Today in 1993: Senna’s last great race at Donington

1993 European Grand Prix flashback

Today in 1993 Ayrton Senna scored one of the last and most memorable victories of his Formula One career.

His win in the one-off race at Donington Park is best remembered for a stirring opening lap which saw him climb from fifth place to take the lead in less than four kilometres.

But the race also saw an impressive but unrewarded drive by a young Rubens Barrichello, a similar fine performance by Johnny Herbert, and the realisation of circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft’s lifelong dream.

Wheatcroft’s dream

Tom WheatcroftAs a teenager Tom Wheatcroft cycled 30 miles to reach Donington Park in Leicestershire to see races including the 1937 and 1938 Grands Prix. He squeezed through a hole in a fence to watch pre-war greats Tazio Nuvolari and Bernd Rosemeyer and the ominous might of the Mercedes and Auto Union racers from Nazi Germany.

After the war Wheatcroft made his money in construction. When the land the circuit stood on came up for sale he pounced, buying the track in 1971 and reopening it for racing six years later.

Wheatcroft’s dream was to bring Grand Prix racing back to the circuit. He forged a connection with F1 promoter Bernie Ecclestone through their shared passion for classic racing cars.

In 1979 he organised an event at Donington Park in memory of Gunnar Nilsson, the Swedish F1 racer who died of cancer the year before. Ecclestone brought Brabham’s famed BT46B fan car out of retirement for one last blast in the hands of Nelson Piquet. The time trial event also saw James Hunt’s last appearance in competition.

Wheatcroft successfully lobbied the RAC to add Donington to the roster of British Grand Prix circuits in 1983. Silverstone and Brands Hatch shared the race at the time, and Donington was slated to join the rotation with its first race in 1988.

The RAC believed the backing of FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre would be enough to secure the change. But Ecclestone’s commercial control of F1 was growing and he wanted to see the race held at a single venue. From 1987, Silverstone became the permanent home of the British Grand Prix.

This was to Wheatcroft’s considerable disappointment, not least as he had sunk considerable sums in bringing Donington Park up to the required standard. That included, in 1985, restoring the Melbourne hairpin which had formed part of the original track. But Ecclestone did not forget his friend’s eagerness to hold a race when an opportunity presented itself a few years later.

The Mexican Grand Prix had been cut from the calendar after its final race in 1992. The new Autopolis circuit was set to replace it as the home of a second Japanese round, dubbed the Asian Grand Prix. But in September that year Autopolis filed for bankruptcy and two months later the race was called off.

Ecclestone got in touch with Wheatcroft. Could he put on a Grand Prix at Donington Park in April? Wheatcroft said yes.

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Donington gets its Grand Prix

The European Grand Prix at Donington Park was the third round of the 1993 world championship. Alain Prost had returned from a year’s sabbatical to win the season-opening race at Kyalami after a spirited battle with Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.

But in Brazil a rain storm allowed Senna to work his magic and score a hugely popular home win. Two weeks later F1 found itself in Leicestershire, crammed into a paddock little larger than they had enjoyed at the notoriously cramped Interlagos circuit.

The circuit had seen frantic work since the deal was announced. Upgrading the safety facilities was a major priority. The previous November Kieth Odor had skidded off the track at the high-speed Craner Curves during a British Touring Car race. His Nissan Primera somersaulted over the barrier and landed in a spectator area. Now those same curves were to be tackled by vastly more powerful F1 machines.

To guard against a repeat 18,000 tons of gravel was added to the run-off areas. The 72-year-old Wheatcroft, who’d suffered a heart attack in the run-up to the race, inadvertently tested one of them on the morning of the race. He lost control of a Mercedes W154 of the type he’d come to see five-and-a-half decades earlier, and had to be towed out of his own gravel bed.

European Grand Prix qualifying

Against expectations, Senna arrived at Donington in the lead of the drivers’ championship. The Williams FW15Cs were the class of the field but Prost’s slip-up in Brazil had been the opportunity Senna required.

Ayrton Senna's cars: McLaren MP4-8, 2012His McLaren MP4-8 appeared with the logo of a squashed hedgehog on its flanks for the first time. This was a reference to his vanquishing of Williams, whose new sponsor Sega produced the Sonic the Hedgehog series and were also title sponsors of the European Grand Prix.

Donington was a special place for Senna as he had driven an F1 car for the first time there ten years previously. Ironically, it had been a Williams.

But it was far from certain whether the driver who held a six-point lead in the standings would see out the season. Senna would only confirm his participation on a race-by-race basis, still fuming about Prost blocking him from moving to Williams and concerned about McLaren’s competitiveness.

Foremost among Senna’s concerns was his engine. McLaren had lost factory Honda backing the year before and were now engine customers. This was the last time that happened before this year. But unlike today McLaren didn’t have access to the latest specification of the engine they were using.

McLaren’s Ford HB engines, built by Cosworth, lacked the pneumatic valves which facilitated higher revving that were being used by Benetton. Michael Schumacher, driving the new Benetton B193B for the first time, duly out-qualified Senna, though both were easily beaten by the Williams pair.

1993 European Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Alain Prost 1’10.458
2. Damon Hill 1’10.762
Row 2 3. Michael Schumacher 1’12.008
4. Ayrton Senna 1’12.107
Row 3 5. Karl Wendlinger 1’12.738
6. Michael Andretti 1’12.739
Row 4 7. JJ Lehto 1’12.763
8. Gerhard Berger 1’12.862
Row 5 9. Jean Alesi 1’12.980
10. Riccardo Patrese 1’12.982
Row 6 11. Johnny Herbert 1’13.328
12. Rubens Barrichello 1’13.514
Row 7 13. Alessandro Zanardi 1’13.560
14. Derek Warwick 1’13.664
Row 8 15. Philippe Alliot 1’13.665
16. Christian Fittipaldi 1’13.666
Row 9 17. Erik Comas 1’13.970
18. Ukyo Katayama 1’14.121
Row 10 19. Thierry Boutsen 1’14.246
20. Fabrizio Barbazza 1’14.274
Row 11 21. Mark Blundell 1’14.301
22. Martin Brundle 1’14.306
Row 12 23. Aguri Suzuki 1’14.927
24. Michele Alboreto 1’15.322
Row 13 25. Andrea de Cesaris 1’15.417

Not qualified: Luca Badoer, Lola-Ferrari – 1’15.641.

Two great starts

Rubens Barrichello, Jordan, Donington Park, 1993Race day dawned dank and soggy. But as the start time approached the rain stopped, the clouds lightened and the track began to dry. These conditions were ripe for intermediates tyres – but 20 years ago no one had any, so the 25-car field lined up on full wets.

Several contenders could be put forward for the greatest lap in F1 history. They include Juan Manuel Fangio defeating the Ferraris on lap 21 at the Nordschleife in 1957. And John Watson zapping past a trio of rivals on his way to victory on lap 36 at Detroit in 1982. And Fernando Alonso’s outrageous start at the Hungaroring in 2006, vaulting from fifteenth to sixth.

The magic Senna wove on the first lap at Donington Park in 1993 deserves its place among them. From fourth on the grid he fell behind Karl Wendlinger initially as he was squeezed by Schumacher. But after that he simply swept around his rivals as if they were in Formula Three cars. He was already leading before he reached the final turn on the 4km course, and by the end of lap two he was 4.2 seconds up the road.

But there was another driver whose skill on that first lap deserved similar praise. The 20-year-old Barrichello, making his third F1 start for Jordan, gained eight places in the treacherous conditions on the first lap.

Barrichello passed Herbert and Patrese before Redgate, then took Berger at Old Hairpin. A tangle between Wendlinger and Andretti handed him two more places, and he dodged around Alesi as the Ferrari driver slowed in avoidance.

“Alesi is always difficult because he brakes so very late,” said Barrichello afterwards. “I was braking late because I didn’t want to miss an opportunity like this. My car went a bit sideways and I thought I was going to hit the side of Schumacher’s Benetton, which was just in front of us. Fortunately, he saw me and went a little bit wide – and I was able to overtake him, no problem.” As he completed the first lap only Senna and the two Williams drivers lay ahead of him.

Rain keeps drivers guessing

Senna quickly built up a lead but as the track dried Prost, second, began to peg him back. Drivers began considering slick tyres. Brundle had urged Ligier to let him put them on at the end of the formation lap, but they persuaded him to stay out.

It was good advice. He eventually came in for them on lap six but under braking for the chicane the automatic downshift on his gearbox locked the rear wheels and spun him out of the race. The two Williams drivers, also using Renault power, were experiencing similar problems.

Hill, third, was the first of the leading trio to switch to slicks on lap 17. Senna followed him on the next lap and was joined by Barrichello, the Jordan crew sighing with relief as their young charge successfully completed his first live pit stop. He would get plenty more practice before the day was over.

Prost hung on until lap 19. But just three laps later he was back in – the rain had returned. Senna tried to tough it out on slicks but as the track got steadily wetter he finally came in on lap 28.

The April showers continued to toy with the drivers. No sooner had Senna put wets back on had it stopped raining. Six laps later he was back in for more slicks.

At this moment the race almost got away from him. His right-rear wheel nut became cross-threaded and the lead he’d built over Prost drained away while his crew replaced it.

But moments after Prost took the lead he threw it away. Spooked by another shower, Prost dived for the pits on the 38th tour, switching back to wets. Senna pressed on with his slicks and the gamble paid off – on lap 48 Prost was back in for stop number five.

Now it was Prost’s turn to have a bad pit stop. His FW15C stuttered and stalled as he tried to return to the track. By the time he did, Senna was a full lap ahead and eyeing his second win of the year. Making matters worse, Prost had to return for another stop due to a puncture. A final switch back to wet tyres as the rain fell again meant he’d made a total of seven visits to the pits.

Senna made five but only changed tyres at four of them. When he came in on the 57th tour he saw his team weren’t ready for him so he floored the accelerator and pressed on. There being no pit lane speed limit, this shortened tour of the track saw Senna smash the lap record of 1’19.3 (set by Mauro Baldi in a Peugeot 905 sports car the year before) with a 1’18.013.

Heartbreak for Barrichello

But there was to be no fairytale finish for his fellow countryman Barrichello. Prost’s final pit stop had just promoted Barrichello to third when his Jordan’s Hart engine died. Cruelly, he had six laps’ less Sasol fuel than he needed to reach the chequered flag.

The other Jordan had retired nine laps earlier. Thierry Boutsen, who had taken over from the sacked Ivan Capelli, had to contend with a cockpit that was too small for him and lacked the semi-automatic gearbox his team mate had. Following an unreliable start to the season Eddie Jordan was wary of the technology and chose not to run it in both cars. Boutsen’s race was halted by a sticking throttle.

Wendlinger’s first-lap retirement at the hands of Andretti piled pressure on the American driver, who had also crashed out on the first lap in Brazil in a spectacular shunt involving Berger’s Ferrari. It was a miserable race for Sauber as JJ Lehto’s car died on the starting grid and he gave up trying to handle his team mate’s spare after 13 laps.

Schumacher spun out early on, his B193B missing the vital addition of traction control on a slippery day. Mark Blundell had joined team mate Brundle in retirement by skidding off at the chicane while trying to overtake Christian Fittipaldi – an incident which Senna nearly got tangled up in.

Having dodged that, Senna led home Hill (the only other driver on the lead lap), Prost, Herbert, Patrese and Barbazza. Herbert had switched to slicks on lap ten and held his nerve from that point on, never returning to the pits and becoming the only points-scoring driver to make a single pit stop. Six years later at the Nurburgring in similar conditions he read the conditions just as well to score his third and final F1 win.

1993 European Grand Prix result

Pos. No. Driver Car Laps Gap/Reason
1 8 Ayrton Senna McLaren-Ford 76
2 0 Damon Hill Williams-Renault 76 1’23.199
3 2 Alain Prost Williams-Renault 75 -1 lap
4 12 Johnny Herbert Lotus-Ford 75 -1 lap
5 6 Riccardo Patrese Benetton-Ford 74 -2 laps
6 24 Fabrizio Barbazza Minardi-Ford 74 -2 laps
7 23 Christian Fittipaldi Minardi-Ford 73 -3 laps
8 11 Alessandro Zanardi Lotus-Ford 72 -4 laps
9 20 Erik Comas Larrousse-Lamborghini 72 -4 laps
10 14 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Hart 70 -4 laps
11 21 Michele Alboreto Lola-Ferrari 70 -6 laps
Not classified
9 Derek Warwick Footwork-Mugen-Honda 66 Gearbox
15 Thierry Boutsen Jordan-Hart 61 Throttle
4 Andrea de Cesaris Tyrrell-Yamaha 55 Gearbox
27 Jean Alesi Ferrari 36 Gearbox
10 Aguri Suzuki Footwork-Mugen-Honda 29 Gearbox
19 Philippe Alliot Larrousse-Lamborghini 27 Accident
5 Michael Schumacher Benetton-Ford 22 Accident
26 Mark Blundell Ligier-Renault 20 Accident
28 Gerhard Berger Ferrari 19 Suspension
30 JJ Lehto Sauber 13 Handling
3 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 11 Clutch
25 Martin Brundle Ligier-Renault 7 Accident
29 Karl Wendlinger Sauber 0 Accident
7 Michael Andretti McLaren-Ford 0 Accident


“Ayrton was pissed off having a Ford engine,” was Berger’s verdict on the race. “He had to wait for circumstances to compete – and he made everyone look stupid.”

Senna’s humiliation of his arch-rival Prost did not end when the chequered flag fell. In the press conference Prost reeled off a litany of complaints about his car after which Senna suggested: “Maybe you should change cars with me?”

Piling misery upon misery, Prost later found himself criticised by his own team principal. “Alain made a very clever tactical change onto dry tyres but threw it away with a vastly premature change back to wets,” was Frank Williams’ assessment. “All tyre changes were initiated and motivated by the driver,” he added for good measure.

This was surely Senna’s last great performance before his untimely death a little over 12 months later. And the race was hailed as one of the best in a season which was otherwise only slightly less one-sided than the previous year had been.

But for Donington, who wanted to use it to prove they deserved a regular place on the F1 calendar, it was not a success. Partly due to the rain, the hoped-for crowd of 130,000 did not materialise – only some 50,000 showed up. Wheatcroft later said he lost £4.2m on the race.

Although there was to be no return to Donington, Wheatcroft never gave up hope that one day it might happen. When Simon Gillett made his ill-fated bid to move the British Grand Prix to Donington Park from 2010, it was Wheatcroft who made the first approach to Ecclestone in 2007.

Tragically, at the time Wheatcroft passed away in 2009, it had become clear it would not be in a fit state to hold its promised race and there were doubts it could even continue as a viable racing circuit. Although it is now back in use, as well as missing out on Formula One it also lost its Moto GP round to Silverstone.

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Images © Donington Park, F1 Fanatic, LAT

52 comments on “Today in 1993: Senna’s last great race at Donington”

  1. What a report, Keith. Barrichello’s start in this race is often forgotton about in his debut year. In a Christopher Hilton book about Senna, he says that Senna went celebrating like mad that night, the same as he did at the Brazilian GP. It was some performance by Senna and some of his best driving was in 1993. Herbert making 1 pitstop too was a superb piece of driving. I went to the museum there in January. Highly recommended.

    1. @foleyger – I hadn’t had the privelage of seeing this race live so I had competely overlooked his performance upon reading up on it, but Sky should highlights of it today and I’ve got to say he was fantastic also! It’s such a shame he turned into Schumacher’s tool for such a long span in his career.

      1. *showed – argh!

        Indeed: I don’t think he was a Schumacher for the obvious reason he beat him convincingly, but he was a better driver in his earlier career than what he’s credited for. I think he would’ve done really well in Coulthard’s position!

        1. I only started watching F1 in 1995 and I remember when Barrichello was 3rd at the Hungaroring when his car started to give up on him on the last lap. He finished outside the points. Barrichello also got a podium at Aida in 1994. Coulthard was very lucky and I don’t know what Frank Williams saw in him to keep him on for 95 instead of Mansell.

  2. Stunning drive by an equally stunning driver.

    The single race contract he had in 93 and the way he went about it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But that cant take away from what an amazing drive this was.

    1. Autopolis is my personal favourite racing circuit. Lots of flow, variety, and elevation changes. It sponsored a team in the early 90’s but never got an F1 race due to its remote location (Korean International Circuit has the same problems). You can see the last two turns on the Korean International Circuit are inspired by Autopolis’ final turns.

      1. Apparently sponsored Benetton, according to Wiki.

        Yeh! Definitely major influence there. I just can’t believe how many fast turns there are.

        Can you imagine the modifications it would have underwent if it were used today?

        1. There’s no tarmac runoff, just grass and some gravel in places. Some of the entrances to slow corners also have limited runoff. All it hosts now are Japanese racing events and drifting (which is amazing watching them through the final sector).

    1. Definetly! The proportions are all wrong on the current cars: the rear wings need to be lower and wider, the noses need to be lower and the front wings narrower (which is being fixed in 2014) and actually I’d say the cars themselves should be wider. The 90’s ones I still think had nothing on the BT52 – in my opinion that’s the best looking F1 car ever!

  3. I remember the first time I watched footage from this Grand Prix. The moment Senna made his move taking Wendlinger from the outside, I was lost for words. Amongst the drivers I had seen up to that point, few had that sort of grit about them. Seeing more of Senna dancing in the rain, I was convinced even the greatest amongst present drivers owe something, be it wisdom, or inspiration, to Senna.

  4. Thankyou Keith for mentioning that although Schumachers Benneton had a more powerful engine, it lacked traction control at this round. I was ridiculed on the Sky forum for mentioning this fact about this race, and told I was wrong, when the fact is the Bennetons in 1993 did not run traction control until the Monaco round.

    So great drive by Sena, but aided by the more driveable Ford v8 than the Renault v10 or Ferrari v12 in wet conditions. AND traction control that the other front running ford v8 team (benetton) did not have. I think this was definately a great drive, but Senna has had FAR more difficult and impressive wins than this in my opinion, and he had perhaps the best car for the conditions on that day at Donnington.

    1. Well then, if that’s the case that Senna had the best car for these conditions, wouldn’t you think that his teamate would do really good too? What happened to Michale Andretti in that race? Spun out on the first curve if my memory doesn’t fail me.

      1. I think that the difference between what Senna could do in a McLaren F1 car with his skill and experience at the team is huge compared to what Andretti was able to show. Andretti never did put in all the laps and put in the effor to grow into the team, and while he is not a bad driver, he certainly was not as good as Senna.

        Also Its well possible that this was Andretti’s first ever race in the wet, as in the US many races got stopped when it rained.

    1. do those even exist though @ivano?
      HD-TV was still being an experiment at the likes of Sony, Hitachi and Phillips at the time, If I am not mistaken. So we would have to settle for analog images that have been digitalized.

      1. @bascb


        You being serious? If not, HD is the pixelation size in format, as in images too. Anything by the pixel length of 1080p or 1920×1080, is HD. So photographs of then have been scanned or reprinted digital printing in HD.

        1. @ivano No kidding, HD means having a lot of pixels?

          Ehm, yes, that is no surprise for me. I am pretty sure that I have seen very interesting documentaries in the 90′ about what revolution the companies I mentioned above (and others) were working on by giving us TV with higher amount of pixels.

          The mistake is that I thought you were asking for HD VIDEO footage, which obviously is possible but not all that likely readily available. Off course analog pictures of the time have been digitalized with far higher pixelation than that, as you mention.

          1. @bascb

            Well, as I did state “HD images”, your comment replying by mentioning “Analog Images” did come across like a spastic moment. ;)

            I mean, considering how Google and Yahoo since their inception have always referred pictures as images… LOL

            But all good.

  5. prost on pole with 1,5 sec advantage over senna!!!! Wonder why the great brazilian was not sure if he continued. If you look at prost’s pole record during his career he did no more than 4 poles a year with the best cars most of the time, but during the 1993 season he got 13. That puts in perspective the superiority of the williams that year.

    1. That and also the fact he out-qualified Senna by 1.5s, who when they were teammates out-qualified him by 1.4s at Monaco – in equal machinery! That just goes to show how superior that Williams was compared to Senna’s McLaren, especially considering what a short lap Donnington is.

      1. Arnoux at renault, senna at mclaren and mansell at ferrari all were faster on qualy than the not so fast french driver. Only lauda in 84-85 when he was ready to retire, and in 1993 when hill was doing his first year of f1, was prost faster than his teammate, during the part of the grand prix that tells who is fast and who is not.

      2. I think part of it might also be due to Williams having had a Renault works qualifying engine available, where its pretty likely the customer ford engines for McLaren would not have given as much during quali @vettel1

        But sure enough its clear the Williams was miles ahead on pace.

  6. @keithcollantine I am such an F1 tragic, but from 1991 onwards I started to emerse myself in it fully. I remember this race and still watch it from time to time to reminisce. Your recollection of it is much better than mine, I was aware of the tension, rivalry and even the contract clauses, but I wasn’t aware of Senna’s head space on the day and nor did I ever hear the post race interviews.

    I miss straight forward questions and answers, like what Frank Williams stated of Prosts pit stops. Now we get PR spin, built up from sporting cliches and false apologies and fake idolisation. I don’t think Senna, Mansell, Stewart or even Fangio ever cared what the fans thought of them… True individuals, who, through their success and failures were idolised by millions of fans around the globe.

    Oh god, I’m getting old, thats an old man rant o.O

      1. @keithcollantine You are right, and you might have me confused with someone that dislikes Vettel, and that would be incorrect, I do support him, even if he did break a team rule, but imo winners tend to walk away with the trophy while the others behind squabble, rant and rave about how unlucky or how unfair they were treated.

        Probably not exactly a view that all people will agree with, but it is a view based on the harsh world I live in.

  7. @keitchcollantine Also, if you are wondering which races to reminisce about some of my favourite races of all time are:

    1. 1994 Spanish GP – Schumacher stuck in 5th gear for 3/4 of the race still finished 2nd.
    2. 1995 Belgian GP – Schumacher wins from 16th place on the grid.
    3. 1996 Spanish GP – Schumacher dominates in the rain, while his team mate Eddie Irvine was struggling to finish in the top 6 for most of the year.
    4. 1996 Belgian GP – Schumacher wins his own Ferrari Road Car, when he won his 3rd race of the season, after winning a bet with Ferrari head honcho Luca Montedezemolo who thought that the 1996 F1 car wouldn’t be able to win 3 races.

    I could keep going, but they’re some stunning drives that I cherish :)

      1. @keitchcollantine I’m just trying to work out the trend you’re referring to, it isn’t Benetton, because Ferrari features as well. It isn’t about winning, because there is a great drive by the 2nd place finisher. Not sure, I can’t work it out, maybe you need to spell it out for me Mr Schumacher…. errr… I mean Mr Collantine ;)

  8. Great article. And what a race it was.
    With regard to safety issues at Donington prior to the GP, I also remember a scary F3000 accident where Allan McNish went over the barrier into a spectator area after a collision with another car. If I am not mistaken this accident resulted in the death of one spectator.

  9. When he came in on the 57th tour he saw his team weren’t ready for him so he floored the accelerator and pressed on. There being no pit lane speed limit, this shortened tour of the track saw Senna smash the lap record of 1’19.3 (set by Mauro Baldi in a Peugeot 905 sports car the year before) with a 1’18.013.

    Actually a local Brazilian reporter called Galvão Bueno spoke with Senna after the race, and Senna said “Yes the team wasn’t expecting me, but I did that on purpose. I did that to experience the pit lane conditions , I knew that going trough the pit lane was faster then the track. When the team told me that I’ve made the fastest lap going trough the pit lane I told myself: OK, if Prost overtakes me I’m gonna overtake him trough the pit lane”.

    They actually mentioned that on this article:
    But it’s in Portuguese anyway…

  10. I don’t think I can ever remember being so cold at a GP. But I do remember the excitement of things happening all over the circuit from where I stood just after the Old Hairpin. It was horrible too on Good Friday when I was there for Practice.
    During Sunday mornings entertainment, Tom Wheatcroft went and stuffed that gorgeous sounding old multi million pound Mercdes into the gravel. Was it the W154?
    Then during the race it was a case of watching how many more pit stops Prost could possibly make. How many laps before Andretti ended his race, and of course the highlight was the supreme driving of Senna.
    Up there as one of the top three GP’s I have been to.

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