Trying to decide on Senna’s finest drive is no easy task. Although his F1 career was tragically cut short it is nonetheless littered with truly sublime performances. But in my very humble opinion, the European Grand Prix of 1993 (held at Donington Park) showcased Senna’s prodigious talent at its very best.
The start of the 1993 season saw a whole host of driver line-up changes. Williams had recruited Senna’s arch nemesis, Alain Prost, the previous year for the upcoming season but had neglected to inform their incumbent star driver, Nigel Mansell, of that fact. Our Nigel promptly got the hump (as was his wont) and packed his bags for Indy Cars. And perhaps slightly to his own surprise, Damon Hill found himself partnering the 3 time world champion in the best car on the grid by a country mile.
Donington Park was hosting its first Grand Prix since the legendary Tazio Nuvolari’s win 55 years earlier in the state-sponsored Auto Union car (that would be the…er…Nazi Germany state – amazing to think less than 12 months later the world would be at war). And true to form the Great British Weather was absolutely abysmal for what was only the 3rd race of the season. Honours in the first two races had gone to Prost in Kyalami (I would dearly love to see this track restored to the F1 calendar) and Senna in his home race at Interlagos. I don’t think they did a #MartinsGridwalk in those days not least because Martin Brundle was still plying his trade in a Ligier and back in those simple days no one knew what the hashtag button was for.
There was no blogging then just good old fashioned sports reports buried in the back of newspapers or motorsport magazines. But if there had been a blog (and if ever a race deserved a blog it was this one!) it might have looked a little like this.
The two Williams cars had secured a front row lock out in qualifying and the top end of the grid comprised Prost, Hill, Schumacher, Senna, Wendlinger and Andretti. The race started in damp conditions and on wets so there were no kamikaze antics right at the start. Schumacher’s blocking tactics on Senna led to Wendlinger unexpectedly leaping into 3rd spot. And then it was time for the Senna masterclass to begin. As they say, it was Show Time.
Ayrton Senna started scything through the field with almost robotic brilliance. First he passed Michael Schumacher on the 3rd corner, then he audaciously took Karl Wendlinger on the outside of the Craner Curves. Then he passed Damon Hill for P2 at Coppice. Until finally all that remained in his sights (as surely he was destined to be) was Alain Prost. At the Melbourne Hairpin, Senna seized the lead of the race from Prost. In the space of a single lap he had moved from 5th to 1st solely through a sequence of sublime overtaking manoeuvres.
Meanwhile, Schumacher in the Benetton had squeezed past Wendlinger who then fell into the clutches of Andretti (the Grosjean of his day, or the Di Cesaris of his day if you’re as old as the husband). The inevitable result was that Andretti crashed into Wendlinger bringing both their races to an early conclusion. Meanwhile, new team-mates Prost and Hill were scrapping pretty hard for position while trading a succession of fastest laps.
Suddenly the track began to dry and everyone rushed into the pits for slicks. JJ Lehto driving for the brand new Sauber team was in 5th place before he retired with handling problems on lap 14. A few laps later, Berger had to park his Ferrari in the pits with suspension problems. And already at this early stage of the race, Senna had begun metronomically lapping backmarkers.
Just to liven things up again, it started raining and the majority of drivers pitted for wets. Schumacher stayed out but the gamble didn’t come off as he spun out of the race on lap 23 (Mark Blundell quickly followed suit in his Ligier). The two Williams drivers pitted for wets right away as Senna tore round the track like a man possessed extracting every last nanosecond of track time out of his slicks.
As the track began to dry out, Senna’s lead started evaporating. Everyone pitted once more. A lightning quick Williams pitstop and a McLaren pit disaster (some things never change hey) conspired to shuffle the leading pack. After all the pitstops, the leading six were 1. Prost, 2. Senna, 3. Hill, 4. Barrichello, 5. Warwick and 6. Herbert (holy maloney – three Brits in the top six must have sent the Beeb off the Murray Walker Giddometer back in the day).
And then the rain began to fall again and this time Senna gambled on staying out on slicks while the two Williams cars pitted for wets. Senna started opening up a commanding lead by brilliantly managing his car. On slicks! In the rain! He even managed to set the fastest lap of the race so far on a track that was still wet. Only Johnny Herbert (nice guy Johnny, who’d have thought it) proved troublesome to lap and Senna indicated his annoyance in a fairly direct fashion as he went by. After ten-ish laps of watching the race slowly slip through their fingers, both Williams chucked in the towel and came into the pits for yet another change of tyres. Prost then stalled in the pits (I may have cheered at the time, but only very quietly as Mr Eau Rouge Snr was a big Prost fan…never got it myself personally) and when Prost rejoined he was down to 4th place and a lap behind. Game over.
In only the 3rd race of his F1 career, Rubens Barrichello racing for Jordan was having a blinder but in this maddest of races he was lapped by Senna while running in 2nd place – and as Senna went by he gave his fellow countryman a friendly little wave. Senna was now the ONLY person on the lead lap. Incredibly, he had lapped everyone else on track. Poor Rubens eventually had to pit twice more before then retiring with fuel pressure problems. But this race showed that Senna wasn’t the only Brazilian in F1 who relished wet weather conditions. It was a long time coming but when Rubens won his first Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 2000 quite spectacularly coming from 18th on the grid to take victory, it was tellingly in wet weather conditions.
As the race drew to a conclusion, Damon Hill was starting to reel in Senna but only in the sense that he managed to unlap himself! Eventually Senna won by 1 minute 23.199 seconds ahead of Hill (lets just take a moment to marvel at that winning margin) who in turn was 35 seconds ahead of Prost, followed by Herbert, Patrese and Barbazza (I’d so completely forgotten about him I had to wikipedia him – despite the creditable 6th place in Donington, Minardi dumped him later in the season after 8 races!).
It was arguably Senna’s finest hour – to drive on slicks under wet conditions for most of the race and totally outclass a hugely talented F1 field was truly magnificent. Here is Murray Walker sharing his memories of this legendary race.
Sky Sports F1 will be screening a 30 minute highlight show of the race at Donington tonight at 7pm. If you’ve never seen this race you must must must watch it. And even if you’ve seen it before, just sit back and relive the master at work all over again.