MPH — Donington 1993: the day Senna humiliated Prost on and off the track


It was the greatest race of Ayrton Senna's career. For Mark Hughes, it was his F1 reporting debut. He recalls the remarkable day when Donington hosted the 1993 European Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna alongside Alain Prost in 1993 F1 European GP at Donington Park

Senna passes Prost on his famous opening lap at Donington

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

It was 31 years ago yesterday that Ayrton Senna won the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington in what stands as one of the greatest individual performances F1 has ever witnessed. I was incredibly lucky that it coincided with my debut as an F1 reporter – for what was then Motoring News (now Motorsport News).

I subsequently moved on to be a road test editor and didn’t revisit F1 reporting until seven years later, since which time I’ve never left. But in many ways that Donington race remains the most vivid in my memory, partly because of the personal significance but more because of how truly remarkable it was.

A decade and more before Senna’s day of all days, when he was creating a sensation in the British junior categories I was already very aware of him. I was treading many of the same paddocks, trying to establish my own race career (long before I’d ever written a word about the sport). I’d see him around, usually deep in conversation with either Dennis Rushen or Dick Bennetts, his entrants in FF2000 and F3 respectively. He was the guy, the man, the one all of us junior racers just knew was set for F1 mega stardom, even when F1 barely knew who he was.

Ayrton Senna in F3 race at Thruxton in.1983

Senna’s class in F3 Ralt — here at Thruxton in ’83 — was obvious

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I watched an F3 race around Silverstone Club circuit. In the previous race a Jaguar Mk7 had dropped a load of oil all the way through Woodcote. It had been covered in cement dust by the time the F3s began. Down Club Straight they screamed towards the braking zone on the opening lap, Senna just about holding off Martin Brundle and the rest – and as he reached the cement dust he seemed barely to lift off, whereas the others were treading carefully, unsure of the grip level. His white Ralt snaked a little on entry but then he was hard on the gas – and gone. The others would never make up the gap he’d just pulled out in that one corner of uncertainty. That boldness, the sheer audacity, bordering on arrogance, of knowing that he could deal with any consequences, was breathtaking. It was only a couple of seconds, but it said everything about him.

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At the time Alain Prost was widely regarded as the world’s greatest F1 driver. We knew, most of us, that Senna was ready to go head-to-head with him right now. And we had little doubt that he’d come out on top. To the F1 people of the time it would probably have sounded outrageous. But it wasn’t. It was real. We’d have to wait until 1988 to see that happen – Senna and Prost in the same car – and it ended as we thought it might, with Senna as comfortably faster and world champion. Great though Prost was, this was Senna.

By the time I arrived at a wet Donington that April weekend in ’93, Senna was a triple world champion and had long-since eased Prost out of McLaren. Prost had taken a sabbatical in ’92 after being released by Ferrari amid its poisonous politics – but had spent that time securing himself a drive in F1’s fastest car for ’93, the Williams-Renault. Which infuriated Senna, bringing out his sometimes-entitled attitude. He was a great man and an even greater driver but this side of him was not attractive. He did not have a divine right to be in the best car and his attack on Prost as a ‘coward’ for blocking him being alongside was unbecoming.

Ayrton Senna passes Alain Prost at Doinington PArk in 1993 F1 European Grand Prix

Senna passes Prost for the lead at the start of the race

Grand Prix Photo

But as I worked an F1 paddock for the first time, everyone was helpful. Derek Warwick was especially nice. Back then you could walk into a garage and talk to an engineer or driver, very different to just seven years later. Through the course of the weekend I spoke with every single driver.

Senna had not signed a McLaren contract for ’93, unhappy with the team not having a works engine and it falling behind Williams technologically. Instead, he agreed to a race-by-race deal, at a reported $1 million per race. Donington was round 3 of the championship. Prost had won at a canter in Kyalami but Senna had delivered a victory for his adoring home fans at Interlagos after a rain shower caused Prost to crash out. It was obvious the way the season was going to go, despite Senna’s starring cameos. At Interlagos Senna had qualified almost 2sec slower than Prost.

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But April in Leicestershire promised Senna more opportunity as the rains came down – and kept coming down. You know the rest. The way Senna drove a mesmerising first lap to take the lead, the way he maintained astonishing pace on slicks in the wet in between his five pitstops (and Prost’s seven), the way he made Prost look pedestrian.

But there were extenuating circumstances. Senna’s McLaren MP4/8 was actually a brilliant car, just a little underpowered. Technologically, it had caught up to Williams, maybe even surpassed it. In the wet, it was definitely a faster car, especially as Prost’s Williams was suffering a downshift and idling problem which repeatedly locked the rear wheels up in the wet. That’s taking nothing away from Senna, who drove with sustained brilliance all afternoon.

In the tent which served as the press conference room afterwards, Senna was ungracious in victory, perhaps still seething that he’d been out-manoeuvred by Prost for the Williams seat, who knows? But after talking through his own brilliant race with his trademark eloquence, he made exaggerated boredom gestures as Prost was asked about his race – and explained his various issues. Senna leant back in his chair as Prost spoke, ensuring all eyes were on him, not Prost. Then he yawned. As Prost continued to talk Senna interrupted him with, “Do you want to swap cars?” The press contingent laughed, which didn’t reflect well on it. Prost went along with it, with a frozen smile but looking for all the world like he wanted to punch his rival. I was with Prost in that moment despite my total belief in Senna’s greatness.

Ayrton Senna on Donington PArk podium after winning 1993 F1 European GP

Senna victorious — then he taunted Prost in the press conference

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I wrote my report. It was long in those pre-internet days, around 4,500 words including qualifying. I put a lot into it. Unusually, I suggested the headline (that’s usually the editor’s job): “Senna Walks On Water”, which got the green light. In the office the next day, I laid out the pages, made the dummy pages up ready for the printer. I was excited to see my first F1 report in print the following day and eagerly opened the paper to the Grand Prix report. The headline had disappeared! The bromide paper had fallen off the dummy page and the printer hadn’t thought to query why there was no headline. The only form of headline on the whole spread was that for qualifying, which read Prost To The Fore! The greatest race of Senna’s career, humiliating Prost – and the page says ‘Prost To The Fore’. If you happen to have the Motoring News issue of 14 April ’93, take a look. See the white space where the headline should be?

Probably Prost is over what happened that wet Sunday. I’m still not over that headline.