Imola Paddock Diary: Vettel leads F1 drivers' Senna tribute

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IMOLA, Italy -- Formula One returns to Imola this weekend, one year on from the heavy floods that resulted in the cancelation of the 2023 event.

The sleepy town in Northern Italy feels worlds apart from the gaudy surrounds of Miami's Hard Rock stadium, where Lando Norris kicked off the extensive celebrations of his first F1 victory two weeks ago (more on the celebrations later). The contrast between the two venues perfectly sums up the extremes of modern Formula One, as the sport continues to extend new frontiers in the United States while retaining an increasingly loose foothold in its European heartland.

Nestled in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, just south of the vast and fertile plains of the Po Valley, the town of Imola can trace its roots back to 82 B.C. and the Roman settlement Cornelii Forum -- one of many trading posts along the arrow-straight Via Emilia linking Piacenza to the west and Rimini on Italy's Adriatic coast.

Since 1953 A.D., the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari has enveloped a park just south of Imola's center and remains a key feature of the town. It is a circuit steeped in motorsport history -- some glorious, some tragic -- and one where the link to F1's past eras almost feels tangible.

Reminders of the venue's most infamous race weekend -- the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix -- are more prevalent than ever this year as F1 respectfully marks 30 years since the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola. The legacy of Senna -- a three-time world champion and one of the sport's most prominent historical figures -- seems to grow stronger each year, and on Thursday's media day all the drivers came together to pay tribute.

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Senna track run

Steady rain abated on Thursday evening as members of the paddock convened on Imola's pit straight to pay tribute to Senna and Ratzenberger.

The Senna Foundation had teamed up with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to organize a track run of the three-mile circuit -- open to any members of the paddock wanting to attend. F1, F2 and F3 drivers all lined up for photo alongside helmets of Senna and Ratzenberger at the front of the grid, before Vettel, who has recently launched items of Senna merchandise to raise money for the foundation, led a few hundred people off on the run.

The pack stopped at Tamburello, the corner where Senna's fatal crash occurred on May 1, 1994, with the drivers filtering through to the public park in the infield where a monument to the Brazilian driver stands. As the rest of the pack started running again, an almighty rainstorm hit the circuit, drenching those continuing the full lap.

As a further tribute, Vettel will drive a demonstration run in one of the McLaren MP4/8s raced by Senna during the 1993 season. The car belongs to Vettel and he occasionally runs at public events using carbon-neutral fuel.

Norris celebrates his win in style

In the immediate aftermath of his debut F1 victory two weeks ago, Norris promised media he would go out in Miami to celebrate his triumph in style. Viral footage of him partying with Max Verstappen in a Miami nightclub suggests he was true to his word, and on Thursday he offered a self-censored debrief.

Clearly Sunday was a big night for the McLaren driver, but there was no time for a hangover (or any sleep!) the following Monday as he headed straight to Augusta to play a round of golf at the home of the Masters.

"I just had a good night out with some of the drivers and friends and some of the team," Norris said when asked how wild the celebrations were. "Of course, everyone was having a little drink and having a good time, which I think is definitely allowed and it was accepted.

"I had a little moment with the team and went to go and see them for a bit and then went to go and have even more fun with some friends and so forth, but not a lot more than that. I then went from there straight to Augusta. The first time I slept was Monday night!

"So I just had a great few days with friends, with family, that kind of thing. And for me, that's as good as it gets. So that kind of fun, I don't need to get into any more details than that."

Despite the lack of sleep, Norris said he "scored my best day of golf that I've had." He added: "It was even better than the win... almost."

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F1 returns after 2023 floods

Compared with 12 months ago, the Santerno river adjacent to the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari almost looked unrecognizable on Thursday. Its steep green banks were fully visible as the river ran peacefully four or five meters below the level a swelling torrent of water had reached one year ago.

The flooding that took place ahead of the planned date for the 2023 race claimed 15 lives, displaced 50,000 from their homes and caused an estimated $10 billion in damages. It was a reminder of how a sporting event can pale into insignificance in the face of a natural disaster, and F1 quickly made the right decision to cancel the race and gift a donation of funds to help the region's recovery.

RB driver Yuki Tsunoda was among the most hands-on members of the F1 community when it came to helping last year, as the resident of nearby Faenza, which was also devastated by the floods, took to the streets to help with the clean-up operation.

"I was living in Faenza and helicopters were flying constantly around at midnight and I couldn't sleep that night," he recalled on Thursday during his media session. "In the morning when I went out in the streets, the town was full of water.

"Fortunately my house was OK, but when I went towards the city it got worse and worse. It smelled of petrol and mud, it was crazy. I was definitely scared. The rain never stopped and I saw the pictures that were going around and it was pretty bad, and they were literally a few hundred meters away from my house.

"It was scary for sure and that was the first time I have experienced that. Luckily I survived, most people were OK, obviously some not, but it was definitely a hard moment."

Tsunoda said he felt compelled to help when it came to cleaning up Faenza 12 months ago.

"I was living here already two years and I felt like part of the people," he added. "It was just a natural thing and I think it was actually, I'm not sure it's the right thing to say, but a nice time in some ways because we helped them and we helped each other together.

"It was just a natural conversation of, 'OK, I'll do this street and after I will go to yours and we will help each other.' Obviously people suffered a lot, but I saw a lot of people smiling helping each other and it was definitely a special moment."

Verstappen racing twice this weekend

Reigning champion Verstappen is planning to take part in two races this weekend. The 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix remains his priority as he looks to extend his championship lead, but he is also hoping to take part in a 24-hour online sim race on the iRacing platform.

Verstappen has travelled to Imola with a bespoke sim rig that allows him to compete both online and in reality during the same race weekend. His name has been listed as one of the drivers in the professional sim racing team Redline ahead of this weekend's 24-hour event, and he said on Thursday that he is hopeful of completing a number of stints during the virtual race.

"It's not a clash," Verstappen said. "An endurance race you do with multiple people, right?

"We'll see, nothing is fully confirmed yet. We'll see how it goes.

"Of course this is the priority, but if I have a bit of free time, who knows?"

Asked if he had his sim rig in his motorhome at all European rounds, he responded: "Yeah, it's important to have a good internet connection!"