The morning after Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola, we left our rooms above the little pizzeria on the Via Antonia Graziadei and walked across the bridge over the Santerno river into the race circuit. The world had watched this place in horror and mourning the day before and now it was quiet and sad and we wandered through the open double gates and on to the track.
We turned right and walked along the Tarmac towards Tamburello where Senna’s Williams-Renault had smashed into the wall early in the San Marino Grand Prix. There was already a shrine to the three-time world champion there.
Brazilian flags had been tied to the wire fencing above the scar that identified the point of impact. In the woods behind the wall, pockets of fans had come to pay their respects.
It’s time Lewis Hamilton got the respect he deserves as one of Britain’s greatest sportsmen
We stood there for a while, still struggling to come to terms with what had happened, still trying to accept that a man who had seemed invincible was dead. As we lingered, a car with tinted windows drew up and stopped on the circuit. A woman dressed all in black got out, bent down, laid a wreath on the gravel and then was gone. I never found out who she was.
I’ve been back a few times since that day. The hills behind the curves at Tosa and Rivazza were my favourite places to watch Formula One anywhere in the world. Imola was always my favourite circuit, despite what happened there on that cursed weekend in the spring of 1994. It summed up all the passion and all the history I loved about Grand Prix racing.
Sometimes, it feels as if the sport cannot bear the weight of what happened at Imola and so it has turned away from the lovely old circuit.
A memorial for Ayrton Senna has been erected in Imola after the driver’s death in 1994
Formula One has not raced there for 14 years but the new king, Lewis Hamilton, was driven around its undulating track for the first time last week as part of the build-up to Sunday’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
When his road car took him past Tamburello, he felt the sting of what had happened there. He felt the air still heavy with tragedy and glanced at the statue of Senna that sits on a plinth on the infield as if it were Senna himself sitting on the pit wall. And like the rest of us, he felt the sport’s past.
Hamilton is the great one now. He moved clear of the record of 91 race wins set by Michael Schumacher when he won the Portugal Grand Prix in Portimao last week and now, at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, he is going for victory No 93.
By the end of the race, he may stand on the brink of equalling Schumacher’s record of seven world titles that many believed would never be matched.
His 92nd win fuelled a new round of debate about who is the greatest driver ever. There is no right answer to that question. It is even harder to argue one man’s case in F1 for the simple reason that so many of the great ones were killed in the pursuit of the sport they loved. Senna was 34 when he died at Imola. Jim Clark was 32 when he was killed in an F2 race at Hockenheim. Both have to be a part of any conversation about the best there has ever been.
Hamilton, who is 35, is part of that conversation, too. Of course he is.
Hamilton moved clear of the record of 91 race wins set by Michael Schumacher last week
What it is possible to say is that he is the greatest of this era and that he towers above his contemporaries. Inevitably, there are those who say that his record is distorted because he drives the best car, but that is sophistry. Hamilton earned the right to be in the best car, the Mercedes, and, by being the best, he has stayed in the best car.
That applies across team sport. Most of the great goalscorers played for great teams. They had great players around them. That doesn’t lessen their achievement and nor should driving for Mercedes diminish the scale of what Hamilton has done. He is an incredible driver with an incredible brain, a driver of daring and bravado who can be calculating as well as bold.
He is the greatest active sportsman Britain possesses. There is an argument that he is the greatest active sports star in the world. Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Simone Biles, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and LeBron James are part of that equation, but Hamilton is more dominant.
For some reason, he still does not occupy a prominent place in the hearts of the British people.
Some say it is because he is a tax exile but that never seemed to be an impediment to Nigel Mansell’s popularity. He is in the pantheon of the greatest British sports stars and it is time he started to get the credit he deserves.
The least we can say as he races around Imola on Sunday is that he is a worthy heir to the man who died at Tamburello all those years ago, whose memory still burns so brightly.
Being a tax exile did not seem to be an impediment to Nigel Mansell’s popularity
Nobby was the ultimate team man
Nobby Stiles will always occupy a prominent role in our football culture. He did not seek individual glory. He subjugated himself to the needs of the team. And in the process he became one of only two Englishmen to win the World Cup and the European Cup.
He epitomised selflessness as a player and humility as a man — and the warmth of the tributes that followed his death last week are fine indicators that his values inspired others.
World Cup winner Nobby Stiles epitomised selflessness as a player and humility as a man
United must use Donny
When it was suggested last week that it was odd for Manchester United to have paid £40million for Donny van de Beek in the summer only to leave him on the bench for match after match at the start of the Premier League season, many pointed out, correctly, that Fabinho faced the same issue when he arrived at Liverpool and asked where all the fuss was when that happened.
The difference, of course, is that Liverpool had just reached the Champions League final when Fabinho arrived and were one of the top two teams in the country. So it was hardly surprising a player even of Fabinho’s quality didn’t waltz straight into the side.
United were 15th before Saturday’s games. They are struggling. To leave Van de Beek on the sidelines feels like an indulgence they can’t afford.
Leaving £40m man Donny van de Beek on the bench a luxury Manchester United can’t afford
Finish with this, Eddie
This week I noticed the substitutes for England’s Six Nations match against Italy in Rome were actually named on the official RFU press release as Finishers. I thought rugby players were made of sterner stuff than that and would be able to accept the fact they hadn’t made the first XV.
But Eddie Jones’ bizarre insistence on pretending there’s no difference between starting the game and coming on later has taken hold.
I fell foul of it at the World Cup in Japan last year when I asked England coach Jones about George Ford being ‘dropped’ for a game. Jones was horrified. He said the fact that Ford was no longer in the first XV didn’t actually mean that he had been dropped. Just that he had been repositioned.
Actually, he’d been dropped. Finishers are substitutes — however much anyone wants to pretend otherwise.