Soak opera

At Donington Park in 1993, the world witnessed one of the greatest wet weather drives the sport has ever seen. Ayrton Senna wasn’t bad either…

By Rob Widdows

The European Grand Prix at Donington Park in 1993 was one of those races. Whenever conversations about ‘great moments’ come up it’s rare for that weekend not to be mentioned. For racing fans, this one makes the all-time top 10.

Invariably, the memories are of Ayrton Senna’s mesmeric opening laps in the pouring rain, the almost surreal sight of the great man carving his way through the field as if the road were dry. Down through the Craner Curves he went, off line and through the puddles, making the rest of the field look stupid. Yet, for all Senna’s brilliance, it was another Brazilian who really made his name that day, a much younger man driving for a far less glamorous team.

Rubens Barrichello, still only 20 years old and fresh from F3000, was embarking on his first season of grand prix racing with the little Jordan team. Everybody who’d watched him in F3 knew he was quick, especially in the rain, but he had yet to prove himself at the highest level. Rubens remembers the race as if it were last month.

“Yes, it’s all still so clear in my mind, which is fantastic,” he beams, as we talk 14 years after the race that put him firmly on the radar. “It was raining on the Friday and I qualified eighth, but it was dry on the Saturday and I slipped back to 12th. Then on the Sunday morning it was raining again and that made me very happy.”

That weekend Rubens was in the Jordan-Hart 193 with a semi-automatic gearbox while team-mate Thierry Boutsen had the manual gearchange. There was some discussion before the race about the reliability of the semi-automatic ’box and Boutsen opted to stay with the manual, which was fine by Rubens.

“I had never driven the car with the manual ’box so I was happy to stay with my car, especially as I reckoned that in the wet there wouldn’t be so much force going through the transmission anyway. And it was fantastic in the race.”

Senna produced his magic in the opening laps, the red-and-white McLaren seemingly running on rails as he swept elegantly past his rivals to take the lead in appalling conditions. Further down the field, Barrichello was making startling progress, too.

“Yes,” he grins, “everyone talks about Senna going into the lead, but I moved up from 12th to fourth on the first lap. It was a magic lap and I was just working on instinct. I had so little experience and if it hadn’t been for the experience of the others around me I might have crashed on that first lap. Right at the start, I went between Riccardo Patrese and Johnny Herbert, and so I was 10th already. Then I overtook Gerhard Berger going down to the Old Hairpin. On the way to McLeans, Michael Andretti and Karl Wendlinger came together and spun off so I grabbed another couple of places. Then I was racing Jean Alesi down the main straight and I thought, ‘I’m not gonna brake until he brakes.’ Well, by the time I braked it was all too late and I was going to hit Michael Schumacher – but he realised that and moved out of my way so I overtook both of them as well!” Those big brown eyes light up; the man is looking like he’s just stepped out of a winning car. 

“This was just magic. Then I passed Prost into a corner and I was up to third by the second lap. That day showed me that F1 was going to be so easy, but that did not prove to be the case at all.”

So why did the two Brazilians make those opening laps look so easy?

“Well, you actually get quite a few wet races in Brazil and Senna learnt from that. Also, in karting you learn to race on slicks in the pouring rain so that helped. In F3, we both did lots of wet races, and I learnt a lot from British F3. But, you know, at Donington lots of drivers were just being too careful but I kept pushing, passing people, and thinking ‘this is just a fantastic day’.”

Until this point in his grand prix career – this was his third –  Rubens had never got as far as a pit stop, always dropping out before he was due for tyres. At Donington, the learning curve in this area was sudden, and steep.

“I know, it was crazy,” he says. “I’d done about four or five stops already, in the early laps, and my pit board was still showing 59 laps to go. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, how many more times will I have to stop in the pits?’ It was actually funny, really, such a good race for me.”

Rubens is looking more cheerful, more animated, than he’s looked throughout his recent troubles at Honda. “Yeah, well, I like to talk about this race, it was so incredible. I loved the wet conditions and I’ve learnt to read the tarmac – you know, I will go right off line to find the dry patches, find the grey bits rather than the black bits, which are full of water and covered with tyre rubber. I have a feeling for finding those patches, and for keeping the car as straight as I can when it’s slippery like that. So, if you have this feeling for the wet, you can have some fun, slide the car if you have to, and go for it. But you need some visibility – if you don’t have good visibility in the spray, then you’re in trouble. 

“At Hockenheim, for example, you could not go flat out on those long straights in the spray. That’s a nightmare, because if you back off then somebody will hit you from behind, and if you go flat out then you hit the guy in front. But at Donington it was just the right amount of rain and it was a phenomenal feeling.”

Like all good Brazilians, Rubens has a football angle on racing in the rain. If you’ve ever seen the boys playing on the street in Rio, or a five-a-side match in a car park, you’ll know what’s coming.

“When you’re playing football on tarmac and it’s wet, sometimes you just don’t care and you keep on playing until you break yourself. Grand prix racing is not like that, because if you go too hard in the wet then you’re gonna crash, and I’ve done that, learnt from that. So I came to have this feeling for the lack of grip, and that day at Donington I just felt so good.”

Towards the end of the race Rubens was running in the top three and a podium place looked a distinct possibility. Confusion reigned, though, with so many cars being lapped and so many people in and out of the pits.

“There were blue flags everywhere,” he explains. “I remember Ayrton coming up behind me and I thought I was racing him. I’d lost all the modesty of a rookie in his first season by that stage. I mean, Senna was my hero and here I was racing with him and I couldn’t believe I wasn’t sitting at home on the sofa watching him on TV. So I raced him. But he was leading, and lapping me by then, and honestly I wasn’t sure what was going on any more. Afterwards, he came to me and said ‘Hey, didn’t you see me out there?’ Well, I did, but I was thinking maybe I could win the race from where I was.”

Barrichello’s retirement from the race was a wretched, cruel twist of fortune.

“Yeah,” he shrugs, “ran out of fuel. I could not believe that, so cruel. But maybe I would not have stood up on the podium, to be very honest with you, because at this early stage in the F1 car I was getting problems with my lower back. The forces going through my back were really hurting me and when I got out of the car I could hardly move. I sat there, getting very cold, and I couldn’t move. They took me to the medical centre – but I tell you, I’d rather have sat down on the podium than be sitting in there.”

Louise Goodman was looking after Rubens as the press and PR person at Jordan Grand Prix. She remembers that day at Donington clearly. “It was so sad, so disappointing for him, and we all loved Rubens. Suddenly he  disappeared from the screens and we didn’t know exactly what had happened. Then we saw him at the side of the track and I looked over at his mechanics. They were crying, every one of them weeping. Rubens was so young, just out of his teens, and I think he was totally drained emotionally and physically. I went to see him in the medical centre and he just looked wiped out.   distraught, but simply overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Such a cruel thing to happen.”

Rubens Barrichello is now a senior citizen on the grand prix grid, second in age only to David Coulthard, and with more races under his belt than anyone apart from Patrese, but he has no intention of walking away just yet.

“I had lots of problems in my career when I let my emotions get the better of me, get in the way of results. But I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve grown up, and my marriage, having kids, has helped so much with that.  It has made me more of a man, less of a boy. OK, I have a bad car right now this year, but I’m still young and I have to recover from this – it’s only my smile that’s going to bring back the good times.” 

He flashes a big smile here, square jaw up and forward. “I’ve learnt a lot – not everything, because you learn every day – but I haven’t lost any of my speed. In fact, I’m still getting better, so there’s more winning for me to do. The day when I feel I’m not doing it as well as I can, then that is the day I will stop.”

A better car, a few wet races and Rubens will soon remind his many fans why they took him to their hearts. The story of the boy from Brazil who came through the rain is not over yet.

DSJ on…

Senna impressed Denis Jenkinson during the Donington weekend

“Friday – Got to Donington in 3½ hours, grey and miserable. Met Tom Wheatcroft and had coffee with him during end of morning practice. Wet qualifying and watched activity in pit lane – left in damp about 3pm.

“Saturday – Fine sunny day. Went down Craner Curves – wonderful view across to Coppice – hair-raising speed downhill. Met Bruin [Alan Henry] and all the bears [Nigel Roebuck etc]. Long chat with Brian Hart after practice and looked at his V10 engine.

“Sunday – Damp and dreary. Out to circuit by back lanes. Warm-up finished by the time I got there. Had pie in the caff and then went to Craner Curves among the public for the start and stayed for the race. Damp, but not actually pouring with rain. Very wet. Senna was superb. Watch end and presentation and TV interview on TV in caff. Hung around media centre for an hour or so and then back to motel on back lanes. Had cuppa and watched weirdo film on TV. Supper on own in restaurant, and bed by 10.30pm. All very restful and satisfactory.”