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.
As 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 great 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 track 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 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 Sunday morning. 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.
His 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
Race 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
|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|
|4||Andrea de Cesaris||Tyrrell-Yamaha||55||Gearbox|
“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.
20 years ago today Ayrton Senna won the 1993 European GP here at Donington. Arguably the best first lap in F1 history pic.twitter.com/1hsPToNbmh
— Donington Park (@DoningtonParkUK) April 11, 2013
Grand Prix flashback
- Today in 1973: Last-lap heartbreak in first Swedish GP
- 25 years ago today: Senna’s first win for McLaren
- Today in 1993: Senna’s last great race at Donington
- Today in 1953: Peron’s Grand Prix ends in carnage
- 20 years ago today: Mansell finally wins the title
Images © Donington Park, F1 Fanatic, LAT