For many years, the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola was the first act of the European season. A visit to Emilia Romagna in spring was always a welcome relief after a long European winter. This time, I travelled with a small group of Hungarian journalists as part of an organized trip. Four of us flew from Budapest to Bologna and then hired a car for the final leg to Cesenatico, where our fancy hotel was located.

MCLAREN VS FERRARI

The second season of the great McLaren vs Ferrari rivalry with Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher was well underway when Formula 1 visited Imola in 1999. The Finn was defending champion, while Schumacher began his fourth season with Ferrari even more eager to clinch the title. Schumacher had not made the best of starts to the season; he failed to score in Melbourne and came second to Häkkinen in Brazil. The tifosi were hoping for the first win of the season on home turf in Imola.

NO WAY

On Friday, our Hungarian group was given the unique opportunity to interview Ferrari’s number 2 driver, Eddie Irvine, who had won his first F1 race in Australia. The crude Ulsterman was in rare form during our chat in the Ferrari motorhome: “bullshit”, “no way”, “I don’t care” or a simple shrug of the shoulders were some of the replies to our carefully crafted questions. I felt like a fiction writer as I attempted to put Eddie’s few words together for a proper interview in my paper.

TRAVAILS

Came Saturday, we had a puncture on the rented car, not far away from our hotel in Cesenatico. This was not a routine pit stop to change a wheel, because it was May 1. Prima Maggio, una festa, bella vacanza. Everything was closed and nobody was working. What to do? After making several calls it turned out that official assistance was unattainable. Only the human factor remained. The son-in-law of our landlady happened to be a mechanic and he was gracious enough to help us. We lost time, of course. The morning was gone but we had hope for making it for qualifying. In Imola, itself we faced another challenge. As if the hordes of F1 fans weren’t enough, the leftists had their traditional May 1 march and gatherings. The streets were gridlocked and full of people; a F1 car pass did not help much in this case.

QUALIFYING

On the Enzo e Dino Ferrari Circuit, McLaren-Mercedes had a front row lockout with Häkkinen and Coulthard. Schumacher was only third. The big surprise was the third row of the grid with Jacques Villeneuve in his new BAR followed by Barrichello in a Stewart. Many were sceptical about Villeneuve leaving Williams to sign for a brand new team. Perhaps some advice from former Champion Jody Scheckter, who turned up in the Paddock, gave him a boost.

SUNSHINE FOR FERRARI

Sunday brought sunshine for Ferrari. Polesitter Häkkinen had built a commanding lead before making a costly mistake, crashing against the concrete wall at the entrance of the start/finish line. The wrecked McLaren came to a stop on the grass verge, opposite the pits. A cheering crowd awaited as Mika climbed out of his “office”, handing over the lead to Schumacher, who kept it till the chequered flag.

MARANELLO

So it was a home win for Ferrari in Imola. The first time since 1983 when Tambay had won. The entire autodromo was in an ecstatic mood, making it the perfect time to visit Maranello the next day. The small town, some 50 kilometers from the track, was in celebration mode. I paid a short visit to the local church where I was lucky to meet Monsignore Alberto Bernardoni, who many years earlier had started the tradition of ringing the bells when a victorious Ferrari crossed the finish line anywhere in the world.

FIORANO

We were brought to the Fiorano test track, which was built in 1972 and gave Ferrari a unique advantage when preparing for races. For me it was moving to see the pista where in the past great drivers such as Lauda, Villeneuve, Alboreto & Co. had carried out so many thousands test laps, looking for the smallest of time gains.

RISTORANTE CAVALLINO

The Maranello visit ended with a true Italian lunch in the Ristorante Cavallino, on the other side of Ferrari’s entrance gates. The Ristorante is a small Ferrari museum in itself, with relics like helmets, engines and signed photos on display. Perhaps it is not a great sin after two decades to confess that I took my napkin with me, a bright yellow piece of textile with a small embroidered Prancing Horse on it. Ever since it has a worthy place in my collection at home…