoter’s side too, in that it is not left facing financial ruin in having to refund ticketholders and also pay F1’s race hosting fee. The invoking of force majeure means the fee is not paid.

While the compressed nature of the remainder of the 2023 calendar means that a return for Imola this year is extremely unlikely, there is no doubt that every effort will be made to ensure its race in 2024 is a complete success – Mother Nature permitting.

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