Lap of the Gods: Ayrton Senna's stunning start at Donington '93

The details remain fresh to all who bore witness, but 20 years have passed since Ayrton Senna won Donington Park's only post-war Grand Prix. The weather was miserable, the spectacle unforgettable

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Senna's put in a total masterclass at Donington '93

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The image is clear in my mind’s eye: a ball of first-lap spray containing two Williams-Renaults, Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber, Michael Schumacher’s Benetton and Ayrton Senna’s trim McLaren MP4/8 tagging on at the back. When the cars reappeared about 90 seconds later, the Brazilian led by several lengths and only Wendlinger had gone missing — harpooned by Senna’s team-mate Michael Andretti, although by then the Brazilian had been well clear of both. There were few giant trackside screens in those days, so you had to use your imagination to fathom out what had just happened. And bear in mind that a McLaren-Cosworth wasn’t really what you needed in 1993. “I’m not sure,” says McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh (now team principal, then operations director), “that I ever saw a Renault power curve in period, but we felt we were about 50bhp in arrears.”

Senna had won the previous race in Brazil, which was also fairly wet, but lagged during Saturday’s dry qualifying session at Donington, when the Williams FW15Cs of Alain Prost and Damon Hill were more than a second clear of anything else, with Schumacher third ahead of Senna. “The whole tone of the weekend became Ayrton v Alain Prost,” says Whitmarsh, “and that was quite personal, given their fraught, well-documented history. Alain was a great, great driver, but had a Renault-powered Williams while we were running a Cosworth with wire springs rather than pneumatic valves. It was a plain customer V8 and not the latest specification Benetton was using.

“Thanks to Sega sponsorship, Williams had Sonic the Hedgehog logos on its car, so after Brazil we put a squashed hedgehog decal on the side of ours as a bit of an in-joke.”

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Senna tracks down Wendlinger on lap one

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It was swiftly apparent that a second might soon be needed.

Senna dealt quickly with Schumacher and Wendlinger, passing them before and through the Craner Curves, then outbraked Hill into McLeans and went tearing after Prost. The Williams wasn’t particularly user-friendly in the conditions, both drivers reporting that their cars were locking the rears during automated downchanges, but that hardly explained the ease with which Senna dispatched his nemesis at the Melbourne hairpin. By the lap’s end he was six tenths clear.

Then as now one of the lynchpins of McLaren’s design team, Neil Oatley was watching from the pit garage. “We could hear fragments of commentary,” he says, “including the words Wendlinger’ and ‘Andretti’, so I assumed they’d gone off. I remember being quite staggered at the size of Ayrton’s lead. He’d only passed Prost a couple of corners before the finishing line, but such was his advantage that I initially thought Alain must have spun. Ayrton looked really comfortable from that point on.”

I was watching from the inside of Redgate, with fellow journalists Paul Fearnley, Mark Skewis and David Phillips, the latter over from America to write a piece on Andretti. As the clamour subsided in the wake of the cars’ second passage, David’s voice — “Um, did anyone see Michael?” — provided a melancholic contrast to the excited chatter.

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“There was a great deal of fuss about Ayrton leading,” Phillips says, “and I assumed I hadn’t noticed Andretti in all the excitement. Next time around, though, he clearly wasn’t running so I trudged away to find him. I wanted to stay and watch, but had a job to do. I didn’t have the right pass to get into the pits, but eventually talked my way into the McLaren garage and found Michael. He was very hooked up in the race, though, because the team wanted him to observe what was happening and it wasn’t easy for him to talk. We eventually agreed it would be simpler if I went to see him in the States! And anyway, I was keen to get back outside to watch the action.

“That’s when I was grabbed by Michael’s then wife Sandy. She wanted to talk, something I pointed out we could do any time, but she insisted we did so immediately, then led me to the McLaren motorhome for the longest 30 minutes of my life. There had been rumours that Michael and Sandy didn’t feel particularly settled in F1, but she wanted to set the record straight and rambled on about how that wasn’t the case. To be honest I thought she was protesting too much and she seemed very stressed. I could see a TV monitor over her shoulder and sensed something of an epic was developing. Here I was, in the middle of an evolving classic but unable to pay full attention because I didn’t want to appear rude. What’s more, I was sitting in the motorhome of the driver making headlines but wasn’t in a position to appreciate any of it. It wouldn’t have been quite as ironic if I’d been cornered at Minardi or somewhere. I did eventually disengage myself, but by that time the race was pretty much settled. I saw the final denouement, but missed most of the interesting bits.”

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Conditions could barely have been worse in the East Midlands

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The action on the circuit – including a flurry of tyre stops, some of them astutely judged but many not – was merely an extension of a fairly fraught morning for McLaren. “Early on Sunday we discovered a few hydraulic problems on Michael’s car,” Oatley says. “The throttle wasn’t responding correctly and we were trying to change the moog valves, but the garage wasn’t the ideal place. The pit facilities weren’t great by the world championship standards of the day. The garages were fairly shallow and the T-car was stuffed sideways, behind Andretti’s original race chassis. We decided he should race the spare and pushed it out to the pitlane so the mechanics could convert it from Senna’s settings. As it was raining, they worked by torchlight beneath a couple of tarpaulins. When they crawled out they were greeted by the sight of Princess Diana, who was one of our guests for the day.

“To compound things, the T-car — now set up for Michael to race — sprang a radiator leak when we pushed it to the grid, not the kind of thing you can fix in an instant. There was a huge panic as we ripped one radiator off, fitted a replacement and then tried to charge the system to the right pressure. It can be tricky to set that exactly right with the correct air volumes and so on. We weren’t sure it would last the full distance, but never got to find out.”

It took a while for the circuit to dry once the race settled, although Martin Brundle fitted slicks on lap six and parked his Ligier in the gravel soon afterwards. Johnny Herbert stopped on lap 10, switching from wets to slicks in what would be the Lotus driver’s lone stop: his patient endeavour eventually netted fourth place. Between them, Senna, Hill and Prost would visit the pits 18 times — not always for conventional reasons — en route to taking the top three positions. At the time, Lotus boss Peter Collins said, “We kept our nerve when many others were panicked into making pit stops. Johnny’s drive was simply stunning, but the car wasn’t a match for his ability.”

Herbert remembers the day well. “Past experience had taught me how slippery Donington Park can be,” he says, “because of the kerosene left by planes as they take off from the adjacent airport. There are some weird, particular lines, but I guess most drivers had learned those in Formula Ford or F3, so it was mostly a matter of reacting to the weather as it happened. Lotus had a form of traction control, but I only used it in qualifying so I didn’t have any of the ‘Carlos Fandango’ stuff McLaren and Williams were using.

“Was it better to pit or stay out? That was the interesting bit. With hindsight I’d say Ayrton and Alain were wrong to come in quite so many times, but then Ayrton won anyway so it really didn’t make much difference to him.

“It’s always difficult making the right calls in those conditions. When I won the 1999 GP of Europe in similar weather at the Nürburgring, I could see rain clouds approaching and knew they were coming from the direction of Spa-Francorchamps, so it was a reasonable assumption that it would absolutely throw it down. Donington was completely different because you could see a mass of cloud but weren’t really sure what it might do. It looked as though it would rain, but you couldn’t be certain. You could only read conditions as they changed and couldn’t really decide whether to pit unless the water got really deep. If it didn’t, I just felt it was best to keep going.”
So he did.

Ayrton Senna challenges Alain Prost in 1993 F1 Donington European GP

Senna dives up the inside of Prost to take the lead

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Hill was the first of the front-runners to take slicks, on lap 17, with Senna and Prost following at one-lap intervals. The Williams drivers were soon back in for wets, on laps 22 (Prost) and 24, but Senna stayed out until lap 28. On lap 33 Prost returned for slicks, the other two following suit one lap later. At this point Senna’s left-rear wheel jammed and cost him sufficient time to gift Prost the lead, but the Frenchman would make two further stops — on laps 38 and 48, when his engine stalled — while Senna stayed faithful to his slicks. On lap 57 Senna pitted again — and famously drove straight through at pace (there was no pit speed limit at the time), netting fastest lap by dint of covering a distance slightly shorter than the 2.5 miles on the circuit map.

“Ayrton made a very late call to come in for wets,” Oatley says, “and his arrival coincided with a problem we had with one of the air bottles. If he’d stopped we couldn’t have done anything so we just waved him through. He was virtually in the pitlane before we realised, then decided he could cope with the conditions for a few more laps.”

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Senna would come in once more, taking on another set of wets with just 10 of the 76 laps remaining. For a while he had been more than a lap clear of the whole field and Hill was the only other driver eventually to complete the full scheduled distance.

During the post-race conference, Senna said: “I’m speechless. I really couldn’t have dreamt of getting two victories like this. At the start, I decided to go for it before the Williamses had a chance to settle down. They do have technical superiority, so we felt this was the best tactic.”

Prost, visibly crestfallen, talked patiently about his afternoon and mentioned the problems he’d had with gear selection, tyre pressures, wing settings and his car feeling undriveable whenever he switched to slicks. Senna listened, then turned and said, “Perhaps you should change cars with me.”

The Brazilian ended the season with five victories, two fewer than Prost — quite a haul given the perceived performance advantage of the Williams-Renaults.

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Senna celebrates Sega-style

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“I think the MP4/8 was a pretty good little car,” Whitmarsh says. “There wasn’t really much traction control, though. It was as crude as hell and at Donington drivers were still spinning all over the place. The big argument of the era was about active ride. Williams had it and so did we, but others felt it should be banned. The contemporary view was that Ferrari couldn’t make its system work and had threatened to pull out if it wasn’t outlawed — which, eventually, it was!

“It was the start of the telemetry era, too, but we had limited bandwidth and there was no live data about chassis slip and loads. We all thought the cars were terrifically complex, but if you strip one down today it looks as though there’s almost nothing there. It seems very simple and basic compared with what’s happened since.”

Radio communications were primitive, too. “In those days the systems weren’t the best,” Herbert says, “especially in a Lotus. You couldn’t hear anything at all at the back of the circuit, and perhaps only a bit at the Melbourne hairpin, when you were in a low gear at fairly low revs, but that was just before the pit entrance and didn’t leave you much time to react. It was down to the driver to feel their way — and I never felt as though I was verging on an accident, so I thought I might as well carry on. I spent a lot of my F1 career in cars that weren’t at the sharp end, so calculated risks were often the best option.”

Whitmarsh adds: “The radios weren’t sufficiently sophisticated to allow a simultaneous two-way conversation. We still had helmet speakers, rather than earplugs, and there were no noise-cancelling microphones, so it was all a bit clunky and reception wasn’t great. Besides, Ayrton wasn’t a big radio talker and McLaren’s policy has never been to tell drivers what they need to do. I believe Kimi Räikkönen shares that philosophy…”

Whitmarsh isn’t sure he’s ever watched that full opening lap — “I’ve seen bits, but at the time I was crossing from garage to pit wall and sorting myself out” — but rates 1993 as one of Senna’s finest seasons, albeit not in its entirety.

“He drove brilliantly at the start of the year,” he says, “but in my opinion he then went off the boil a bit. There were several reasons for that. He became a little disenchanted when we refused to race the Lamborghini-engined development car we’d tested. It was quicker than the Cosworth, but Chrysler owned Lambo at the time and we didn’t have a real conviction that the company would commit to F1 in the longer term. We then signed with Peugeot for 1994, after which it would have been politically difficult to race the Lamborghini Ayrton disagreed, so I think he was quite keen to prove he was right and we were wrong. We then put Mika Häkkinen in the second car, to replace Michael Andretti, and I think that was the stimulus Ayrton needed at the season’s end.”

There is one particular anecdote, though, that underlines the resonance of April 11, 1993 at Donington Park.

“One day, some time afterwards,” Whitmarsh says, “the marketing department came in and asked me to sign a certificate of authenticity for a gift they were giving to the boss of some VVVIP sponsor — the steering wheel Ayrton had used to win the wet races at Interlagos and Donington Park. In that era they were fairly simple, three-spoke aluminium wheels, with a few switches and a nice Alcantara covering that became smooth after a wet race. While the poor marketeers were standing there, I realised what I was signing, ripped up the certificate and said, ‘I don’t care if it’s for the President of the United States, he can’t have it. You’d better find something else’.

“It belonged to the company, not me, so I put it away in a cupboard. It was still there a couple of years later when I was driving somewhere, late at night, with Ron Dennis in the car. I noticed that Ron was starting to fall asleep, so asked him whether I could have an old McLaren steering wheel. He said ‘yes’, then woke up a bit and asked which I wanted. I said, ‘Just an old one that’s in my cupboard’. I mentioned that some bloke called Ayrton had used it once or twice, but Ron kind of agreed and later was good enough to sign a certificate of authenticity for me.

“I don’t own a great deal of memorabilia, but I can’t think of anything in my collection that has greater significance.”